When Sviatlana Volnaya hears the word pioneer, she kind of smiles and thinks a moment before saying: “The feeling that you did something first, tried and succeeded, yeah it's a good feeling.”
Ten years ago, a then 18-year-old Volnaya ventured from Belarus off to the United States to play college basketball. She was the first woman from her country to make the move, and it was a journey which would lead her to the Sweet 16 of the Women's NCAA tournament – and eventually to EuroLeague Women side Dynamo Moscow.
|Marchanka also gained experience at a U.S. College.|
“It's good because you see other girls getting a chance. So I guess me and the others made a good impression on the colleges that they wanted to look for others and think about Belarus basketball,” said Volnaya, who went to the University of Virginia after one season at Independence Community College in Kansas.
Fellow Belorussian Natallia Marchanka eclipsed 11 season and career records while playing for Fairleigh Dickinson University, eventually becoming the third all-time leading scorer in school history.
Tatyana Troina, who spent two years at Independence, averaged 9.1 points per game in leading the University of South Carolina to the Sweet 16, while Yelena Leuchanka suffered through a series of knee injuries from 2000-2006 at two junior colleges and West Virginia University.
But it was really Volnaya who started things for Belorussians in the U.S. And it wasn't just basketball which attracted the Minsk native to America.
“First of all it was school. Back home, you really don't have time to go to school. It's not really possible. But in the United States they give the opportunity to get an education and play at the same time,” said Volnaya, who graduated in three years at Virginia with a degree in foreign affairs.
And that was a similar situation for Leuchanka, who added: “My country couldn't really help me get an education and the things that I wanted. So the best situation for me was to go to college and play basketball at the same time.”
From a sports side, Volnaya probably had the biggest success.
She teamed with compatriot Elena Kravchenko to lead Virginia into the Sweet 16 in 2000.
Volnaya was named to the All-ACC conference First Team but it wasn't enough as the Lady Cavaliers were downed by the mighty Tennessee Vols in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was exciting. It was basketball at a high level so it was big for us. It was hard for us to lose that game. But it was still a great experience. I think we could have gone further if it wasn't for Tennessee,” said Volnaya, who later became the first Belorussian ever drafted by either the NBA or the WNBA.
Since returning from the United States, Volnaya has become a top player in Europe, starring in Italy, France, Hungary, Belgium and last season for Czech giants USK Praha, she will play the up-coming campaign for Dynamo Moscow in Russia.
But before that, she and the rest of the American-experienced Belorussians hope they can become different pioneers – leading Belarus to their first-ever EuroBasket Women quarter-finals.