Florence Maerklin landed at BWI Marshall Airport in July with a broken foot and all her luggage stuck at a layover in Germany; it was a far cry from a smooth start to what she says has been a joyously formative year abroad.
The foreign exchange program Education First brought the then-16, now 17-year-old from her home in Basel, Switzerland, to Perryville High School, where she’s a junior on the girls lacrosse team.
Did she know anything about lacrosse before moving to a state she had never heard of? Maerklin said she once saw the 2008 movie “Wild Child” with Emma Roberts, which briefly features the sport. That was about it.
Maerklin knew she wanted to join a team at her new high school. She just didn’t know which one. After breaking her foot while playing soccer on her last day of school at Gymnasium Münchenstein in Switzerland, fall sports were a nonstarter. Instead, she joined the marching band, playing the cymbals.
Samantha Peterson, who plays goalie for Perryville, and midfielder Sarah Murrell — both friends of Maerklin’s host sister, Courtney Forman — introduced her to lacrosse.
“The first time I basically didn’t know what to do,” Maerklin said, laughing. “I was just holding the stick. And the ball is really small. I didn’t have goggles at first, so I was really terrified of the ball flying in my face. But now, I don’t really care anymore. I’ve gotten hit in the face.”
They were playing catch at her host family’s house with a kids lacrosse set that Peterson said was “intended for first graders”; it had shorter plastic sticks and soft rubber balls.
“She was definitely a little rough, but even from day one you could see potential,” Peterson said. “Every time she caught it, she’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, I caught the ball!”
“It was obvious she had never seen it before, so it was funny watching her try to figure it out,” her host dad, Kevin Forman, added. “I wasn’t sure if she’d like it or not, but it seemed like she did take to it and was interested. I was really impressed the way she picked it up so quickly.”
Maerklin got the idea of studying abroad after hearing about her father’s experience as a high school exchange student in Seattle.
Where in the United States she landed didn’t much matter.
“I was just applying for America,” said Maerklin, who speaks German-Swiss, French and English. “They give your profile to certain people and then match you with a family. … I had never heard of Maryland before. It was really new to me.”
An extensive application process pinpointed shared interests in music and sports, which paired her with the Formans, who graciously bought Maerklin new clothes for the week she was without her bags.
Stacie Forman, her host mom, teaches science — Maerklin’s favorite subject ― at Perryville. Kevin teaches math and helps coach lacrosse. He’s also musically inclined as an assistant band director. Maerklin plays classical guitar. Their children, Courtney and Kyle, have shared interests in sports and scouts.
Once Maerklin’s foot healed and she was cleared for physical activity, she joined an indoor lacrosse team with her Perryville teammates.
There were no practices, just weekly five-on-five games at Cecil County Rec Center in Rising Sun. But it was a chance to get live repetitions as she learned.
Peterson laughs as she remembered Maerklin’s first goal.
“It was a 360 shot,” Peterson said. “She picked up the ball, spun around and shot it. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t save that.’”
The indoor league experience honed Maerklin’s game. So did hours spent playing wall ball with her teammates, which helped her develop basic skills such as throwing and catching, ground balls, cradling and using both hands.
Maerklin drew what she could from her athletic background — though seven years of horseback riding in both show jumping and dressage don’t exactly translate to lacrosse.
Driven by a competitive nature rooted more in joy than relentlessness and yearning to play alongside her friends, Maerklin earned playing time with the Panthers as an attacker and quickly moved up from junior varsity to varsity.
“She works hard,” said Perryville coach Mary Dunman, who nicknamed Maerklin “Swiss Miss.”
“When we’re teaching her the technical parts of the game, like the transitions and stuff, she understands, then goes out and executes it,” Dunman said. “After every practice, she comes over to one of the coaches and asks how she can improve herself.”
Being the new girl, not just to the school and the team but to the country, comes with challenges and cultural shocks.
She wasn’t prepared for the prevalence of fast and processed foods, or for plastic straws, which are illegal in Switzerland. Conceptualizing space threw her for a whirl. All the land dedicated to parking lots and cemeteries was a bit jarring, Kevin said.
“At first I was also confused about the grading system,” Maerklin said. “The letters and a hundred percent, I guess it makes sense, but I didn’t get the letters at first. … We have numbers from one to six and you pass with a four.”
Taking a moment to reflect before a windy Monday after school practice, Maerklin pondered the past nine months. Immersion into a new culture, she said, has helped her become more independent and taught her a lot about herself and the world at large.
Maerklin will head back to Switzerland in June having learned one of her temporary home’s most popular sports, hopefully without a cast and with her luggage in tow.