West Virginia University international student Livia Cascao has overcome many challenges during her undergraduate years, including a victory lap over language and cultural barriers.

The 25-year-old Brazilian, who earned a scholarship and swam competitively for four years on the Mountaineer Womens Swimming Team, also mastered English while here, thanks to the English as a Second Language (ESL) Program. She will graduate in May with a degree in exercise physiology, certified as an aquatic therapist, with a minor in Spanish.

I got a lot of help and assistance at WVU ,Cascao said.This University has a big advantage because there are a lot of people who are always helpful and understand academics and athletics.

Cascao, who is from Recife in the northeast Brazilian state of Pernambuco, began swimming at the age of 5 with the encouragement of her parents. She grew up several blocks from the beach where the weather was warm year-round.

Growing up in Recife was fun,she said.I could swim outside just about anytime.

At the age of 11, she joined Nikita Swimming, a competitive, sponsored team. She had swimming practice twice a day, mornings and afternoons, including Saturdays, and swam in 12-15 competitions a year throughout Brazil.

Cascao soon found her niche as a sprinter, focusing mainly on the 50 and 100 meter freestyle. At age 12, she was ranked No. 1 in Brazil in the 200 meter individual medley. When she was 17, she won second place out of 50-60 competitors in the Brazilian Swimming Championships in the 50 meter freestyle.

Cascao came to the United States the year after she graduated high school to learn more English and further her swimming career. She joined The Virginia Gators at Gator Aquatic Center, a club team in Roanoke. She spent about five months competing with the team, primarily in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Gators relay team won first place in the 200 meter freestyle at the YMCA National Swimming and Diving Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she was spotted by college and university recruiters. She soon found herself with three letters offering her scholarships, one from WVU . Eric McIlquham, who was then head womens swimming coach at WVU , came to Roanoke to recruit Cascao.

It was pretty exciting at the time,said Cascao, who was awarded a Milan Puskar Athletic Scholarship to study at WVU .I didnt know what I was going to do, but there are no athletic scholarships offered at Brazilian universities. My coach recommended WVU , so I came here.

She began practicing with the WVU swim team and taking ESL courses. Michael Wilhelm, ESL director, and Helen Huntley, former director, helped Cascao while she was in the program.

The scholarship meant a lot to me,Cascao said.My coaches at WVU believed in me a lot, in what I could do, and that always helped.

The South American athlete soon found that swimming in the United States was different than swimming in Brazil. For instance, swimmers in the United States swim in yards, not meters. Another adjustment was getting used to the colder weather and swimming indoors.

The hardest part for me was the cold,she said.Back home, I was used to swimming in open pools, but here it is all indoor pools. It was hard to adapt.

With the help of McIlquham and then WVU assistant coach Emily Trakas, Cascao learned to adjust to the differences.

At WVU , Cascao kept up the schedule of swimming twice a day, including Saturdays, carrying 14-17 hours of classes a semester. She credits Garrett Ford, associate athletic director for Student Athletic Services, and Tiffany Flanagan, athletic academic counselor, with helping her with the academic side of things as she carried a full load.

With the support of her coaches and friends, Cascaos relay team won at least four medals during the Big East Conference Swimming and Diving Championships. She archived her best time her sophomore year in the 50 meter freestyle.

I had a really good time swimming at WVU ,Cascao said.I made good friends and learned a lot. WVU helped me learn about discipline and how to deal with people. I learned not only language and culture, but also life lessons.

After finishing four years of college swimming, she worked three semesters at Stalnaker Dining Hall as she completed her degree. At Stalnaker, she helped with food ordering and special events, gaining the positive attention of Marilyn Corbin, Stalnaker Dining Manager.

Shes very honest and hardworking,Corbin said.And, shes such a good student.

In addition to her job and swimming career at WVU , Cascao completed an aqua therapy internship at the Natatorium with Paula Briggs, clinical assistant professor, and Lori Sherlock, office information assistant professor. Some of her other mentors in the exercise physiology program include Randy Bryner, associate professor and her advisor, Dan Bonner, associate professor, and Diana Gilleland, Human Performance Lab manager and assistant professor.

Moreover, Cascao volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House in Morgantown and the Human Performance Lab. She was part of the Exercise Physiology Club and vice president of the Brazilian Student Association.

Following graduation, Cascao plans to stay in West Virginia another year, then perhaps return to Brazil to attend graduate school to earn a masters degree in physical therapy. She wants to specialize in aquatic therapy and help elderly people who might need arthritis treatment or post-surgery rehabilitation.