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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– When Anzel Viljoen was 10 years old, she moved with her family from their native South Africa to New Zealand. She spoke one language, Afrikaans. From watching TV, she could understand a few words of English, but that was it.
That didn’t faze her father, a dairy farmer, or her mother, a nurse. In her new country, Viljoen recalled, they “just kind of threw me in the deep end.”
She laughed. “This is the type of parents they are: We arrived on Sunday, and then on Tuesday they were like, ‘All right, you’ll just go to school and learn English while you’re there.’ And so I just did it.”
She still speaks Afrikaans at home with her parents, Viljoen said, but she’s more fluent in English. And now, at 22, she’s thriving in a third country.
Viljoen is in her fourth year at the University of Virginia, where she’s majoring in foreign affairs. A four-year starter on the UVA field hockey team, she’s also president of the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“For me it’s just surreal to even be here,” Viljoen said. “To be at UVA, out of all schools, and to be part of SAAC and to be the president of SAAC, I never would have imagined coming here that this is where I would end up in my fourth year. And so it’s just a blessing that I get to have this experience while I’m here, and I want to make the most of it and not take it for granted.”
SAAC is essentially a student council for student-athletes, and each of UVA’s 27 varsity teams has at least two representatives on the committee.
The SAAC executive board for 2019-20 consists of Viljoen, vice president for internal affairs Dominique Toussaint (women’s basketball), administrative officer Kate Covington (softball), communications office Kate Hastings (rowing), and vice president for external affairs Ryan Buscaglia (track & field).
This marks the first year of a collaboration between SAAC and UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
Amanda Crombie, director of academic programs for the Batten School, is working with Viljoen and the other officers to help improve their leadership skills and increase SAAC’s effectiveness. Crombie has already met with Viljoen several times.
“She’s awesome,” Crombie said. “She is one of those people who can balance a ton of different things coming at her: not only being a student-athlete, but also taking on a leadership role in an organization that has really important goals for not only the athletic department, but also for student-athletes, to be their voice on matters that are important to not only the ACC, but the NCAA and the UVA athletic department. The fact that she has stepped up to lead that group obviously shows her dedication and interest in wanting to better the student-athlete experience on Grounds and in the ACC and nationally.”
UVA athletics director Carla Williams and deputy athletics director Ted White are “trying to put an emphasis on getting SAAC more involved and giving us a bigger voice,” said Viljoen, who was a team rep in 2018-19, “and they’ve been amazing so far in supporting us and their willingness to meet with me.”
Viljoen didn’t expect to major in foreign affairs when she arrived at UVA. “My first choice was Comm School, but it didn’t work out,” she said. “It honestly was a blessing, because I am good at foreign affairs, so it was very good for my grades, and I really enjoy it.
“I never thought I would want to do politics, but I really enjoy foreign affairs, because there’s so much going on in the world, and it’s really just teaching you how politics affects everything.”
Until she was 10, Viljoen lived with her sister and their parents in Jan Kempdorp, an agricultural town in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. But two longtime friends of the family came to the Viljoens’ home for dinner one night, Anzel recalled, “and they said to my parents, ‘We’re thinking of moving to New Zealand. You guys should just do it with us.’
“So my parents jokingly said to me and my sister, ‘Would you guys be OK moving to New Zealand?’ We didn’t even know where it was. They just said, ‘It’s where the All Blacks [rugby team] are from.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course,’ thinking it was a joke. But then they chose to do it.”
Their parents believed Viljoen and her sister would find more opportunities in New Zealand, and the family settled on a dairy farm outside Matamata, a town of about 8,000 on the country’s North Island.
“I’ve always lived on farms,” Viljoen said, “and I love it.”
Her parents were outstanding field hockey players, “and I grew up with them coaching me very hard,” Viljoen said. “And so that was really helpful for me, to get a little bit ahead.”
One of her teammates in New Zealand, Jess Nesbitt, had come to the United States to study and play at Kent State, and the prospect of taking a similar path to college appealed to Viljoen. When she was 13, she’d traveled to the U.S., without her parents, for the world championships of Future Problem Solving, an academic competition, and visited San Francisco; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Los Angeles.
“I was here for a couple weeks, and I absolutely loved it,” Viljoen said. “I’ve always wanted to come back, so I thought [field hockey] would be a great way to do that. I think that kind of sparked my interest, and I pursued it and ended up here.”
After conducting some Internet research, Viljoen sent out of a recruiting video of herself to the NCAA’s top field hockey programs. UVA head coach Michele Madison “was the first one to get back to me,” Viljoen said.
Madison said she receives such videos almost daily “from all over the world.” She prefers to evaluate prospects in person, but Madison had a contact in New Zealand whom she trusted, and Viljoen became a Cavalier.
She anchors the backline of a team that opened the season last weekend with victories over Old Dominion and No. 9 Penn State. Viljoen scored a goal in the win over the Nittany Lions.
“She’s just steady,” Madison said. “She’s one of those players that loves to be at practice, loves to play the game.”
No. 11 UVA (2-0) hosts UMass Lowell (1-1) at 3 p.m. Friday and No. 14 Ohio State (2-0) at 1 p.m. Sunday. Both games will be at the Turf Field.
The transition to the demands of college field hockey wasn’t seamless for Viljoen, “because in New Zealand we don’t lift [weights] or do the other stuff that we do here,” she said. 
“We just play a ton of hockey. So it was a little bit hard for me to just adjust to the scheduling, and also just coming to college and then doing athletics too. That adjustment took a little while, but I fit into the team really well, and the coaches here helped me a lot, too, with my playing, to just be able to fit into the team dynamic and the system that we play.”
As a first-year, she roomed with teammate Catesby Willis, a sixth-generation UVA student. Madison says she wanted Viljoen to “have a family away from home,” and Willis, who’s from Fredericksburg, helped her roommate navigate life in the United States.
“She and I clicked right away, and she’s great,” Viljoen said. “That was a very good place for me to start when I came here.”
Viljoen, who’s living this year with teammates Erin Shanahan and Lizzy Shim and former UVA women’s soccer player Sarah Maurer, is now “a hundred percent Hoo,” Madison said, laughing.
After UVA won the NCAA men’s basketball title in April, Viljoen was the first in line to buy “bags of national championship gear,” Madison said. “She’s one hundred percent in and just brings that energy every day.”
In each of the past two summers, Viljoen has traveled extensively around the U.S. as an intern with Sports Endeavors Inc., a soccer, lacrosse and rugby retailer. She has dual citizenship in South Africa and New Zealand but is in no hurry to return to either country.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to staying here a year or two or [more] if I was lucky enough to get a job,” Viljoen said. “If my options here don’t work out for me, I’ll just go home. But I will definitely pursue options to try to get a job here and stay for a little while. This is my third home now, but it is home for me.”