“I can’t imagine myself without a sport”: German exchange student Neele von Dehn-Rotfelser takes on EHS athletics


Neele von Dehn-Rotfelser

German exchange student Neele von Dehn-Rotfelser poses after a Nordic skiing race

When asked to describe Neele von Dehn-Rotfelser in one word, her teammates and coaches all say the same thing: positive. Von Dehn-Rotfelser, a junior German exchange student, participates in three different sports at Edina High School: Girls’ Swim & Dive in the fall, Nordic in the winter, and now Track & Field in the spring.

Von Dehn-Rotfelser previously had swimming experience through life-saving lessons in Germany. “There is an organization there which is called ‘Wasserwacht’ which basically means Water Watch. In our town, we have a really, really small lake where people go to swim, so we have lots of groups like that in our neighborhood,” she said.

But von Dehn-Rotfelser had little experience in the competitive side of sports. “In Germany, you don’t really have high school sports. It’s more out-of-school clubs,” she said. She enjoys the sense of community and school spirit that comes with high school sports in America.

During the Junior Varsity swim season, junior Danielle Schmitt swam in the same lane as von Dehn-Rotfelser. “I remember she showed up on the first day of practice wearing scuba goggles because she didn’t know you had to have competitive goggles,” Schmitt said. “But she really put the effort in to learn how to swim competitively and train hard…By the end of the season she was swimming pretty fast for someone in their first year.” 

Neele’s consistent hard work ethic caught the eye of her swim coach, Greg Pokorski. “Neele went from being a fine swimmer but not super competitive with the fastest girls in that pool, to being the second fastest breaststroker in that pool in a single season,” said Pokorski. 

Her positive attitude also impressed her team. “She was happy to learn and happy to engage with all the other swimmers and was constantly positive. But she also was really, really willing to participate in whatever was going on. So if you’re doing a particular drill, she was intent on making sure that that drill was going to be the best thing that she did,” Pokorski said.

After the swimming season was over, von Dehn-Rotfelser decided to take up a brand new sport: Nordic skiing. “I had never done Nordic before, but [the Nordic team] was really open-minded. They didn’t really care [about experience], they just wanted people to have fun. Training for swimming was really hard but for Nordic, there were lots of other beginners like me who had never done it before,” she said. 

“Neele jumped right in and became part of the team from the start. She asked questions, tried everything, and never gave up,” von Dehn-Rotfelser’s Nordic coach Christine Thone said. “She never doubted herself and often shared stories from Germany and her family with us. She was always learning about American culture in an open, positive way. She went out of her way to make friends and learn about the team and her teammates.”

Nordic coach Mark Thone agrees. “I’m always impressed with someone who leaves their comfort zone and as Neele was already away from her homeland of Germany, speaking English, and trying a new sport, I think she did great with every aspect on the Nordic team,” he said. 

It was the little things that stood out to her coaches. “At the end of every practice, Neele would go down the deck and pick up all the water bottles or goggles or things the others left behind and bring them to the coaches so that we could put them into the lost and found area. She was keeping track of her teammates’ stuff for them,” Pokorski said. During her Nordic season, von Dehn-Rotfelser continued to go above and beyond. “She jumped right in and emerged as a helper right away, often staying late to help clean up,” Christine said. 

Two of von Dehn-Rotfelser’s Nordic teammates, Andrew Gump and Catherine Sit, both appreciated her presence. “I’ve had exchange students in the past, so it’s really cool having an exchange student to be on the team,” Gump said. “For Nordic, at least, she was probably one of the first foreign exchange students to join us,” Sit added. 

But her season wasn’t without its challenges. Mark and Sit both recalled a stressful day at the JV Championships. “Neele was out skiing with a few of the skiers warming up before the race. Their start time was getting closer and I was getting a bit worried that she would miss her start,” Mark said. 

Sit was skiing with von Dehn-Rotfelser at the time. “We got really, really lost,” she said. “Both of us are terrible at directions and we can’t read maps. So we skied around for 40 minutes before we got back to the race start, which was right before her race started…And she went and raced the 5K—she raced the whole thing—and she did amazing. [Being lost] was stressful, but because I was with her, I was able to stay calm and not panic.” 

Joining the Nordic team helped von Dehn-Rotfelser in other aspects of her life. “The one thing I learned from Nordic is that if you really set your mind to do something, you can do it if you just don’t give up. Don’t let you stop yourself when there are hurdles that are set in your way,” she said. “[The coaches] were always saying that you have to overcome [the anxieties of competing] and learn how to ignore it. It doesn’t really matter if you’re in a sports competition, having to sing on the stage in a musical, if you have to write a huge paper, or give an interview. There are always things that make you nervous and they helped with that.” 

Von Dehn-Rotfelser recently began competing in Track & Field, another new sport for her. Her goal for the upcoming season is the same as always: “I can just hope to have fun…To meet more people and do more meets.” 

Traveling to a foreign country and taking on three competitive sports may sound daunting, but to von Dehn-Rotfelser it made perfect sense. “I couldn’t imagine myself without a sport,” she said. “If you just come home after school and go straight to ‘I need to do my homework. I need to sit down,’—you sat down the whole day at school! I can sit down and concentrate during the school day, but that’s why I like sports because they kind of keep your mind off things…For the time you do the sport you can just forget loads of other things that you need to think about and kind of relax your mind.” 

Looking ahead, von Dehn-Rotfelser is set to go back to Germany in just a few months. But the impact of her high school sports experience is sure to last. “When I go back to Germany, I’m going to remember all the people I’ve met,” she said. “I’m going to certainly continue Nordic if I can. And all the life lessons I have learned. Can you ever learn enough? I don’t think so.”

Her coaches will remember von Dehn-Rotfelser’s experience, too. “Neele often said how fun Nordic was and how glad she was that she decided to come out for the team,” Christine said. “I think we are the lucky ones to have had her join the team!”