By Jeff Taylor
Yelena Leuchanka of Belarus is enjoying this year's EuroBasket Women more than most of the players, and for good reason.
The 24-year-old center, who had 11 points and six rebounds in her team's 52-46 upset of the defending champions Czech Republic in Thursday's quarter-final round, is just happy to be running up and down the court.
You would be, too, if you had had to overcome serious injuries to both knees in consecutive years.
Leuchanka, who made the bold move to travel to the United States several years ago, despite not speaking English, eventually made it to Morgantown, West Virginia, to earn a university degree and play NCAA Division One basketball with the Mountaineers, only to
end up requiring anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) operations on both knees.
|It's been a wild ride for Belarus who find themselves in the semi-finals against all odds.|
"Look," she says, bending over to pull up the leg of her trousers above her right knee to reveal a five-inch scar.
Leuchanka then does the same thing with her other trouser leg, showing a similar scar on her left knee.
"When something you love is taken away from you, and you don't know if you will ever get it back and start playing again, and be on the basketball court again and playing with your teammates, well this is an amazing experience," she says.
"You appreciate things more than you did before.
"You enjoy it more, take in every second and every little opportunity and try to enjoy it and don't take it for granted.
"I'm just taking it a day at a time, enjoying being with my teammates and my coach."
There will always be stories like this in sport, but the tale of Leuchanka and Belarus has extra significance in Europe as it comes at the end of the Year of Women's Basketball.
The story of Leuchanka and Belarus is a story of perseverance and hard work.
It's a story about dreams, and about believing in yourself, and your team.
No one, with the exception of coach Anatoly Buyalski, would have expected this team to
upset the defending champions and make it to the final four.
|Leuchanka is leading Belarus in scoring at 12.4 points per game.|
Buyalski said in the aftermath of his team's win over the Czechs that a few years ago, he had predicted his team would make it to the Beijing Olympics.
"They laughed at me," he says.
But he believed, and so did his players.
And here they are, a team in the final round of the EuroBasket Women for the first time that is in the hunt for a medal.
What a journey it's been!
Their presence in the final round in Italy was assured after Belarus finished second in a qualifying round group in 2006 behind Greece and Hungary.
All three teams had 4-2 records, but after Belarus beat Greece 63-60 in their last game, Greece and Belarus advanced ahead of Hungary on a goal differential tie-breaker.
"I think every professional player dreams of something like this," Marchanka says.
"We have come a long way to be here, starting in Division B and to get to the finals, it's a big step for us.
"For young players, also, it's a good experience. But we definitely deserve it."
For Leuchanka, who could have very easily stopped playing basketball and chosen a different career, and for all the Belarus players, there is a lesson.
Never give up.
"It's all right here," Marchanka says, pointing to her head.
"I wasn't able to do it by myself," Leuchanka says.
"My family was there for me. I thank God that I can be here with my team and play the game I love. I sacrificed so much, so I really deserve to be here."