Hitting the books after summer break is never easy, but for 21-year-old Eleni Benson ’06, it has been especially challenging.
Benson, a member of the Yale women’s soccer team, took off last year to train with the Greek National Team that participated in the Athens Summer Olympics.
“It’s been awful,” Benson said half-jokingly. “Life is a lot different in Greece. It’s a lot less stressful. People just don’t work as hard. From two to five every day, everyone goes home and naps and everything shuts down.”
One of eight Greek-Americans on the 22-woman team, Benson first got in touch with the Greek team’s coach in early 2003. That spring, she traveled to Greece, where she tried out and made the team.
For the next year, Benson commuted back and forth between her home in Willingford, Connecticut and Greece, traveling as often as every two weeks. Eventually, last May, she moved to Athens to train with the team full-time.
“It was brutal, having to make trans-atlantic trips every month,” Benson, who played midfield and defense for Greece, said. “It wears on you after a while.”
In preparation for the Games, Benson and the Greeks played in several tournaments throughout Europe. The team went 0-3 in Olympic competition, however, and failed to make it out of the preliminaries, but Benson said she was pleased with the team’s performance.
“I’m proud of the way we played,” she said. “People expected to do a lot worse than we did.”
One of the team’s losses was to the United States, which went on to the win the gold medal. Despite the defeat, the experience of playing against the likes of Mia Hamm and Christine Lilly is one Benson said she will never forget.
“Those were the girls I looked up to growing up,” Benson said. “It was amazing to be able to play with them.”
In addition to the geographic distance, Benson said Greek and American cultures are thousands of miles apart. The language barrier certainly proved problematic at first, but Benson said the “different ways of seeing the world” were much more striking. She pointed out that female athletes are a rare breed in Greece and women’s sports are not nearly as supported as they are here.
On several occasions, Benson recalled being asked why “not married and at home, cooking.”
“Women’s soccer isn’t big at all over there,” Benson said. “There’s a small league, but it’s not very competitive and there’s no developmental league. For many of the Greek girls on the National Team, it was the first time they were playing on an organized team.”
When she was not training, Benson had the chance to tour Greece and visit family members.
“I was able to see more of Greece than most Greeks have seen, and I was able to see relatives that I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise,” she said. “I can also somewhat speak Greek. When I first got there, I really couldn’t speak Greek at all.”
Benson returned to the United States two weeks ago. In spite of the schoolwork, she said she is happy to be back.
And she’s not the only one.
“Last year we had sort of a hole in the middle defense,” Yale women’s soccer captain Sarah Walker ’05 said. “She’s a strong defensive player. She’s consistent, wins a lot of balls out of the air, and does a lot of other things really well. It’s really nice to have her back this year.”
In 2002, as a sophomore, Benson helped lead Yale to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history. She started every game and finished fourth in scoring on the team with 14 points.
“She’s a great teammate,” defender Maureen Metzger ’05 said. “She’s really good at controlling the ball, and she has a real presence on the field that we missed last year.”