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Penn women's basketball freshman Stina Almqvist blocks her teammate on the opposing team during the Red and Blue scrimmage on Nov. 6.

Credit: Edwin Mejia

Most teenagers don’t have gold medals. Most haven’t played professionally in a sport for most of the year. Most didn’t represent their country in an international tournament.

But Stina Almqvist isn’t like most teenagers.

Almqvist, one of six incoming freshmen for Penn women’s basketball, has a list of accolades and international experience that most high school players only dream of. Born and raised as a citizen of Sweden, Almqvist spent her whole career playing in her home nation for both youth club and professional teams.

As part of her youth club team, she secured two gold medals and one bronze medal in the Swedish Championship. She also secured two gold medals and one bronze at the Nordic Championship. Almqvist even secured a gold medal competing as part of the Sweden under-16 national team in the European Championship Division B.

During her bronze model game in the Swedish championship, Almqvist scored a total of 50 points.

But her stat sheet isn’t what she remembers about the game; the missed opportunity to finish business is what she remembers most. To her, the game was a solemn reminder that her team lost out on a chance to three-peat as gold medalists in the Swedish championship. She’s a competitor through and through, focused on her team’s success and achieving excellence.

Almqvist's competitive nature carried over when she played professionally for two years. Her professional team was based in her small hometown, which made her professional career even more memorable and important to her.

“To play for them was very special to me,” Almqvist said. “It’s still special. My family is still very invested [in] the team.”

Her family’s dedication to the team is no surprise. She grew up in a family where basketball played an influential role, as her father has been a basketball coach for 40 years and even coached his daughter until she was 14. Additionally, her sister Jonna also plays basketball in a Swedish professional league. Her family’s love for basketball made her own love and passion for the game grow.

“Having a basketball family was always motivating," Almqvist said. “They always kept me being better all the time.”

Growing up with a professional team very close by also influenced her basketball career as she grew up. Instead of looking up to NBA or WNBA players as inspirations, she cited her local players as the ones she “always looked up to.” One such player was Ashley Key, who played in Sweden after a collegiate career at North Carolina State.

But with a new year dawning, Almqvist left behind Sweden to come play for the Red and Blue – thousands of miles away from her home and family.

“It’s been hard and a challenge,” she said. “But I feel like it is getting easier every day, and I’m learning so much all the time.”

The change of time zone and measurement system is not the only thing she’s had to adjust to. While the rules of basketball may be the same internationally, Almqvist has found that the culture surrounding basketball is different in the United States compared to Europe.

“Here, in the States, they focus more on the team,” Almqvist said. “Whether or not you’re the top player that plays 40 minutes or the bench player – you’re both equally valued. You matter as much even though you’re a bench player, and the coaches see that.”

She says it’s a change of pace from the way teams operated in Sweden. She described how in Sweden, it was more so the opposite. Back in Sweden, there was a heavy emphasis on winning games at all costs and players trying to score as much as possible to boost their stats.

But the focus on team chemistry and camaraderie has been one of the many benefits of playing at Penn thus far.

“My teammates now are like my best friends,” Almqvist said. “Here, we’re having team dinners – we’re really close. I know everybody on a personal level, [which] really helps as well. We see each other in classes, we eat dinners together.”

It’s been a change from having most of her teammates be strictly teammates to now having a community of friends she can rely on.

And to think, the COVID-19 pandemic could’ve prevented all that from happening.

With the pandemic going on, Almqvist had to work swiftly to get her visa, so that she could play in America as scheduled. With the American embassy in Sweden closed, she had to make a rushed appointment for the nearest open American embassy. 

The only problem? It was in Poland.

In August, she traveled with two of her other classmates from Sweden to Poland for a long trip, which included a flight and several hours of driving on top of it. She made it to Poland just in time for her interview at the embassy. After several hours and a two-minute interview process, she got her visa.

The timing was perfect. A week later, the embassy in Poland shut down. In the end, only around 30 percent of Swedes trying to study in America received a visa.

Going through those hurdles to be cleared to play in America has made Almqvist more aware of her situation. She wouldn't be taking this opportunity for granted. Almqvist knows that she’s in a lucky position, and that many others would dream to be where she’s currently at. She also has a strong love and passion for the game, and family back home supporting her.

She also has a dear friend motivating her every day to be better.

In April 2017, when she was just in the eighth grade, Almqvist went with her several of her classmates for a skiing trip in the spring. However, the bus tipped over, leading to serious injuries and the deaths of three of her classmates – whom had been a childhood teammate and a close friend.

“Ever since they passed away, I’ve been trying to work as hard as I can,” Almqvist said. “They, especially him, did not have the chance to play anymore. And I feel like he would do anything to just get back on the court.” 

The memory of her friend keeps her going. He inspires her to be a better basketball player than she was yesterday and to continuously work hard.

Almqvist wanted to honor his memory by wearing his number eight jersey, but unfortunately, NCAA rules prohibit any basketball jersey numbers to have the digits of six, seven, eight, and nine. 

Regardless, Almqvist still remembers her friend each and every game.

“I’m just trying to play for him whenever I go out there,” she said.

Now, she tries to “enjoy every moment, because you never know [how] fast life can be over.”

Almqvist has done a lot in her life, from international tournaments to gold medal games. But even then, she does not take anything for granted and makes the most of every day.