Malta international MIKELA RIOLO, who became one of Spanish side CD Magec Tias’ new signings over the summer, has finally made her professional debut abroad last week. Nearly two months into her experience with the Lanzarote club, Kurt Aquilina got in touch with Riolo to discuss her move…
Mikela Riolo, the former Starlites BC guard, 19, signed for the Liga Femenina 2 club back in June but with the COVID-19 crisis in full force, she opted to fly out to join the team in September instead.
“We had been thinking about the decision (to join Magec Tias) for a long time. I was looking at different options. Obviously when COVID-19 happened, it wasn’t an easy decision at all, thinking about the airports in terms of will I be able to go, or not?” Riolo explained.
“Thankfully, I managed to arrive here. The situation in Spain isn’t the best right now. However, being an island, in Lanzarote COVID-19 is controlled.
“We’re taking all the necessary precautions even when it comes to training and games – we all took a COVID-19 test a few days ago and it’s always with hand sanitiser before you go in (the training facility) and they check your temperature so at least, everything is going in the right direction and we’re doing all we can to keep it controlled.”
Despite being with the team for just less than two months, Riolo said it feels like a family and that she felt welcomed from the start, ahead of what she calls a long season with a lot to learn.
Riolo missed out on the team’s first game through injury and had to sit out the second game also. However, she did put up minutes on the board in a 51-75 loss to GDKO Ibaizanal.
“I’m really happy (at the club) right now, it’s going really well,” she said.
“Unfortunately, I had a bit of an accident and ended up getting seven stitches so I couldn’t be part of the team for the opener, but I went to support obviously. I am really enjoying training and it is a very nice environment.
“The set-up is so different. Unfortunately, in Malta we can only play against a few people, so you see the same faces repeatedly – that’s the main difference.
“When you play abroad, you are always seeing new people, scouting, and watching videos. You play against many new and strong teams so that is one of the big advantages of playing abroad.
“Obviously, I hope to be an asset to the team whenever I’m on court and try to be confident playing with my team-mates. It’s going to be a great season.”
Communication is a key area Riolo is working on in Spain.
“The language barrier is something which I’ve been working on. I am attending Spanish lessons three times a week which is obviously helping me. I’m learning grammar mostly, but you get all the practice while talking to your team-mates,” she remarked.
“I’m pleased to be living with two team-mates who are really experienced. They’re telling me I’m picking up Spanish really fast so that’s a plus.”
The Malta international joined former team-mate Iranzu Drake, who played for Starlites before moving back to Lanzarote last season. Riolo admits it feels much more comfortable having her around.
“As soon as I arrived, (Drake) made me feel welcome. I can talk to her and ask her questions. We also go out together surfing. Lanzarote is similar to Malta so when we don’t have training, we can enjoy ourselves a bit as well,” she said.
Because Riolo had been reading for a Bachelor of Science in sport and physical activity prior to her move, this meant she had to suspend her studies in order to take up this opportunity.
While she admits it was a tough decision to take due to the fact that had set a target for herself, intending to follow a career in teaching physical education, she said the support she found from the institute at the University of Malta was beneficial.
“My parents are a big influence in my life. They are also very sportive and thanks to them, my brother and I have become athletes,” she said.
“I’m so grateful for the support they’ve showed me throughout the process (of going abroad) and for telling me to follow my dreams.
“I have always wanted to play abroad so they were there to support me from the beginning.
“They were happy that I’m happy and that I took this opportunity. This is something most parents I think hold back upon, especially when it comes to the academics of their children.
“The Maltese mentality is to focus more on academics and maybe sport after. There is the idea that sport won’t get you anywhere and that is hard to become professional in Malta.
“But I’m glad (my parents) decided to support me with suspending my studies which wasn’t an easy decision because I was enjoying the course, but so far it’s been a very good decision so I’m not regretting it.”
While this season is her main priority, Riolo said it is inevitable to think about what can happen after. However, she will keep her options open with regards to playing at Magec Tias again, join another club or return to Malta and continue her studies.
Riolo also mentioned that another alternative would be a dual career like other players such as former Starlites team-mate Kristy Galea or Sophie Abela, who have both taken the student-athlete route in the US.
Until then, she plans on soaking up all there is to offer in Spain, saying that the club offers a very professional setup, in contrast to the general scenario players are used to in Malta.
“It’s a very professional setup which is something you can really contrast to Malta although I was lucky to be part of Starlites BC,” she said.
“I was literally born into Starlites as my parents form part of the club as well. It’s a very good club. We had two Spanish coaches as well so when I started here, I had a good background.
“Here, it’s much tougher, more physical, and it’s a very fast game as well, so I need to adapt to the different game.
“Obviously, the level of the individual players in Malta isn’t bad but when you play abroad there are so many different things – the training, dedication to basketball. It’s a higher level but Malta’s improving and as players we’re working to be the best we can be, and I think we’ll hopefully manage to reach that level someday.”