By Joe Garvey

Frederique Zandbergen, a freshman from the Netherlands on Old Dominion University's field hockey team, had a life-changing experience last year that reshuffled her priorities.

In early March 2020, she and about two dozen other teens flew to the Caribbean for a study-at-sea trip. The plan was to sail to several islands, winding up in Cuba, then fly home. But about two weeks into the planned five-week trip, they learned their flight back was canceled because of COVID. So they went home the long way, a journey across the Atlantic that took more than a month.

Zandbergen, who's from Tilburg, about 70 miles south of Amsterdam, said the voyage helped bring more purpose to her life.

"Before the boat trip, I was a more materialistic person who lived my life without thinking about anything, and everything just came to me if I wanted it," she said. "And I really cared about what other people thought about me and I always wanted the newest stuff. When I came back, I didn't have the feeling anymore that I needed that."

The group had stopped at Dominica, St. Lucia and Martinique. When they found out they wouldn't be flying home, "a lot of people were in shock," said Zandbergen, who was 15 at the time. "They were scared, they didn't know what to do, they were homesick and they were crying."

For better or worse, during the trip home, the students were largely unaware of the virus' progression. Without Wi-Fi, they had no internet connection for their smartphones. The only connection they had with their parents were weekly letters limited to 400-500 words that were sent via satellite. "We were living in a bubble," Zandbergen said.

The ocean crossing wasn't entirely smooth. Insects got into the prepackaged food, and the boat's water filtration system malfunctioned, which meant no one was able to shower for weeks.

But when she returned home in late April, Zandbergen was taken aback by the social distancing, masks, school closures and inability to see her friends in person.

"That's when it really hit me," Zandbergen said. "It felt like I was in a coma for a few years. It was a different world."

Zandbergen had an additional challenge on the trip: The week before it began, she had dislocated an elbow on a family skiing vacation and wore a cast most of the time.

But being "24/7 together" built bonds in surprising ways.

"In your teenage years, you want to be popular, you want to be cool and you have a certain bubble you want to be in," Zandbergen said. "And with all the other persons you think aren't cool, you don't want to hang out with them. I had such a different connection with the people I met on the boat."

Zandbergen and three of her fellow travelers spoke about their trip for an article in The Atlantic magazine last year.

ODU field hockey Coach Andrew Griffiths is impressed with how she handled the experience.

"It was a fascinating experience that not many people her age would have gone through on a sailboat," he said. "She says right now she's not homesick and not afraid of being away from home. And that trip probably is part of the reason why."

Read more about ODU Athletics in the fall issue of Monarch magazine.

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