For UH tennis coach Helena Besovic, lessons of life after the Bosnian War resonate
Somewhere in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the early 1990s, a little girl’s life was about change.
Violence had just broken out in the capital city after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, sparking the Bosnian War. With uncertainty and fear clouding the air, 7-year-old Helena Besovic and her family were unable to flee her hometown.
Instead, the Besovic family hunkered down, living in a basement as the city around them was bombed and besieged for 1,425 days.
“We didn’t think it was going to last that long,” Besovic, the now-36-year-old UH tennis coach, said. “We were basically stuck there.”
Nearly 25 years after the Siege of Sarajevo ended, the lessons Besovic learned during the war and since ring throughout her life.
When COVID-19 began surging last March and the pandemic tightened its grip on the world, the coronavirus pandemic gave Besovic an unsettling reminder of how quickly — and drastically — lives can be upended.
“These things, you never expect they can happen to you,” she said. “Now, with what we’re experiencing, it’s happening on a large scale.”
As lockdowns spread, Besovic was brought back to when she herself was forced to stay indoors in the early days of the war, as it was too dangerous to leave her house.
Like many Bosnian children at the time, she couldn’t go to school or play outside with other kids.
She stayed at home with her family, and without electricity, running water, or the ability to buy groceries, they relied on foreign aid to get by.
But she found a silver lining, and it’s driven her to get where she is a quarter-century later.
Besovic played many sports growing up, but after being introduced by a friend, tennis stuck.
Once the war and siege were over and it was safe to go outside again, Besovic quickly fell in love with the sport.
“When it all ended, I was so excited to be able to be outside and to play tennis,” she said. “I started doing well, so I took that as an opportunity to do something with my life.”
As her talent in the sport grew, so did the realization that after all the years of conflict, tennis could offer her a path to a better life elsewhere.
So when the opportunity presented itself, she took it.
Besovic moved away from Sarajevo in the late ’90s to study at Ausias March High School in Barcelona, Spain. From there, she moved to the United States for college, landing at Division II Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. After two seasons, she transferred to TCU in 2004 and became one of the most decorated players in Horned Frogs history.
“Tennis opened a lot of doors, and I know it opens a lot of doors for my student-athletes,” she said.
Having traveled the world playing tennis, Besovic understands how international student-athletes feel being in another, sometimes extremely different, country.
When it comes to recruiting and making players feel at home, she’s used it to her advantage.
With players from places like Belgium, Argentina, Australia and Serbia, the Houston tennis team is among the most culturally diverse programs at UH.
And it’s not by accident.
“One of the reasons I came to Houston was how much they value diversity,” Besovic said. “I want to have diverse teams, and we want to continue having student-athletes come from different cultures.”
For senior Phonexay Chitdara, who is from Belgium, Besovic’s coaching philosophy makes playing at UH comfortable for international student-athletes.
“In the team, since we’re all international … (coaches) just understand us,” she said. “It’s just easier like that.”
Besovic, who has used her experience during and after the war to shape her, believes her focus on diversity and understanding goes beyond tennis.
“We’re better prepared for the world,” she said. “It makes me really proud to see my student-athletes get along and work hard on understanding each other.”