Tufts student-athletes fly flag high for college and country

From left to right: junior Paul Katsiaunis, senior Raul Mendy, sophomore Justin Kouyoumdjian and sophomore David Gelfand Courtesy Paul Katsiaunis; Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily; Courtesy Justin Kouyoumdjian; Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

For student-athletes, sports are a source of fun, a way to stay in shape or a social activity, but most importantly, they are a passion. Many of these individuals will pour thousands of hours into training during their college careers, and for the elite few, playing their sport in college is a pathway to the major leagues. In Div. III, it is widely touted that “academics come first,” and pursuing a sport beyond the collegiate level is uncommon and unexpected. However, rare opportunities give some students the chance to compete on a national level, with four such individuals on this very campus.

Junior Paul Katsiaunis founded the Greece Lacrosse Association in 2014 and has captained the side ever since. After a four-year effort spent building the team and establishing a presence in Greece in order to introduce and spread lacrosse, Katsiaunis’ work culminated at the 2018 Lacrosse World Championship in July, where the Greek side played seven games and finished 19th of 46 teams.

The Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) approved Greece’s membership only a year earlier in May 2017. In the months that followed, Katsiaunis navigated a chaotic process of pulling athletes from different backgrounds and ages to compete.

“The idea came into my head right around the time that I realized that I didn’t have much of a future in football,” Katsiaunis said. “In 2014, I was in Greece watching the [World Lacrosse Championship], and I realized that Greece didn’t have a team. That made me furious — I hated that. After the games ended, I was able to get in contact with the [executive director] of Israel Lacrosse, and he gave me the resources to start a Greek program that summer.”

The FIL dictates that each national team can have up to four “non-national passport holders” on its roster. Lacrosse’s sparse presence in Greece meant that Katsiaunis had to scour the lacrosse rosters of American universities and pick out people purely by their name in the hope that they held a Greek passport and were interested in joining the team.

“Between 2014 [and] 2017, I did a lot of recruiting and a lot of managing of logistics and fundraising,” Katsiaunis said. “The most time-consuming was the recruiting — writing out emails to Greek players, contacting college coaches, going down local rosters and seeing someone with a really really long last name made my eyes light up. There [is] no better feeling than waking up to an email from a Div. I stud that wants to play on your team, who also knows some friends who play professionally who want in.”

Senior Raul Mendy, a defenseman for the Jumbos, had a similarly unconventional path to captaining the Argentina national team at the same tournament. He came across a little-known Instagram account for the Argentina Lacrosse Association, and reached out via direct message to learn more information. Like Greece, Argentina was only approved as an FIL member nation in 2017. Despite playing scarcely during his recovery from a torn ACL in the spring of 2017, Mendy made the Argentinian roster as a passport-holding player.

Mendy and Katsiaunis were not the only members of the Tufts community involved in the FIL World Championship. In fact, Tufts was the best-represented New England university at the tournament. Jordan Korinis (LA ’12) joined Katsiaunis on Team Greece, scoring nine goals, while Dan Leventhal (LA ’14), who was part of Tufts’ national championship-winning squad in 2014, netted eight goals for Israel. Ernesto Melero (LA ’14), who was on the Jumbos’ roster as a first-year and a sophomore, scored 14 goals for Mexico — the team’s second-leading scorer of the tournament.

The Argentinian team convened in Munich, Germany for a week, before heading to Netanya, Israel for the tournament from July 12–21. Although the team was in game mode upon arrival, the tournament gave the players an opportunity to meet people from different cultures and backgrounds. The team itself represented a diverse blend of personalities: Its youngest member was still in high school, while the oldest player — Rodrigo Miquelarena, the president of the Argentina Lacrosse Association — is in his 30s and has a wife and child.

Katsiaunis cited the tournament’s opening ceremony as one of the highlights of his experience.

“The biggest thing for me was walking down the street and seeing the Team USA and Team Canada guys — the guys who were on posters in my room from when I was 12 years old — in uniform with me at the opening ceremony, standing 30 yards from me,” Katsiaunis said. “That was absurd, just knowing that I’m not just next to them but playing in the same tournament as them.”

Both Mendy and Katsiaunis spoke passionately about contributing to the expansion of lacrosse in their home countries.

“It was awesome to see so many people coming together for the sport,” Mendy said. “Lacrosse is a sport that doesn’t get a lot of coverage, even here in the United States, but the fact that we’re growing the game is what matters. It gives … people so many opportunities, especially here at Tufts. As much as I can, I want to give back to the lacrosse community because it’s given me so much.”

The concept of gift exchanging was a common occurrence, with Mendy leaving the tournament as the proud owner of an jersey emblazoned with “España Lacrosse.” Both Mendy and Katsiaunis cited the cultural exposure that the athletes enjoyed as a result of their living together for the duration of the tournament as a unique aspect of the experience.

Another Jumbo in the international spotlight is sophomore Justin Kouyoumdjian, a guard on the Tufts men’s basketball team. Kouyoumdjian has played for the Under-20 Armenian basketball team for the past two years. Like Katsiaunis and Mendy, he is a citizen of the country he represents, and Armenian was his first language.

Most recently, Kouyoumdjian participated in the 2018 International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Europe Under-20 Championship, held in Sofia, Bulgaria from July 13–22. According to Kouyoumdjian, he was contacted directly by the Basketball Federation of Armenia as it was attempting to strengthen its national program by incorporating Armenian-Americans. Armenia finished 21st at the European championships with Kouyoumdjian averaging 11.7 points over seven games.

Kouyomdjian noted the interactions with opposing players, who represented a multitude of cultures, as a highlight of the tournament. Even the Armenian team, itself with an amalgamation of native Armenians, Armenian-Americans and Russian-Armenians, had to navigate a diverse mix of backgrounds.

“We played against Russia, the Netherlands, Hungary and other … countries,” Kouyoumdjian said. “We’d meet the each team before and exchange gifts. It was so cool to just hear the different languages and see the different faces of people from different places.”

The highlight of the tournament for Kouyoumdjian was Armenia’s final game against Moldova on July 22, in which the Armenian team clinched its only victory of the tournament, 75–66. Kouyoumdjian was the game’s leading scorer with 29 points, and he explained that he was motivated by thousands of fans in Armenia and across the globe, who tuned in via its live stream.

“In Armenia, people had placed bets on our games,” Kouyoumdjian said. “We had all these people watching us, so we wanted to do well for them.”

Sophomore swimmer David Gelfand has also represented his nation in international competition. Gelfand competed for the United States at the Para Swimming World Series in both 2017 and 2018The global series was comprised of six meets in as many countries in both 2017 and 2018, beginning in March and stretching into the summer. Gelfand competed in two meets both years.

Gelfand was born with a shortened thigh bone in his left leg and walks with a prosthetic leg. He swims in the S9 division, as the competitions are split into 10 classifications of physical impairments, ranging from most severe physical impairments (S1) to the least severe (S10).

As U.S. Paralympics Swimming — the national governing body of competitive paralympic swimming in the United States — is far more established and well-funded than the programs that Katsiaunis, Mendy and Kouyoumdjian have navigated, the recruiting process was much more structured.

In 2015, Gelfand was selected to the U.S. Paralympic Emerging Team. At the Para Swimming World series in Berlin in July 2017, the Weston, Conn. native earned gold medals in both the 4×100 medley relay and in the 4×100 freestyle relay. Gelfand swims in every meet with a singular goal: being selected for the 2020 Paralympics team that will compete in Tokyo. Before that, however, the 2019 Para Swimming World Championships will be held in Malaysia, and the Para Pan-American games are set to take place in Lima, Peru shortly thereafter.

“To go to Worlds … [is] my big goal of this coming summer,” Gelfand said. “The important parts of these meets are getting the qualification times and having the international experience of competing at a higher-pressure meet somewhere different from where you train and live. The [2020 Paralympic Games] are the most important event for me. My goal is to make the team, and you get selected based on where you are in world rankings compared to the other male athletes.”

In the meantime, Gelfand is gearing up for the Tufts season, which begins in November. After the season ends in February, Gelfand will be continue to train with coach Adam Hoyt and the rest of the Tufts staff thanks to an NCAA waiver.

“The meets that I go to with the U.S. Paralympics are definitely a lot more pressure,” Gelfand said. “The Tufts meets are so much more fun. It’s okay if we don’t win the meet, and I’m not actually fast enough to be really important for the championships, so the Tufts meets are a good way to see how fast I can go and see what I can do.”

Though all four student-athletes’ international competition experiences differed, the sense of pride that underscored their participation was clear. There will undoubtedly be more Jumbos to follow in their footsteps in the years to come.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained an inaccurate description of David Gelfand’s disability, which has been removed. The article also incorrectly implied that USA Swimming’s mandate includes paralympic swimming. It is U.S. Paralympics Swimming that governs competitive paralympic swimming in the United States. The article has been updated to reflect these changes and to clarify that there are 10 classes of physical impairments out of 14 paralympic swimming classes in total. The Daily regrets this error.