MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Caroline Larsson had already lived in the United States for three years before she found West Virginia University.
The native of Telleborg, Sweden – a small town in the countryside – had come to America to earn a bachelor’s degree and continue her dream of swimming competitively.
Through three years, though, she never found a place she could truly call her second home.
That’s when Morgantown and WVU found her.
“I came to campus for a visit once, and I realized this could be the perfect place for me,” she said. “It truly was.”
On Sunday, after four years and three different universities, Larsson graduated from WVU with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. She, along with 1,500 other students, was honored at the Coliseum.
“I don’t know what to expect. We’ve seen movies with American graduations, but they are so much different than what takes place back in Sweden,” she said earlier this week.
Larsson, who had always been one of the best swimmers in her age group growing up, knew she wanted to study in the United States out of high school. She didn’t think her swimming career was over, and she still had the urge to continue to get better.
Her mother wanted her to go overseas. So did her older sister. Her father, though, wasn’t too keen on the idea.
“They didn’t hold me back, though, and that was really great,” Larsson said.
After looking at schools across the east coast, she decided on Old Dominion University in the fall of 2007, where she spent her freshman and sophomore years. ODU had a large Swedish community, and the swimming coach made Larsson feel at home despite being all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from her family and friends.
It wasn’t much of a transition for her. At Bladins International School in Malmo, Sweden, she basically went to school and then focused on swimming at all times. There was little difference in college because of that.
“She started to swim when she was 5,” said Caroline’s mother Carin. “She hated the water. She wouldn’t even go in it.”
“She used to scream and cry when she went in,” her sister Cecilia added. “Once she got older, though, she never left the water.”
After her sophomore season, however, she felt the experience on Old Dominion’s swim team was slighting her a bit, so she made the decision to transfer.
“The team wasn’t what I expected it to be, and since I was sacrificing my time coming over here and being away from my family, I expected more,” she said. “I needed a change – and change can be good and bad – but I needed something different. At that point, I realized I was here for myself.”
She headed south to the University of North Florida – a school that was still in a larger city like ODU but had much more of what Larsson called a “beach culture.”
Less than a year ago, her new coach informed her and the rest of the team that the swimming program would be cut due to budgetary concerns. Larsson wasn’t content with ending her career on a low note after spending her first season at UNF dealing with injuries.
She transferred for the second time in three years, and because the North Florida program was cut, she was given the opportunity to attend another Division I school without sitting out a year.
“Since I was so in-depth with my major, I didn’t want to get dropped back too far. And knowing how many schools offer Division I swimming, there aren’t a lot of options,” Larsson said. “Then, WVU called, I went on a trip to campus and it felt like it could be a good place for me.”
Larsson started at WVU in fall of 2010 and finished her career as a Mountaineer.
Morgantown was different than her other two stops. There is no beach in sight, and there are rolling hills and – as she quickly found out – a lot of steps on WVU’s downtown campus.
She learned her way around, though, quickly finding the Brooks Hall elevator, which made those hills a bit easier to climb. She made friends in her major and on the swim team, too.
Most importantly for her, though, was the camaraderie and comfort that she found at WVU.
“Here, you’re not just a student; you’re a student-athlete. People see you as something different, because I’m here for swimming. They say, ‘wow, you’re studying and swimming?’” Larsson said. “It’s so much team spirit everywhere. The entire school supports everyone. I feel welcomed. I feel like I am one of them.”
She found her most success on WVU’s swim team, as she recorded her fastest times of her career while in the Old Gold and Blue. In her last meet of her career at the Big East Conference championships in Louisville, Ky., earlier this year, she scored points for WVU in two events with her mother and sister in from Sweden. Larsson placed 12th in the 400 IM and 10th in the mile.
After the meet, she couldn’t hold her emotions back. She admitted the realization that her swimming career had ended. Following that time, she focused on her academics. Her most memorable class was Model UN course, which offered a trip to New York City. She also had an opportunity to interact more with her professors, as well.
“I had the best year of my life swimming-wise. It was such an amazing time, because my mom and my sister came over. That’s the first meet they had been to while I was in college – and it was my last. It was nice to have them there,” she said. “Looking back to it, so much time and effort was put into swimming. The outcome turned out to be excellent.”
Larsson’s parents had never been to Morgantown prior to this weekend. Her father Nils-Henrik, her mother and her sister flew halfway around the world to experience Caroline’s graduation from WVU.
After spending the next eight months in Sweden, she will apply for another Visa and to graduate schools like Georgetown University and George Washington University among others to return to the U.S. in less than a year to continue her education.
There are things she still wants to learn and others she needs to experience, Larsson admits.
Though it scares her that she doesn’t yet exactly know what she wants to do in life just yet, she stays motivated and goal-oriented.
“I am determined in the future that I’m going to get whatever job I want,” she said. “Every year since the start of high school, my life had been planned out for me because of swimming. And all of a sudden, it’s not. Still, I know I need good grades, and that’s what keeps me striving for more.”
Her father told her since she was younger that she would grow up to be a professor. That’s still an option today.
“I always said that about her,” Nils-Henrik said.
“She always used to read books when she was little, so my father always said that,” Cecilia added.
These two years at WVU were unforgettable for Larsson. When she walked across the stage at December Convocation on Sunday, her journey at WVU will end for now.
“You come, get your degree, work hard and then you have to leave,” she said. “It’s been a great year-and-a-half. I’ve learned a lot about myself and life. If I could stay another semester, I totally would. I love it here at WVU.”
After all the moving around, Larsson is convinced she wound up right: “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat, and I would tell anyone to come here,” she said. “Coming to WVU, I thought I was just someone else. While I was here, though, I learned a lot about myself. I now know what I want in life.”This story was originally published by West Virginia University's News & Information Services on Dec. 11, 2011 and can be viewed at WVU Today.