By Steve Holt, Copy Editor
While Abilenians curse the 50 degree days and pray for an early spring, Yuliya Stashkiv is out training in and enjoying the heat wave.
The distance runner considers Abilene warm compared to her native Lviv, Ukraine, where daily highs only reach the mid 20s with frequent sub-zero wind chills.
Or maybe Stashkiv just feels warmer because of the way she has been blazing up the track during the month she has been in the states.
Stashkiv, a 19-year-old transfer freshman from the Lviv Medical University, already has broken two school distance records. In her first meet in the western hemisphere, Stashkiv blistered the competition in the mile, winning the Red Raider Open in Lubbock with a personal best time and ACU indoor record of 4:46.58.
Just three weeks later, she broke another school record, this time in the 5,000-meter run. Her time of 16:27.69 is the top Division II time in the country, and it also broke the Ukranian junior record in the event.
How did this young superstar burst onto the Wildcat track and field scene so quietly?
At the end of last summer, ACU assistant coach Sergei Bykov, a native of the Ukraine, searched Internet track and field results from his country and saw that Stashkiv had been running some very fast times. He knows her coach-also her father-personally, and called him with the offer for her to come run for ACU.
“I called him and found out she is hard working,” Bykov said. “She can write and read in English. She happened to be a perfect fit and also a Christian.”
Head coach Jon Murray was easily convinced that Stashkiv was a worth while recruit not because of her times, but because he trusts Bykov.
Just a few months later, a blonde, bright-eyed teenager stepped off a plane in Texas for her first taste of the United States, and not long after that had her first two school records and a Ukrainian national record.
Stashkiv said the biggest advantage of competing in the United States is the opportunity to travel to top track and field meets.
“I want to improve my sports results because in my country, it’s very difficult,” Stashkiv said. “If you show good results in our country, you usually won’t go abroad for competition. Here, if you show good results, you know that you will go to the competition.”
But the move around the globe came at a price, and for Stashkiv that price was homesickness.
“The first week was very difficult for me. I cried a lot,” Stashkiv said. “I miss my parents, my friends. They called me every day-my friends, my parents. I think this is a good place for me.”
Bykov said it is expected for international athletes to feel homesick.
“Everybody who gets in a different environment, especially being a young lady in her early 20s, goes through some kind of culture shock,” Bykov said.
Stashkiv’s apartment mate, Olessya Belyayeva, is a freshman track and field athlete from Kazakhstan who has helped ease the transition.
“We’ve only known each other one month, but I think we are good friends. We spend a lot of time together,” Stashkiv said. “She cooks every day because I can’t. It’s important for communication because we speak one language, Russian. Because during the day we speak only English, and we need some Russian.”
Belyayeva said the two think the same and like the same music: Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, Bon Jovi and Sting, among other American and Russian artists.
Murray said Belyayeva and Ukrainian students have been invaluable to Stashkiv this first month.
“They probably get more credit for making the transition smooth than anybody,” he said.
And Stashkiv’s coaches say her demeanor has played a part in her transition.
“For somebody else it takes two to three months to adjust,” Bykov said. “She can get along with anybody. I never heard her complain; kids with that kind of attitude make our job so much easier.”
But Staskiv’s outstanding track and field performances donning purple and white also have appeared easy so far. She has continued and even bettered some of the success she saw in European track and field competition, after leaving as one of the best young distance runners on the continent.
In 1999, Stashkiv placed 22nd at the European Cross Country Championships, and then placed 13th at the meet two years later. She was ninth in the 1,500 meters at the 2001 IAAF World Youth Championships, and then set her 3,000 meter personal best of 9:16.36 at the 2002 Olympic Champions Prizes in Kiev, Ukraine. In the fall, Stashkiv placed 42nd at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships with a six-kilometer time of 22:11.
Murray is glad to have her running for ACU, and said she has “all the credentials to become the best female distance runner we’ve had.”
“She’s definitely going to be a dominant factor in Division II, an outstanding collegiate distance runner,” Murray said.
And while the freshman is at the top of the nation now and expected to qualify next weekend in her third event, the 3,000 meters, the real test will come March 14-15 at the NCAA Division II Indoor Championships in Boston.
“I will try to go to all nationals and do my best,” Stashkiv said, humbly. “I’ll try to win both of them, but I don’t know. I’ll try.”
If she burns the competition like she has the last two meets, she won’t have to worry about a thing at nationals.