U.S. Swimmer Feels At Home in Two Worlds
By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist
KAZAN, Russia (July 7, 2013) – Back in her native land, about a 24-hour plane ride from her American home, Mariya Koroleva’s heart is full this week. The piece of it that still is Russian and still misses her homeland has been restored. And the piece that is as American as Bruce Springsteen is competing for the United States in the World University Games. She is home and at home in two worlds that she loves equally.
Koroleva, who recently graduated from Stanford with a communications degree, was born in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, about a 10 hour drive from Kazan. She left at the age of nine when her father took a job in the Bay Area. Now, for the first time in five years, she is back.
“It’s just so cool to be back here,” she said, sitting on a bench in the Athlete’s Village on a warm, idyllic Sunday evening. “If you wanted to put it in an analogy, imagine you went away to college and being away from home for a
very, very long time and not being able to see your family and then getting to come back home. How exciting is that?
“Well times that by a hundred because you’re not just coming back to a city, you’re coming back to a whole country. I was just so excited when I heard this competition was going to be in Russia.”
Russia is more than just a place for Koroleva. It’s a second home. It’s another place on the planet she can visit and understand that she truly belongs.
What does Russia mean to her?
“My earliest memories of life are from Russia and this culture,” said Koroleva, who holds dual citizenship. “I feel a real closeness here with my family. One thing I think about Russia is that even when you leave here, you never really leave. It’s always a huge part of you.
“It’s been hard for me to define myself as one nationality or the other. I don’t feel like I can be put in this cookie-cutter identity. Yes, I’m American. Yes, I compete for the U.S., but part of my heart and my soul is still Russian. And coming here really brings together the duality I feel about my identity.”
In the U.S. Koroleva only has her mother, father and brother. In Russia she has her roots. Her family tree is planted in this soil.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to not have any relatives in the same country,” she said.
In 2008 at the World Junior Championships in St. Petersburg, a caravan of family members made the 13-hour trip to see Koroleva compete. For this homecoming, an uncle, two cousins and the daughter of one of her cousins came to visit.
“I’ve been missing my family a lot recently,” she said, “and just to be back here in Russia it really does fill a void. I mean the two countries are very different. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but coming back here it definitely makes me feel like I’ve gotten closer to my roots.
“Even my teammates have told me I look so happy here. They see me walking around and talking to the people. They say I look so excited and I really am.”
Koroleva, who was chosen to raise the American flag in the Village on the Fourth of July, has a unique perspective on the importance of the World University Games. She competed for the United States in the 2012 London Olympics.
“The World University Games is a really cool opportunity for athletes who maybe don’t have the opportunity to compete as a national team,” she said. “This is awesome. To be a college athlete and to go to a competition of this scale, I mean what else could you ask for? If you can’t go to the Olympics, you can go to this and it’s so great.
“So far, it’s been so much fun. This feels like the Olympics, but on a smaller scale and a lot less stress. At the Olympics I wasn’t really able to enjoy myself. I didn’t get to explore the Village or meet anybody. It was like I had Olympic tunnel vision. Just tunnel vision synchro.”
Before the Olympics she had back surgery, then during training she suffered a concussion. It seemed as if, heading into London, she was always playing catchup with her health. Her team finished 11th.
“We trained all the time. There was a lot, a lot of pressure. A lot of stress,” she said. “It felt like all eyes were on us. It was a great experience. The best experience of my life for sure. But now that I’m here, it’s just a little more laid back. Our schedule isn’t quite as taxing as it was in London. We get to walk around. We get to meet some people. We’ll probably do some sightseeing. It’s just been a little lower key I would say.”
This competition feels more like a reward for Koroleva. A reward for graduating from Stanford. A reward for putting in all of the tedious work that helped her recover from her injuries. A reward for representing her country in the Olympic Games.
And part of that reward is getting this chance to reconnect with her homeland.
“I still remember pretty vividly how I felt when I knew we were moving to California,” said Koroleva, who was the first member of her family to speak English fluently. “I was sad to leave my school, my friends and my life.
“But growing up I used to love to watch the (TV) shows ‘Charles in Charge’ and ‘Alf’ and I had this vision of us moving to California and having this big house and a pool and butlers and this really nice car. It definitely didn’t turn out like that at first.”
Koroleva sits on a bench, smiling like she won the lottery, so full of energy she sort of bounces as she talks. She’s far away from home and yet, she’s home again. It may not be “Alf,” but things are turning out quite well for her.
You can see Mariya’s journey to Kazan as she Video Blogs on our YouTube Channel: CLICK HERE