By: Adam Lucas

Anna Eaton and Drew Pedersen both chuckle when asked for their advice on how to combine life as a student-athlete with spending a semester studying abroad.

The two Tar Heel pole vaulters realize theirs is a unique situation. It’s virtually impossible for athletes in two-semester sports like basketball to spend a full semester overseas (Luke Maye did a short trip to South Africa this summer with the Kenan-Flagler Business School). But outdoor track and field is a one-semester sport, and both Eaton and Pedersen had long hoped to make travel a part of their college experiences.

Their rigorous academic schedule includes multiple professional internships in the summers to gain work experience (Pedersen is interning at Nike this summer, while Eaton is interning at Valassis digital media), so a summer trip wasn’t an option. Spring semester travel would have interfered with track competitions. That left the fall semester.

But college coaches have enough trouble ensuring the whereabouts of their athletes when they’re enrolled in Chapel Hill. Send them to Vienna, Austria—the destination where Eaton and Pedersen studied in the fall of 2017—and it becomes a little tougher.

“Coach (Harlis) Meaders was very supportive,” says Eaton. “He didn’t want me to miss being with the team, but he’s also very invested in our personal growth as student-athletes, so he was supportive of the idea.”

Eaton liked the idea of studying in Vienna because it has a good business school with credits that are easier to transfer back to Carolina, which can be very demanding about international classes. As a nice perk, Vienna is also centrally located in Europe, making it a great hub from which to explore the continent.

Between them, Eaton and Pedersen visited ten countries in the fall of 2017. Their first priority, though, was figuring out how they could maintain their training regimen while also adjusting to daily life in a foreign language.

There are administrators and advisors to help Carolina students who want to spend a semester in a different country. There are established procedures. It’s not quite as simple if you’re a college student who wants to study but also needs, for example, a pole vault pit and landing area for weekly workouts.

“The academic side was easier to figure out,” said Pedersen, who like Eaton is a three-time Academic All-ACC honoree. “Training was the hard part. We emailed coaches and clubs in Vienna to try and find a track club. After a few months of emailing and translating German emails, we found a coach who had access to a cool indoor facility.”

The coach was Herwig Gruensteidl, and the track club was Ferry- Dusika-Hallenstadion, an indoor arena in Vienna. The 7,700-seat venue is unlike anything in America. In addition to a complete track and field setup in the infield of the track, the stadium also had a complete gymnastics practice area and a banked cycling track that encircled the running track.

“We could be training on the infield, and there would be a full gymnastics practice going on simultaneously while racing bicycles were going 50 miles per hour around this really steep wooden track,” Pedersen said.

pair of tar heel tracksters finds time for memorable study abroad experience

In addition to their formal training, the Tar Heel duo also found creative ways to maintain their conditioning. While their Carolina teammates were doing hill workouts in Chapel Hill, Eaton and Pedersen found a hill to run near Schonbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site that dates to the 1740s.

It might have been an unorthodox approach to offseason training, but it worked. When Eaton and Pedersen returned to Chapel Hill for the spring 2018 semester, they did not notice a dropoff.

“I felt like I came back very strong from the work I had been doing,” Eaton said. “I felt like I was in a good place. With pole vaulting, it’s hard any time you take a break from actually vaulting. It’s a little bit of a challenge mentally to get back into it.”

There was more flexibility with their training in Vienna because the academic classes were not as formal as a typical Carolina schedule. While stateside there is a set schedule of Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday classes, abroad the pair found a more random, and somewhat unpredictable schedule of both days and times. They quickly learned it was a good idea to train early in the week whenever time was available, because it was entirely possible classes might pop up later in the week.

And, of course, they also wanted to leave time for travel to take advantage of that central Vienna location. Eaton raved about a trip to Greece, and Pedersen enjoyed a trip to Munich during Oktoberfest.

But the most memorable trip was a December journey to Innsbruck, Austria, the fifth-largest city in Austria and the host of a pair of winter Olympic Games (1964 and 1976). Pedersen had a very specific reason for wanting to visit. In addition to teammates, the duo has been a couple since they began dating at Apex High. And Pedersen knew he might not get a better opportunity for a memorable proposal.

“I had bought an engagement ring for Anna in August before we left,” he says. “I picked it up the day before we left.”

Pedersen left the ring in the care of teammate Joey Souza. When Souza and fellow jumper Alexis Gannon met up with Pedersen and Eaton in Rome during Thanksgiving break, Souza passed the ring to Pedersen, who then only had to surreptitiously carry it around until the Innsbruck trip. The elaborate planning worked, and Eaton was surprised.

“People ask me now, ‘How did you not know that was coming?’” Eaton says. “I thought maybe at some point in our senior year of college, but not while we were over there.”

The wedding is set for June 22, 2019, and the couple have already made plans to invite some of the international friends they met while in Vienna.

A study abroad experience doesn’t have to include an engagement, of course. But both Pedersen and Eaton recommend finding a way to carve out some travel opportunities during college.

“I’ve always wanted to make the most of my time as a college student at Carolina,” Eaton says. “I know I’m not going to be an athlete my entire life. Having the opportunity to study abroad was a great opportunity to travel, while also opening up my horizons and helping me professionally.”