A competent reserve midfielder last fall, Ale Okuma would appear to have gone from a helpful newcomer to Slippery Rock University’s men’s soccer team a year ago to not even being slotted on the squad’s roster. For the time being, anyways, Okuma is not even enrolled as a student at the school.
Due to a travel ban amid COVID-19 concerns, Okuma is, at the moment, not permitted to return to the United States. Rather, he remains at home in Brazil’s most populated city, Sao Paulo, unable to work out at the gym or dine at the steakhouses he misses while nearly 5,000 miles away in rural Pennsylvania.
After playing at Louisiana College for two years, Okuma grew unhappy with his previous school’s academics and soccer team in general. He set his sights northeast, away from the bayou’s heat and humidity. After sending a tape and receiving interest from head coach Kevin Wilhelm and assistant Steven Rerick, Okuma arrived in Slippery Rock as a transfer.
“[Rerick] called me one day to talk to me about how the program was and about how they were [transitioning] from another coach,” Okuma said. “That they were starting the program again, I was kind of excited to see how it was building up a program.”
Admittedly, he was anxious about not having teammates of Brazilian origin.
“At my other school, I had teammates from Brazil,” Okuma said. “So whenever you feel insecure about stuff, you have your friends from a same country and you can talk about it. When I found out nobody was from Brazil and none of the freshman were from Brazil, I was very nervous.”
On the field, at least, he became comfortable not far after. In his first season sporting a green and white kit, Okuma played in 13 games, starting eight. He notched two assists within his first three appearances for The Rock.
Fast forward to spring break and a trip to Florida, Okuma started to hear rumblings about how serious the ramifications of the virus could be. Soon after, with flights beginning to be cancelled, he grabbed the first plane ticket possible.
“[I thought] it’s better to be at home and safe than here [in Slippery Rock], because I didn’t know if I’d have a place to stay on campus,” Okuma said.
As the school year neared, Okuma read up on the rumor of a travel ban.
“It said that Brazilians and foreigners that have been in Brazil 14 days prior to arriving in the U.S., that they weren’t going to be allowed [to enter America],” said Okuma. “I didn’t really know what to do, to be honest.”
When it became a real possibility, he even considered traveling to another country, such as Mexico, and entering the U.S. from there. He decided against it after weighing the risks of going through immigration.
Living through a shut-down in Sao Paulo, Okuma said, is full of risks, such as taking public transportation like the subway or bus to go somewhere in the city. To pass the time, he has focused on improving his photography skills, a hobby he discovered near the start of the pandemic. With no gyms open, he has built his own weight set with cement and jogged on a treadmill to keep in shape. He aims to build his physique and gain weight to keep up with the physical PSAC.
If everything goes to plan, Okuma plans on re-enrolling in January, in enough time to join his teammates for the spring season.