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Common bond in different world
N.C. Central tennis standout breaks language, cultural barriers
Published Thursday, March 10, 2011 7:00 am
by Mike Potter, Special to The Post

DURHAM – Oleysa Palko said the toughest part of coming to the United States was negotiating the change of airports in New York City as a 16-year-old when she touched down for the first time in North America.

N.C. Central sophomore Oleysa Palko immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine as a 16-year-old. She’s the Eagles’ No. 1 tennis player.

“I had to change airports between JFK and LaGuardia,” said Palko, N.C. Central’s sophomore No. 1 women’s tennis player from Kyiv in the Ukraine, who had previously been no farther from home than Russia. “I had one hour, and I said I needed a taxi. A guy came to me and didn’t even have a taxi car. I took a ride with him, but I was scared because it didn’t look like a taxi.”

Maybe it was one of the Big Apple’s infamous gypsy cabs. But she got to Durham safely, and that has been good for her, Eagle coach David Nass and the entire NCCU tennis program.

Despite having to do all her course work in what is to her a foreign language – she grew up speaking both Ukrainian and Russian but has been studying English since she was small – she is carrying the 4.0 grade point average most college students only dream about.

She even got an “A” in her freshman English writing course.

“I had to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and had to push my English to pass the test,” Palko said. “Mostly we concentrated on grammar and writing. I couldn’t speak very well.”

But with her Slavic accent she now speaks more than well enough to be understood, and seems to have no trouble at all understanding what is said to her.

“Before coming here I thought I would kill myself with studying because it would be so different,” Palko said. “But chemistry and math were very easy for me.

“It has been difficult to understand things about the (American) culture sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes somebody was using slang that I had never heard. I could understand Coach (Nass) and other international students, but I couldn’t understand American students. Now I understand mostly everyone.”

In its transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, NCCU is in its final warm-up season before being eligible for the MEAC championship and NCAA post-season play in 2011-12.

Nass, the former coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point who began the NCCU women’s program 13 years ago with no grants-in-aid to give, told the higher-ups in the athletic department that to be successful in Division I the Eagles would have to expand their recruiting base.

And boy, have they. NCCU’s women’s team is among the most diverse sports teams in all of the NCAA. The seven-member squad has two Colombians, two Swedes and Palko along with two in-state African Americans.

“Part of what motivates me to recruit the international athletes is that it’s a wonderful opportunity to reach out beyond the borders of our city, our state and our country and provide some person an opportunity that you and I have every day,” Nass said. “They’re so appreciative. And their family members and teachers and coaches (back home) all know they’re here as an Eagle.

“Their high schools appear to be accelerated, and they come right in and play.

When I meet them at the airport I realize I’ve got multiple roles. For a 16-year-old girl, I’m the dad. Part of the recruitment part is to talk to the parents, as many times as possible, often times having to use translators.”

And there are folks who serve as conduits for foreign athletes looking to play college ball in the U.S., taking fees from parents to get their kids the proper exposure. Some of them are pretty unscrupulous.

“We require a video, and then I do an interview with their coach if I can, almost always through a translator,” Nass said. “I always build into my interview a couple of questions that, the way the coach answers it, will tell me whether or not the person in the video is the person we’re both talking about.”

Anton Rudjuk directed Palko to Nass.

“I was a little nervous about working with him - I made it clear point-blank to him that I would happily work with him, but that if he messed me up once I wouldn’t work with him again,” said Nass, who added that he hasn’t been punked yet but knows of some coaches who have. “He now has a reputation of sending quality Russian and Belarussian and Ukrainian tennis players to the U.S.”

Nass said he was a little skeptical after seeing Palko’s video, but his gut told him to take a gamble.
“The least effective part of her game is her serve,” he said. “I looked at her serve and said ‘I don’t know if she’s ‘D-one’,’ but I learned long ago that in women’s tennis you win very few points off the serve. So if you have a player who can place the serve just to get started I said ‘What can she do after that?’ So I took a gamble. I said ‘I’ll live with her serve.’ It’s not very strong. But once the ball is in play, her little feet are all over the court. She gets there to hit her forehands and backhands.
“Her concentration and her preparation are excellent. Her training in Ukraine was more intense than what we’re able to provide here.”

Palko is 3-3 as the Lady Eagles’ No. 1 singles player this season, 2-4 in the No. 1 doubles spot with junior Cameron Chatman from Southwest Guilford. Chatman is 5-1 at No. 2 singles, while NCCU is 1-5 heading into the MEAC Round-Up beginning Saturday in Sumter, S.C. Palko went 14-9 as the No. 1 last season, and 14-10 with then-senior and fellow Ukrainian doubles partner Kateryna Chorna. Chatman said it has been an added part of her education to be on a team with players from three other countries.

“We all have tennis in common,” Chatman said. “We’ve got enough to say ‘I’ve got it’ or ‘You’ve got it.’ The team is so friendly and we’re all pretty much alike.

We all want to make good grades. Sometimes they will say something that isn’t really correct in English, but we correct them. It’s really nice having girls from a lot of different countries on our team.”

And Chatman said the doubles team’s chemistry is excellent.

“Oleysa’s backhand is better than my backhand, so she takes the backhand and I take the forehand side,” Chatman said. “We both try to keep playing out the point, and if we can get ahead we both try to charge the net. If we can’t we both try to play defense and stay at the baseline. If a ball goes to my backhand she’ll try to get it because her forehand is good.

“I think we would definitely have a chance to win the MEAC doubles this year.

Oleysa and I are a really good team. I think we have what it takes. We practice doubles strategies in practice all the time, and we’ve gotten so close to winning – we lost to East Carolina (at No. 1 doubles) only 8-6 and they’re a really good team.”

Unlike a lot of student-athletes, Palko isn’t dreaming about a career playing her sport.

“Now I’m more into science,” she said. “I like studying more.”

The daughter of a dermatologist, Georgii Palko, and an engineer, Eva Tsikor – Palko’s older brother Oleksyi is a dentist – she plans on eventually earning a Ph.D. and possibly an M.D. to work in pathology. She would like to study cancer.

“There are a lot of brainiacs in tennis,” said Nass, whose team has the highest overall GPA of any NCCU athletic team.
Palko was recently awarded an internship at Duke to study genome science.

“There were 70 applications and they chose 16 people,” Palko said. “I expected that I should be there. It’s research - I’m going to find out what I want to do the rest of my life. I will study genetics to learn how to solve medical problems.”


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