A 'Russian rocket' lands in America

It's been a long trek for Ekaterina Ivanova, but then again, the powerhouse cross-country skier is accustomed to hardships - such as wearing a special mask to endure training in Siberia, where temperatures can dip to minus 30 degrees F.

So it is with a certain amazement that the Russian skier now finds herself halfway round the world, outfitted with top-notch equipment and a full scholarship in the "warmer" climes at the University of Vermont.

Amazed as she may be, though, she's not half as wowed by America as this nation's cross-country-skiing aficionados are by her.

Since arriving at UVM in January, this gazelle on skis has won every college competition in the East - by huge margins. And as a real shocker, she beat the entire women's US Olympic ski team as a "guest" skier at the US Nationals after just two weeks in America.

Today and Saturday, Katja (Kaat-ee-ya), as she's known, gets another test at the NCAA ski championships, the first time this season that skiers from the East will compete against skiers from the West.

In a sport dominated internationally by the Finns, the Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Russians, American coaches talk about Katja and racers like her as "raising the bar" for other US athletes and setting a new standard in college ski racing. "She brings up the level," says Chip LaCasse, director of skiing at UVM. "Sometimes you can see an entire team get excited and ski better when an athlete like that appears."

The story of how Katja came to UVM attests to her single-minded determination - the same characteristic that observers say makes her a winning skier.

"She wrote to me!" laughs Mr. LaCasse, who had never heard of Katja or her native city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia, until she sent him a fax in May 1997.

But responding was difficult. He was unable to reach Katja because her family did not have a telephone and the return number on the fax did not work. Despite getting no reply, Katja kept faxing. When they finally did speak with her, LaCasse and his coaches knew they were dealing with a determined young woman.

Why she came here

In large part, the turbulent Russian economy is what prompted Katja to make the leap. "These are such difficult times," she says of the former Soviet Union's transition to a market economy. She acknowledges that she would not be able to afford to ski and study in her own country:

It was becoming too expensive to travel from Siberia to race sites as part of her club team. Her family "could not pay for races every week," she says.

For someone on a modest salary in Russia today, it might take a year to afford a pair of cross-country ski boots. "Chip gave me a pair of boots when I arrived," she beams. "Just like that! I was so grateful."

When she's not wearing the gold and green UVM uniform, "Vermont's Russian rocket" (as the Burlington Free Press calls her) can be spotted in a pale blue ski jacket with "Russia" in white letters on the back, one of the few things she brought with her from Siberia.

At her level of competition, skiers train at least four hours a day year-round - skiing, running, or roller skiing. The regimen is such that it prompted former US Olympic competitor and trainer John Morton to assert that "world-class Nordic racers are aerobically the best-conditioned athletes on earth."

At the NCAA women's events this week, skiers race for distances ranging from 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) - on varied terrain that can be encased in snow, ice, or slush.

Three-time US Olympic ski coach Robert Patterson says Katja's Siberian upbringing has probably helped make her the skier she is. "She comes from a country where skiing is a major sport, like football or baseball is in America," he says. "She's quite talented. And she's raced where the level of competition is high, so she's training at a higher level. That becomes a way of life, and it's supported by the culture. It's obsession, it's love, but it's work, too."

What has been the most difficult adjustment for her? The language. And trusting the banks and the postal system. She admits to being nervous about coming to America, knowing no one and having to manage new ways of doing even simple things like shopping.

"Checking and savings accounts are a very new idea for me. In Russia we keep money in the sock, so to speak, because we fear the banks will fail," she says. "Also, we may get to the airport and find a plane flight delayed for a week because there is no fuel. I like the order you have here. Everything goes right. You have trains that arrive. Planes that fly. Your mail comes. You do not worry as much, maybe?"

Settling in

After three weeks with a host family in Burlington, Katja has now moved into an apartment building where some of UVM's 14 Russian students live. She is studying to be a sports psychologist - and will stay in America for the rest of her college career, at least two more years.

She misses her family, of course, but her coaches say she's well-liked by her teammates and other competitors.

"She doesn't ski to the competition. She skis her personal best. Even if she's winning. People respect her for that."

But hers is more than a story about winning races. It's about two years of persistent effort over 12,000 miles to find a place where she could combine sport and study. And about parents willing to let her go. "The Western colleges like U. of Denver and U. of Utah have also fielded some world-class competitors in the past," says LaCasse, looking forward to the NCAA meet in Rumford, Maine. "We just know that we have an undefeated athlete who's happy to be here."

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