International swimmers living in legacy of Olympic alumni
Imagine being thousands of miles from the only place you had ever called home, handling the stress of collegiate athletics as well as adjusting to a radically different setting.
This is the situation for two members of the swimming & diving team: junior and team captain Eleanna Koutsouveli and senior Ksenia Yuskova. The two athletes are just the latest of a long line of international athletes who have come to Houston and found success with the swimming & diving program.
“They have quickly elevated this team to (that level of competing at a national level),” head coach Ryan Wochomurka said. “Both in their athletic performances and from the perspective they bring abroad.”
Wochomurka said the UH program is committed to constantly having an international flavor with its roster, adding that not one team in the NCAA Top 25 is without at least one international athlete.
Other recent international successes include Yulia Pakhalina (2001-03) and Anastasia Pozdniakova (2006-10). The two Russians were NCAA Champions in the 1-meter dive and went on to represent their country at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012 – two of 19 non-American Olympians produced by the program.
Koutsouveli and Yuskova have already broken enough school records to place their names alongside the legacy of those international Cougar swimmers. Yuskova is a member of the record-setting 200, 400 and 800-yard freestyle relays, while Koutsouveli owns the top times in both the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke (53.74s and 1:55.97 respectively).
Change of scenery
The two swimmers found their way to UH while the program was going through a transition phase.
Koutsouveli, originally from Athens, was a highly touted recruit in the backstroke and was being recruited by a previous UH coach. As Wochomurka assumed his position at UH in 2015, he spoke with and reassured the school’s commitment to her.
When she first joined the team, a language barrier divided Koutsouveli and the other swimmers, she said. But other international students who were already on the squad helped her adjust to her new surroundings.
“I wasn’t as fluent back then,” Koutsouveli said. “My accent is still pretty heavy, but back then it was horrible. (The other non-English speakers) were patient and willing to help me with everything from taking me to (get) groceries or explaining something for school. But in the pool, I handled it pretty well. I saw what the others were doing and followed them.”
Yuskova, a Moscow native who swims freestyle, had initially committed to the University of Miami. According to Wochomurka, she was looking for a place to reinvent herself. A mutual friend connected the two, and he made sure Yuskova saw that Houston was a place that she could benefit from.
Yuskova said she had to adjust to the change of setting.
“It was like being freshman again,” Yuskova said. “It was a little stressful. I had to adjust to a new culture. Houston is very different from Miami: People are different. I had to make new friends. But that was not a bad experience; it was not a big change.”
Keys for success
Both swimmers had key roles in the program’s first conference win last season. Thanks to that performance, Koutsouveli was named a team captain prior to the start of this season.
“I wasn’t sure whether they were going to vote for an international student to be a captain,” Koutsouveli said. “But it helped me a lot in my personal swimming because I was more focused on my teammates and how they did. It took stress off my personal goals.”
Wochomurka said he has found international students often appreciate American-based athletic programs’ team-driven, rather than self-driven, focus. The result is that the athletes buy in to the culture of the team and help erase any sense of entitlement from the squad.
The coach said Koutsouveli and Yuskova have done everything and more he could ask from them as student athletes.
“We’ll go across the world to get the folks that feel this place gives them the best opportunity,” Wochomurka said. “We’re the fourth largest city in the country, the most diverse country in the world, one of the most diverse campuses in the world. It fits our program, it fits our university and it fits this city.”