Meet the foreign exchange students on Juneau high school sports teams

In 2007, a high school exchange student from Hong Kong joined the Juneau-Douglas High School tennis team and won the state’s first-ever girls singles title.


The next year, a nimble Swiss hockey player helped the then three-year-old JDHS hockey program to its first-ever tournament win at the Homer End-of-Road Shootout.

For decades, teenagers from various continents and of various tongues have been adopted by sports teams in the capital city. Despite the skill of exchange students like Ling Chan and Andreas Keller, the real incentive for exchange students to participate in extra-curricular activities is not to win games.

Exchange students are welcome — even strongly encouraged — to go out for sports they won’t be able to find back home. This can mean a steep, but worthwhile learning curve.

“The kids are here on ambassadorial exchange and they are really here to learn about our culture and for us to learn about their culture,” said Jamie Letterman, the Rotary Club’s regional inbound coordinator for youth exchange.

That’s why 16-year-old Gregor Schniewindt, a tall and whimsical junior from Neunrade, Germany, wanted to play football when he came to Alaska.

“It’s the most American sport I could find, so I just wanted to play it,” he said.

Not long after arriving in Juneau in mid-August as one of four of Juneau’s Rotary Club students, Schniewindt was running routes in his tennis shoes for the Thunder Mountain High School football team.

“My first practice it was pouring rain so I get on the field, I’m like, ‘Let’s see,’” Schniewindt said. “They don’t really know what (position) I should play. They first thought maybe like a wide receiver because I’m so tall but then they noticed I can’t catch and I’m pretty bad at running too, so they just put me on the line.”

When he was subbed in late in the fourth quarter in a home game against Ketchikan — his first game playing for TMHS — the entire sideline exploded in cheers.

His teammates accepted him, too. He got along well with fellow linemen like Puna Touteiolepo and Abilove Sua. Coach Jeff Hedges worked with him on his technique. Schniewindt is the third exchange student to stay with Michelle Strickler’s family, who previously welcomed Thai and Chilean students into their home.

“Hosting an international exchange student gives us an opportunity to broaden our world and have an understanding for how the rest of the world lives and things we can learn from each other,” Strickler said.

Once they are accepted, a student will spend three years in the Rotary exchange program. The first year is the preparatory year, the second year is the exchange year and the third year is the rebound year when they assimilate back into their homeland.

Like Schniewindt, JDHS’ Erik Genitz of Sweden is in his second year in the Rotary program. Genitz follows Andreas Keller (2008-09) and Spaniard Jaime Moreno (2016-17) as exchange students on the JDHS hockey team.

JDHS assistant coach Matt Boline said Genitz is quiet and reserved in the locker room. They didn’t quite know what they had in their newcomer until Genitz’s debut as a Crimson Bear in the Nov. 17-18 series against Kenai Central.

“At first glance when you see him on the ice, you’re like, ‘He’s alright,’” Boline said. “Put him in a game situation, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Holy cow.’ He passes well, he’s smart with the puck, he controls the puck on the wall, he’s smart.”

The 18-year-old assisted on goals both nights. Genitz assisted on the first goal of Friday’s 5-1 win before setting up Joseph Monsef’s third goal of the night in Saturday’s 7-3 loss.

Despite what his strong play would indicate, the series with Kenai marked Genitz’s first hockey games in two years. After playing hockey throughout his childhood, Genitz gave it up when he was 16, listing the long commute to the rink as one deterrent for playing.

Genitz missed being on a team and being around the rink, though. So after arriving in Juneau, he borrowed gear from a Rotary Club member and tried out for the high school team.

“I wanted to see how it felt playing again,” Genitz said. “I heard they had a hockey team so I just wanted to see how it felt.”

Genitz said his hometown of Slite is similarly isolated like his new home of Juneau. The town of less than 2,000 people is on the east coast of Gotland, an island smaller than the size of Admiralty, and located about 50 miles into the Baltic Sea from the mainland. It has a similar climate and reliance on ferries as well.

Genitz will have opportunities to travel to both the Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks with the team this season.

Unlike the above foreign exchange students, 16-year-old Marie Ramminger found her way to Alaska through Young Life’s International Student Exchange. Young Life, a non-denominational Christian organization, works with Christian households to run the exchange program.

Matt Siebert is the Young Life Juneau Area Director. This is the third year in a row Siebert has overseen student exchanges in Juneau. Siebert said involvement in sports is a way to counterbalance the isolation and homesickness that can be felt once the honeymoon phase is over for an exchange student.

“I think when exchange students get here they’re kind of a celebrity,” Siebert said. “As time goes on, that wears off.”

Ramminger brings three years of cheerleading experience with her to the Last Frontier, including over a year in the German Football League. As the foremost American football league in Germany, the GFL is comprised of 16 teams such as the Hamburg Huskies, Munich Cowboys and Stuttgart Scorpions.

Unlike in the United States, where NFL players’ salaries hover in the millions, Ramminger says it’s not uncommon for GFL players to have a job outside of football. Nor are games must-see TV, if they are on the tube at all.

“The highest audience, the most we can get (at a game) is 10,000,” Ramminger said, although 2,000 is much more common.

Ramminger arrived in Juneau during the second week of August. At that time, TMHS football cheer was already almost three weeks into its season. TMHS coach Susie Denton already held tryouts; Ramminger would just have to wait for basketball tryouts.

The junior asked Denton if she could just cheer on the practice squad.

“At the time, people don’t really participate in the workouts if they are not on the team,” Denton said. “But she really wants to stay in shape and she really wanted to see how we did things.”

Even though Ramminger’s been one of the most loyal cheer team members this season, she is still a little anxious for the Dec. 1 basketball cheer tryouts. She’s tried out for teams before, but says more is at stake when trying out for the Falcons.

“It’s the only chance that I get for this. I mean in Stuttgart, if you do it there, you can try out for another team or another team,” Ramminger said.

Gregor Schniewindt, 16

Hometown: Neunrade, Germany

Exchange program: Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club

School/sport: Thunder Mountain High School football

Favorite pro athlete: Aaron Gwin — downhill biking

Erik Genitz, 18

Hometown: Slite, Gotland (Sweden)

Exchange program: Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club

School/sport: Juneau-Douglas High School hockey

Favorite pro athlete: Pavel Datsyuk —hockey

Marie Ramminger, 16

Hometown: Stuttgart, Germany

Exchange program: Young Life Amicus Student Exchange

School/sport: Thunder Mountain High School basketball cheer

Favorite pro athlete: Gabby Douglas —gymnastics

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