Eye of the tiger: A profile of FGCU’s Johanna Sterkel

Johanna_SterkelFor those who love to travel, the idea of coming to a new country for school is a match made in heaven. For Johanna Sterkel, it was a reality.

For her freshman year of high school, she came to the United States from Germany to improve her English. The little taste of the American culture she got then still did not prepare her for the challenges she would face when she decided to return three years later to attend Florida Gulf Coast University.

“It was really hard in the beginning because you are so used to being home and used to someone taking care of you,” Sterkel said. “I also had issues with my English even if I was already here. I had a hard time understanding the professors.”

The differences between Germany and the United States didn’t just end with the language. Sterkel came to FGCU for an education and the opportunity to play college tennis.  Therefore, she had to adjust to the different atmosphere on the tennis court.

“When you play in a tournament [in Germany] it is really quiet,” Sterkel said. “Here you have to be really loud on the court and that was a little weird for me. Everyone was like ‘Go Eagles’ and screaming even during the point. In Germany, maybe you clap after a point but it is really quiet, not that much of an audience.”

Sterkel started playing tennis when she was 7 years old. During the summers, when she visited her grandmother, she went to a tennis camp. Initially, Sterkel enjoyed playing with her friends. But, when she was 11, she played in her first tournament and won. After that, she asked her parents if she could start training more than once a week.

“I just enjoyed the sport and competing one against one,” Sterkel said. “There is a lot of fighting on the court. The energy makes you want to win more points you didn’t even think of if you weren’t pumped up.”

As Sterkel got older, she continued to play in tournaments, mainly in Germany. When she was a freshman in high school, she decided to attend Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers to improve her English. She attended Bishop Verot for six months and also trained with the tennis team after school.

“My parents were really supportive and thought it was a great idea also,” Sterkel said. “For me, school was always a first priority, not tennis. They supported me and didn’t push me. It was always my own will.”

Despite the decision to move away from her family being her own, Sterkel did not avoid the homesick feeling many college students face.

“I miss seeing my family on a Sunday and going home for a day,” Sterkel said. “I love it here and love the program. For me, I always enjoy the weather and how beautiful it is. I appreciate it every day.”

Those around Sterkel always note her hard work and determination. FGCU head coach Courtney Vernon said she is quiet off of the court, but when she is on the court, it is a different story.

“She is like a tiger out there,” Vernon said. “It is so unique because she turns into a totally different person.”

Sterkel’s competiveness has led to her success on the court. She currently leads the team with a 12-3 record in singles play.

“She is a very special girl, Vernon said. “I always know she is going to fight to get one more ball back no matter what. She evaluates herself and is able to look at herself in the mirror and ask herself the hard questions.”

Sterkel attributes her success to the experiences she has gained competing on the team for the past two years.

“I know how to prepare and know what to expect,” Sterkel said. “I’m not as afraid of the opponent. I improved in tennis with practice every day and every time I have a match I am thankful I have the match and just enjoy playing.”

As she is getting ready to head into her senior year, Sterkel is focusing on her accounting degree, but isn’t too worried about planning out her future.

“I will see where it takes me,” Sterkel said. “I’m just focused on finishing school. You never know where you are going to end up.”

For someone who has been to Switzerland, Turkey and South Africa and wants to keep exploring different countries, the opportunities are endless.