On the Run for School and Country

March 30, 2009

By Paul O'Shea, Cross Country Journal

In 1996 an eight-year-old Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine girl turned on her television set, began watching the Atlanta Olympic Games and was intrigued by the runners, jumpers and throwers. Three years later, decathletes running the competition-ending 1500 meters at the World Championships in Spain captured her attention. "This impressed me so much," remembers Anna Nosenko. "Though they are all tired after doing nine events and usually don't run fast, the image of huge muscular guys impressed me so much I decided to try running."

For more than thirty years foreign athletes have traveled to the United States to compete, study and contribute to the collegiate, and sometimes high school environment. These individuals brought more than fast times to the starting line, however. Their talent helped produce a better prepared, more competitive U.S. athlete, their presence introduced our runners to a cultural diversity otherwise unavailable and unknown.

Wake Forest University today enjoys the best of those worlds: two Ukrainian distance runners with strong athletic credentials, beginning to make their mark on the U.S. collegiate scene, bringing the richness of their lives to American teammates. In fact, the Demon Deacons are twice blessed because Anna and Dina Nosenko are twins, now freshmen at the North Carolina school.

How did the twenty-year-old Ukrainians (Dina is younger by about six hours) land in Winston-Salem, five thousand miles from home? How accomplished are they as athletes and students, and what are their impressions of sport here after their first season? What are their hopes for the future?

After graduation from her high school, Lyceum of Informational Technologies in 2007, Anna Nosenko was selected by the U.S. Department of State to attend the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Initiative, a youth-oriented program focusing on U.S.-European relations. With ninety students from around the world, the summer institute was held at Wake Forest. There Anna crossed paths with an assistant football coach who had relatives in Ukraine. That contact ultimately led to head women's Track and Cross Country coach, Annie Bennett, who quickly recognized Anna's potential from her Ukrainian national junior titles at 1500 and 3000 meters, PRs of 4:25 and 9:30 at those distances and a 16:28 best for 5,000 meters.

"I immediately fell in love with the university. I must admit that I did not even think that it was possible for me to come all the way from Ukraine to such a nice school with a really good coach," Anna says. When Anna matriculated to Wake Forest, Dina came to visit and her PRs of 2:11 for the 800 and 4:27 for the metric mile were equally attractive. Both sisters were also medalists at Ukrainian junior (under age 19) competitions. In addition, Anna's national junior Cross Country team placed third in the European championships. "I met Annie Bennett when I came to visit Anna almost a year ago. I admired the way she was working with the girls, and I could not think now of any other coach except her." Dina says.

The sisters joined a Wake Forest women's Cross Country team ranked as one of the top teams in the East early in the 2008 season. But injuries to top runners hurt and, at the NCAA Southeast regional on their home course, the Deacons finished 11th with the Nosenkos leading Wake in 21st (Anna) and 38th (Dina) place.

One of the year's important meets was the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Eugene, Oregon where Hicham El Guerrouj was the honorary starter. The 2004 Olympic champion and world record holder talked with some of the athletes, but Dina said "we were told he doesn't speak English, only French. I take French at Wake and was hoping that I could talk to him a little bit. But when I saw him up close, I forgot even my French, and my English, too."

What did the twins learn about competitive running in the United States that they hadn't expected? "For me what is most surprising is the attitude toward Track as a whole and Cross Country in particular." Anna says. "In Ukraine no one cares about Track and Field. The only sport people care about is soccer. We have pretty fast runners in Ukraine, but people seem to be oblivious to them. Also, there is little attention given to student sport. Our businessmen would rather build a social club where youth will waste their lives, instead of building a nice Track. Here in the U.S. even small sports like lacrosse get attention.

"As for Cross Country, it is really big here in the States. In Ukraine, it's about twenty girls in a race, and we know everybody pretty well, but here, around 150 to 200 girls, a real war zone!"

In Ukraine, coaches don't pay much attention to Cross Country training and racing, Dina acknowledges. "My Track events are the 800 and 1500 and during Cross Country I was still practicing those events. I never did something special for Cross Country. So when I was running 6K I felt not very confident and usually was feeling miserable after those races. At Wake I learned not only to tolerate long distances but also gained confidence in myself. I did a lot of different workouts here and before the race, I always think, `If I did that, why should I worry about the race?'"

Anna confirms her sister's view. "Cross Country here is such a big event with a lot of commitment from conferences, athletes, coaches with necessary support."

In terms of running, what are the similarities between the two countries? Anna points out that, "Being a runner is a very international thing. We all make the same mistakes, struggle with the same problems and dream about the Olympic Games and even have the same jokes."

The Nosenkos come from a distinguished professional, academic and athletic family. "My grandmother on my father's side is a Fulbright scholar and chairman of the psychology department at the national university. My grandfather is a professor at Dnipropetrovsk National Academy of Architecture. My father swam for the USSR Olympic team and was in training for the 1980 Olympics. He is now a Ph.D in engineering and math and my mother is an English major. Now, our parents manage a glass factory back in Ukraine."

Like many other emerging national class runners, the Nosenkos hope to wear Ukrainian colors in the Olympics, perhaps as early as 2012 in London. Whatever the future holds for them, today they are representing their school and their country with distinction. Coach Bennett says: "The twins brought a greater respect for the opportunities that our students and athletes have. They brought diversity in how we look at the world and local politics."

A former high school Cross Country coach, Mr. O'Shea writes about the sport from his home in northern Virginia.

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