North Carolina

Zimbabwe native Travers hopes to cap wildest journey of all by leading UNC field hockey to national title

Samantha Travers has “many crazy stories,” she said, about her life back home in Zimbabwe, where she grew up on a rhinoceros reserve that has been in her family now for two generations.

She can tell you about the times she taught elephants to kick a soccer ball – she said they used to play their own matches – and about the time she narrowly escaped serious injury, or even death, when an angry hyena, a family pet, turned on her.

Travers’ own story, though, is as wild as any of the others. After dreaming for years of attending college in America, she arrived in January 2010 at North Carolina with “like four pairs of shorts and a T-shirt,” she said. Now Travers, a senior at UNC and a captain of the Tar Heels’ field hockey team, is hoping to leave school a national champion.

Traveling this far – in the figurative sense, at least – is nothing new to Travers and her teammates. UNC is back in the field hockey final four for the seventh time in the past eight years. The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels on Friday play Syracuse in a national semifinal in College Park, Md.

The Tar Heels have reached the final four in all five seasons Travers, who sat out her freshman year, has been with the program. But they’ve never returned to Chapel Hill with the national championship during that span.

UNC’s defeat a season ago in the national semifinals “really motivated us,” Travers said. So, too, does a tradition of winning built by decades of success. The UNC field hockey team shares a campus with one of the most successful programs in college sports history (women’s soccer) and with one of the most storied and high-profile (men’s basketball).

Field hockey, though, has created something of its own dynasty, with six national championships – all under longtime coach Karen Shelton, in her 34th season – and 19 final fours. It has been a program defined by success but, Shelton said, “I refuse to let our kids be defined only by whether they win a national championship or not.”

“This year we’ve had a great year,” she said. “It’s been an awesome year. And I’ve had great leadership and great chemistry on this team and we’ve put ourselves in a position where we have a chance.”

Travers, who this season earned All-ACC and All-ACC tournament honors, has been an important part of the success. From her position of center back, she leads one of the best defenses in the country – and she’s done so after an improbable journey from Africa.

College field hockey teams often feature an international influence, given the sport’s popularity in Europe. UNC, for instance, has two players from Germany and another from England. Yet there is no Zimbabwe-to-Chapel-Hill pipeline in the sport. Shelton chuckled at the thought.

“They’re not a power in the world, and they’re really not even a power in Africa,” she said.

But Grant Fulton, Shelton’s assistant coach, learned about Travers by chance years ago. When Travers was in high school, she had written a friend who played field hockey at the University of Richmond, where Fulton’s wife was working at the time as an athletic trainer.

One thing happened after the next, and eventually Shelton was watching video highlights of Travers, who has played on Zimbabwe national teams in field hockey, squash, tennis and golf.

“We just looked at her videotape, we looked at her resume, which included excelling in not just one sport, but many sports,” Shelton said. “And again, we just felt like she was a solid athlete and somebody that could grow and develop.”

Travers arrived just in time for the coldest stretch of the winter of 2010. She had never experienced that kind of weather – never seen snow. Everything was a “culture shock,” she said. Things most Americans take for granted, like 24-hour electricity, were new to her.

“I’d walk into a grocery store and immediately just be so overwhelmed and have to walk out again,” Travers said. “Every single thing was a big culture shock and I would say, still – I’m still in a bit of a culture shock.”

She has had to dispel myths about her home country, too. For one thing, people are “very shocked,” she said, to find out she’s from Africa because she’s white. Beyond that, she said, “a lot of people think that Zimbabwe and Africa in general is very unsafe.”

But it’s like anywhere else, she said: good places, bad places. Safe places, not-so safe places. One of the most dangerous times she experienced, she said, was at home. That was when her family’s pet hyena “lost his temper and started chasing me around.” Eventually she escaped to her dad, who “was big enough and strong enough to dominate the hyena,” she said.

There hasn’t been anything like that since she arrived in America. The challenges have been less life-threatening but no less daunting at times. Getting used to a new culture on a new continent. Adapting to a different climate. Learning to navigate a grocery store.

And doing it all while trying to excel in college in a sport and in the classroom. Travers, a double-major in communications and sociology, will graduate in December and will have a job waiting for her at Quintiles.

She tries to make it back to Zimbabwe once a year, she said, and if things go well this weekend in Maryland, she’ll return a national champion, and in a nation where she aspired to live when she was growing up an ocean away.