Nobody showed up on his doorstep in search of the next collegiate star athlete. Â He didn’t get the recruitment letters in the mail. Â He wasn’t in constant contact with American coaches since he was young.
If University of Rhode Island sophomore Ondrej Honka wanted to achieve his dream of becoming a collegiate track and field athlete in America, he had to take the initiative.
Now, the Czech Republic native is turning heads around in the Atlantic 10.
Just a couple months ago, he shined in the Atlantic 10 Men’s Track and Field Tournament, taking first in both the heptathlon and the pole vault and ensuring his team a first-place finish.
Last year he found similar success, finishing third in pole vault at the Atlantic 10 Indoor Championship and 10th at the New England Championship.
“He’s been a great fit,” assistant coach Robert Whitten said. Â “He came here ready to contribute.”
Despite all his previous success in the Czech Republic, like being a seven-time national champion in Under-20, he wasn’t recruited. Â He had to take the initiative to get considered a scholarship. Â Schools and athletics aren’t one unit in many countries outside of America.
“Teachers and coaches don’t go hand-in-hand,” Honka said. Â “Here they help create your schedule, not at home.”
So Honka did his research, came up with a small list of American universities, emailed coaches and stayed particularly close with Whitten.
“I didn’t know any of the coaches,” Honka said. Â “But my relationship with Coach Whitten through email was the best.”
He took an official visit that March and decided Rhode Island was the perfect fit for him.
“He’s our only foreign athlete,” Whitten said. Â “He reached out to us and stayed in contact. Â When he visited, everything worked out and the guys loved him.”
Honka admits the first few months were difficult. Â He was in culture shock, didn’t know anyone with his friends and family thousands of miles away, he was still learning English, and school was completely different.
“Everything was different, but when I came to practice, I felt good,” Honka said. Â “I knew I belonged. Â It was something similar.”
When Honka arrived at URI, he fit in right away. Â Whitten credits his maturity as the reason. Â Collegiate athletes from other countries are forced to sit for a year and focus on just academics. Â The extra year in school helps them mature and get used to their setting.
“He has a mature personality,” Whitten said. Â “Usually freshmen don’t come in and contribute right away. Â It usually takes them until their sophomore or junior year. Â But with the extra year, Ondrej was ready as a freshman.”
Coming from a sporty family, Honka had a plan since the beginning: excel in sports and “let my physical ability get me somewhere else,” as he said. Â He attended an elementary school that was focused on sports. Â Finding he was best at track and field, he stuck with it.