Maria Zrodowska stands alone atop the William Woods all-time wins leaderboard in women's golf, but she said she couldn't have done this without help from others.
The Poland native added four more wins to her total of 15 and her second national championship appearance this year to earn her selection to the NAIA All-America third team. She was named to the second team her freshman year.
Coming in as a freshman, Zrodowka didn't have much expectations for herself and was afraid it was going to be an overly competitive atmosphere, judging by some of the other talented women on the team. Over time, she realized she had a valuable support network with her coaches and teammates. Her teammates supported her all the way to nationals, where they walked with her on the course.
She said she "played the best golf that I have ever played" her freshman year and adjusted nicely to the small, welcoming community at William Woods and Fulton.
"I love this small community that I am in right now," Zrodowska said.
Zrodowska said she had a good support network in Poland too with her coaches and parents that encouraged her to play golf since she was 12 years old, helping her discover her "hidden talent." When embarking for college in the United States, she said learned quick having this kind of support is important, as evidenced by her first hours spent in the U.S.
She was scared before arriving in the America, she said, because she was on her longest flight alone, clocking in at 23 hours, when she was only 19. After she touched down, Zrodowska found out she would have to take a bus instead of having somebody pick her up. Without anybody there with her at that moment, she said she wasn't sure what to do and called her father.
Crying over the phone, she said, "I want to go home. I don't know what to do."
Her father was able to calm her down and told her to call her coach, William Woods head golf coach Barry Doty. She said she did that and then proceeded to miss the first bus because the check-in lines at the airport were so long. It was already 2-3 a.m., Zrodowska said, and she had to wait an additional hour and a half for another bus.
The bus did come and was then told to get off at a McDonald's in Kingdom City for someone to pick her up. Zrodowska said she didn't speak the best English at the time and wasn't familiar with the area, not knowing where Kingdom City, let alone a McDonald's in Kingdom City, could be found. Fortunately, she said, the bus driver let her know when it was the right time to get off and then she saw a white van, thinking when she saw it, "that just creeps me out." Zrodowska said it was a member of the William Woods coaching staff so she was finally able to arrive at the campus around 4 a.m.
Exhausted, after enduring a "terrible" first experience in the U.S., she said she met an important member of her current support network, who is now her best friend. Her roommate at the time, she gave Zrodowska bedsheets and made her feel welcome.
Friendly behavior from strangers was weird to Zrodowka at first, as she said that wasn't too common in Europe. She said she didn't see nearly as many smiles and people who ask "how are you doing?"
"In Poland, sometimes, when you enter into McDonald's, people look at you like, 'Why are you even here?'" she said.
In the U.S., Zrodowska feels she found a "second family" with her best friend's family, and she learned she didn't have to speak as perfectly as was the case in Europe so she said this helped her regain her confidence.
Now when she says something weird, she said, she doesn't feel as embarrassed and that people will laugh at her. Zrodowska remembers suggesting to her friends that they should go for a walk, and she said they thought that was so weird because people usually drive places. This was all too apparent to her during her freshman year when creating a bank account, she said, when she saw there was a drive-thru at the bank.
"I was really surprised that you even have a drive-thru to the pharmacy, to the bank and everywhere you go," Zrodowska said. "Like you really don't have to get out of your car to do anything."
Having people to hang out with is beneficial when Zrodowska wants a break from golf, she said. While she does loves the sport, Zrodowska grew accustomed to a lighter practice schedule when she was growing up in Poland. The nearest golf course to her house was about two hours away, she said, so that meant she could practice on a course only 2-3 days a week.
Since she started at William Woods, she has practice every day, which has led to her feeling tired more often, Zrodowska said. She said she just needs stretches of time when she doesn't think about golf and doesn't touch a golf club.
"I just needed time to go and do something with my friends and then go play golf," she said. "I just need to have that feeling that I want to play golf. I wanted to because I want to go."
Now that she found so much success, she acknowledges she will need more practice and even spend more time in the gym, hopefully with some friends to help her stay motivated.
This past April, Zrodowska was given the Helen Stephens Award, which is named after a William Woods alumnae who became an Olympic champion. According to the William Woods athletics website, it is the department's "highest honor" that is awarded annually to a junior that has "achieved excellence both in the classroom and in the area of intercollegiate athletics." After setting school records, winning several conference awards and appearing at nationals, Zrodowska said winning the Helen Stephens Award was one of her greatest accomplishments and proves her hard work is being noticed.
"I was like, 'Someone saw me and out of all these athletes, I was the one,"' she said.
To achieve more in her senior season next year, Zrodowska said she would like to drive the ball about 10 yards farther. She will be looking to make her third nationals appearance next year after tying for 29th in her appearance this year and tying for fifth in her first one two years ago.
She will not be alone as the people who have supported along the way will be there once again as she looks to finish her college career on a high note. Without her family, friends and coaches from Poland and William Woods supporting her at her "worst times," Zrodowska said, she "wouldn't be who I am right now."
"It's the last time to shine," she said. "I want to prove that even a girl from Europe or wherever can actually achieve something not only in Europe."