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Lauren Rowell knew the opportunity to play softball on an international stage in Eastern Europe last month at the Youth Friendship Games was a once in a lifetime chance.
But that notion didn’t really sink in for the rising eighth grader at Buford Middle School until the last out was made.
Rowell, 13, was selected by her United States teammates as its most valuable player in a fast-pitch softball tournament featuring four international softball teams in the 11-to-14 age bracket.
Along with a medal, Lauren was awarded the championship team trophy, which is now proudly displayed in the living room of her parents’, David and Lynn Rowell, home.
The U.S. team – with 13-year-old Lauren on the mound – won all four of its games against teams from the Bayern Munich (Germany), the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Lauren pitched 11 of 19 innings and played left field for two innings.
Lauren was one of 3,000 other student-athletes from 24 countries who competed in Vienna, Austria, in an Olympic-style sports festival sponsored by the People to People Sports Ambassador Program.
Designed for students in grades 5-12, the People to People Ambassador Program was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nominated by a BMS teacher, Lauren received an invitation to play in October 2008 and was selected as a national delegate after several interviews. Her teammates included girls from California, Washington State, New Jersey, Massachusetts and several other states. The Youth Friendship Games were July 5-14.
The program gives participants a taste of international competition. Eleven different sports are represented at the Youth Friendship Games.
Lauren also got to train one-on-one with three-time Olympic gold medalist Laura Berg to improve her overall softball skills. The U.S. team was led by longtime high school coach John Heizer of Maryland.
“It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy, either,” Lauren said. “We all had different personalities and only got to practice together for three days. Between practice, tours and games, it made for some pretty long days.”
During breaks in the action, delegates toured the World War II-era Mauthausen Concentration Camp and listened to a Holocaust survivor’s story. Lauren said the experience made a lasting impression.
“There wasn’t one of us who didn’t teary-eyed from that,” she said. “The gas chambers and the crematorium made me nauseous and almost claustrophobic. On the bus ride there, everything was sunny, but when we got there, the weather turned eerie and strange-feeling.”
There was also time for some fun, including a trip to an amusement park that featured the world’s largest ferris wheel and a tour of the imperial castle Schonbrunn in Vienna.
“It’s very pretty and green,” Lauren said. “The buildings are gorgeous and they have a lot of historical structures that date back to the 1600s. There’s a lot of wide open spaces and a lot to do there. They have lots of youth sports programs.”
Lauren made many new friends, including several from Bulgaria that she now talks to by Skype. The chance to get to know athletes from another part of the world is the vision that Eisenhower had with People to People. The program fosters friendship and understanding through the common language of athletics.
“I’ve stayed in touch with almost everyone,” she said.