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His International Exchange Is Food for Thought


To many foreign athletes, living and studying in the United States is more of an introduction to frustration than fantasy. Using a different language and adapting to a new life style isn't always a ride through "It's A Small World."

Sometimes, it is an E ticket to an overwhelmingly scary world.

But to Belgium's Olivier Amerlinck, a member of Chapman College's tennis team, life in the U.S. presents only minor obstacles. Such as? Well, for one, American cuisine, which is not quite haute enough for his palate.

"Steaks are too thin here," said Amerlinck, currently playing No. 3 for the Panthers. "And I can't ever get my vegetables cooked the way I like."

A serious dilemma for someone who stands more than two meters and weighs 92 kilograms--that's 6-feet 8-inches, 210 pounds in America.

Finding foods to fit his fancy may be Amerlinck's biggest worry in America because once he's on the tennis court, it usually is his opponent who has a concerned look.

Amerlinck and teammates John Turnbull, Paul Wekesa and John Kline will open the NCAA Division II individual tennis championships at Cal State Northridge today. Chapman lost the team championship to No. 2-seeded Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 5-4, Wednesday.

For the Panthers, tennis has become a foreign affair. They're the United Nations of college tennis.

Their latest expatriate is Amerlinck, who came to Orange in mid-January after receiving a scholarship from Coach Mike Edles. Though only a freshman, Amerlinck, 21, brought two years of professional experience with him.

"I receive lots of letters from foreign kids who want to come and play for us," Edles said. "But Olivier's letter really stood out. He had played in a lot of good tournaments and had been given an ATP (Assn. of Tennis Professionals) ranking. It wasn't very high, but it was enough that I thought he should be seen."

Edles sent Rodger Alex, an assistant coach, to Belgium. The scouting report was enthusiastic. The plane ticket was issued shortly thereafter.

And the welcome mat to the land of Spam and Velveeta was brought out.

Amerlinck soon discovered that he wasn't the only foreign player for the Panthers. Nor was he the only one with serious tennis experience.

Turnbull, a senior, had come from Auckland, New Zealand to become an All-America and the No. 1-ranked Division II player this season. Wekesa, from Nairobi, was Kenya's No. 1 Davis Cup player at 17. And Alex, the assistant coach who had been a Chapman All-America in 1983, was from Sweden.

"He fit in all right," Turnbull said. "And he brought a lot of experience to the team from playing on the circuit. We don't really do stuff together, though; he hangs out with his French friends."

One of the reasons Amerlinck came to the United States was to mix academics with athletics. In Europe, most universities require a 35-40 hour classload, which allows little time for outside activities.

"It's either school or tennis in Europe," Amerlinck said. "It's hard to do both. Here, I can manage my studies without taking away practice time. It's not that it's easier ; it's just different here."

This season, he broke the school record for the most singles victories by a freshman (32) and was named to the All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. team. Wednesday, he was named NCAA Division II freshman of the year.

And hey, bring the guy some chateaubriand .

After all, he deserves it.

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