Feb. 14, 2012
by Sam Hickman
Every first-year college student faces several challenges when dealing with the acclimation process - new classes, new teachers, new friends and new schedules. Athletes deal with even more difficulties trying to balance their unfamiliar environments with rigorous practice routines, study halls and daily workouts.
For a pair of Lady Pirate tennis players, those burdens were even more demanding.
Renata Bakieva and Dana Gray are first-year members of the East Carolina program, and while their teammates traveled within one time zone to extend their competitive careers, their respective journeys began overseas.
Bakieva, who hails from St. Petersburg, Russia, enrolled last month, and Gray, a native of New Zealand, began school in August. Both individuals had unique journeys and their paths were similar in many respects. Fortunately for Head Coach Tom Morris and the tennis program, their treks landed them in Greenville.
"Recruiting internationally is something that has been made much easier because of the Internet," expressed Morris, who is in his 14th year of leadership at ECU. "A lot of times, athletic scholarships aren't offered at international schools, so the players who may not have the chance to play professionally explore other options. It's almost like they recruit us rather than the other way around."
Such is the case with these two particular international netters.
Gray said that when she realized her chances of competing at a professional level were slim, she made videos of herself on the court and uploaded them to YouTube. After the videos were distributed via e-mail to several American universities, she was contacted by various institutions, which were interested in signing her to a scholarship. Gray noted that Morris was persistent in his recruiting efforts, a primary factor as she later inked a letter-of-intent to play at ECU.
"After I sent out my information, Coach (Morris) contacted me and it just went from there," she recollected. "Luckily, it was one thing after another and here we are. It worked out nicely, better than I ever could have expected."
Morris indicated that online databases and other accessible resources aided his recruitment of Gray.
"I could find out how she competed against the top juniors in New Zealand," he said. "There are a half-dozen to a dozen players from New Zealand that are playing at American colleges, so I could see how she fared against relative competition. I found her rankings and knew that she could play here."
Bakieva, who began her time in the Purple and Gold at the beginning of the spring semester, had a friend who played for a college coach in the United States. Morris was contacted about the young Russian, eventually leading to her commitment to play with the Lady Pirates. Like Gray, Bakieva was proactive in the search to extend her tennis career. After deciding on East Carolina, she departed her homeland to further her playing days in Greenville.
While both players expressed several difficulties during the adjustment process, they shared that the assistance of their teammates and coaches were instrumental in helping them become more comfortable, as not only newcomers to the team, but to the U.S. as well.
As is the case for anyone who deals with an unfamiliar environment and subsequent homesickness, social media outlets have played a vital role in alleviating some of the pressures. Bakieva and Gray utilize Skype, an online "chat" tool made available via video. Gray mentioned that the 18-hour time difference between Greenville and New Zealand sometimes makes it difficult, but it does not deter her from maintaining constant communication with her friends and family.
"Financially, it makes much more sense," Gray laughed. "International calling gets expensive. Thank goodness for Skype."
Her Russian teammate echoed those sentiments.
"My dad was my coach when I played in Russia, so if I am struggling with an area in my game or just get frustrated with the way things are going, I can go to him for a talk," Bakieva stated. "Any time that I feel myself losing confidence, I go to him for support. `Skyping' my mom and dad is great."
The international duo said the support of new friends - most notably teammates - have guided them to comfort, both on and off the court. Bakieva and Gray have not only become key members of the Lady Pirate lineup - both compete in the top-six - but have also gained immense popularity among their teammates.
Team members have been instrumental as they introduced the pair to different foods, music and social aspects of life in the states. Incidentally, Gray laughed when speaking of her familiarization with country music upon her arrival last August.
Gray conveyed the challenges of adapting to vast cultural differences took its toll on her, but her teammates served as a steady source of encouragement. The daunting task of making good grades in unfamiliar surroundings was handled flawlessly by Gray as she tallied a 4.0 grade point average during her initial semester at ECU, landing her a spot on the prestigious Chancellor's List.
"This semester in comparison to last was difficult. I'm not used to college tennis so it's been new to me," she said. "I live in Scott Hall, which is has suites and is where many athletes live. There are seven of us. (Teammate) Karling (Watson) is there along with three golfers and a soccer player, so I'm comfortable. It has been nice. Without them, I can't imagine how hard it would be."
Bakieva appreciated the camaraderie and familial atmosphere that East Carolina provided as well.
"My teammates have helped me get comfortable. Everybody on the team helps me when they can. I asked them all the time about studying or where they are hanging out. It's a different mentality and they have helped me a lot get more comfortable."
Morris, who has coached several international players during his illustrious tennis career, shared his experiences with the individuals and how they have fit into the team dynamic. The chemistry between the fresh faces and the other squad members is unmistakable.
"In Dana's case, she is very kind-hearted, a nice young lady who is a very good student," Morris said. "She came in August so everyone has had a chance to get to know her. You can tell that her teammates are drawn to her, it's hard not to. For Renata, she's a very nice young lady as well. She's also very funny. She's team-oriented and that's always nice to have on your team. Both are top-six players so they've been expected to contribute immediately and will continue to impact this program throughout their careers."
Morris and his Lady Pirates (2-4) will face Elon in their home opener Wednesday beginning at 3 p.m.