Moka Ito adjusts to life in new country, school

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Moka Ito adjusts to life in new country, school

Courtesy of UA Athletics

Courtesy of UA Athletics

Courtesy of UA Athletics

Courtesy of UA Athletics

Joey Blackwell, Contributing writer

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For international student-athletes at The University of Alabama, adjusting from their lives and routines from their respective native countries to the life of a college student in the United States can be a difficult transition.

No one demonstrates that transition more than sophomore Moka Ito, who plays for the Alabama women’s tennis team.

Ito, lovingly referred to as ‘Little Mo’ by her teammates, is a native of Fukushima, Japan. For her, tennis is not just a sport – it is her life.

“I want to be a professional tennis player,” Ito said. “If I improve [in my] junior or senior year and I get a good result, I’m going to be a professional.”

Starting from a young age in Japan, Ito spent her life fine-tuning her skills as a player. When she was high school age, she started to be contacted by programs and coaches from schools all over the U.S., including many Power Five schools. One coach even went so far as to fly to Japan to watch Ito play a match.

For her freshman year in 2017, Ito attended Western Kentucky University, where she quickly made a name for herself by becoming the program’s first-ever Conference USA Freshman of the Year, as well as earning team all-conference honors in singles.

When WKU announced budget cuts to its athletic department, head coach Jonathan Berhane departed to take up the assistant coaching position at the University. Ito was soon to follow, transferring to play for Alabama. With no transfer policy to hold her back, Ito was eligible to play immediately.

Transitioning from one country to another, not to mention from school to school, has had its challenges. When Ito first arrived in the U.S., her English was minimal. She initially had a translator in order to understand players, coaches and professors in class.

“I think [for] my English and academics, I spend so much time studying, especially for my [first] semester I struggled a lot with my academics, and I was stressed out a little bit,” Ito said.

These days, Ito no longer requires a translator, but still finds herself having to look up words when she doesn’t understand.

While her transition has been difficult, Ito is the first to admit that her teammates and coaches have made life for her much easier to deal with along the way.

“[We’re] so close, like a family,” Ito said. “I’m enjoying that.”

Even though Ito has not been at the University for very long, she has already made an impact on the team both on and off the court. Her coaches and teammates are very encouraging and supportive of Ito, especially the players who are from other countries.

Junior Luca Fabian is a native of Palhaza, Hungary, who also had to go through a similar experience as Ito. She understands transitioning nations as well and provided support for Ito when she first arrived at Alabama.

“First of all, you’re on your own,” Fabian said. “You come in and you don’t really know the system, you don’t know your teammates yet, practice is new, school is different, so it’s a huge adjustment at first. Also language-wise, I had to adjust to speak quicker. Understanding was not the issue. It’s more like talking-wise. Everyone thought I was shy or a quiet person, but I was just struggling with the language.”

Fabian also transferred from Georgia Tech to the University her freshman year in a move that mirrors Ito’s.

“It takes one or two months, then you will get into it,” Fabian said. “Once you get to know what to expect on the court or education-wise from your teammates, it gets easier and really fun.”

When it comes to Ito adjusting to her new team, Fabian has nothing but praise.

“[Ito] has been completely integrated into the family,” Fabian said. “She’s the sweetest person. She’s very shy, kind of a quiet person, but she has a huge heart and is a very kind person, so it was very easy to assimilate her into the team and the program. There was no issue there. Very fun, very friendly girl. We got along from the beginning. Everyone welcomed her. We are really happy to have her.”

Alabama head coach Jenny Mainz has built her program with a solid foundation of athletes from outside of the U.S. Out of the team’s eight players, five hail from outside of the country, including players from Japan, Hungary, Spain, France and Egypt.

Mainz admits that the transition is a tough one, but that Ito is handling it very well.

“It’s been a pretty steep learning curve, to be honest,” Mainz said. “Just going from a mid-major to a very, very competitive position with the program that’s in the Power Five, there’s a vast difference in the competitive schedule. The league play in the SEC is as tough as any conference out there, actually tougher.”

Despite her struggles in English, Ito is an all-A student and has excelled at adapting her tennis to the rigorous play in the SEC. Above all of her incredible talents as a tennis player, though, Mainz compliments Ito on her strengths on a level higher than just student-athlete.

“She’s an incredible person,” Mainz said. “Very genuine, very kind-hearted, very well-liked within our team, and just has a very easy personality that gets along well with everyone, and kind of an easy spirit. She’s also a fun-loving spirit, and a very patient person, and I think people pick up on that right away.”

When it comes from integrating international athletes, Ito said Mainz has done an incredible job helping her tennis family with the difficult adjustment process. For that, “Little Mo” is very grateful.

“[Mainz] is so positive and she pushes me,” Ito said. “Every day she makes me positive, and she is like our mom.”

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