HANFORD — As the Hanford girls tennis team practices, you can hear the spin of the ball, the tension on the racket’s strings and the pitter-patter of ever-moving feet on the court.
The usual techniques are in the works — forehands, backhands, footwork and rallies. The girls are in a line and move up the court one-by-one as Hanford head coach Alex Ibarra feeds them tennis balls and instructions.
Hanford is currently 1-6 on the season and composed of mainly young and inexperienced players. It’s not that unusual for an athlete to play a sport for the first time in high school, but for four girls on the team, it’s a little different.
Their names are Olya Prosianchina, Zhanel Sagnayeva, Carmen Kelly and Karolina Semyuk. The four juniors are all playing tennis for the first time, but they have an even bigger thing in common — they’re all foreign exchange students.
New country, new sport
The four girls, ages 15-17, arrived in the United States between Aug. 1-11. Tennis followed soon after and with no real experience, the girls commenced to play for Hanford and have been learning the game since.
“The majority of the sports I didn’t know whether I’d be able to do," Kelly said. "Tennis seemed the easiest. It’s not actually easy like I thought. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, but it’s something that just snapped when I thought about it. ”
Sagnayeva said tennis isn’t developed in Kazakhstan, her home country, so she wanted to, “try things that I can’t try in my country.” It was the same for Prosianchina, who said tennis isn’t big in her country, Moldova.
Semyuk’s tennis experience came from last year in her home in Ukraine. She visited a friend over the weekend and played tennis for a day. She signed up for the tennis team because she said it was a place to meet new friends.
It was actually during the team’s first practice when she met the other three foreign exchange girls. They all started talking and haven’t stopped since. Her skills with a racket aren’t bad either and she knows it.
“It wasn’t hard for me, but I’m trying to improve my skills because I understand that I’m not as good as I want to be,” Semyuk said. “That’s why I’m trying to improve my tennis skills and my moves with the racket in each practice.”
Ibarra has been instrumental in trying to get the girls up to speed with tennis. Despite the difficulties of learning a new sport in a new country, Ibarra has enjoyed teaching the girls at every moment.
“It’s always exciting to show somebody that’s never even watched the sport,” Ibarra said. “I could see that they’re having a lot of fun out here. That’s really what it’s about. Have fun out here, learn and be competitive.”
During competitions, Ibarra watches them improve and understands that they’re taking small steps, especially when the language barrier occasionally stops him from being able to explain a lesson in great detail.
“All those little goals that they set for themselves are very exciting for them,” Ibarra said. “They’re small [goals], but every little step makes you that much better. Once you get the confidence to play, then they start getting better at it.”
Watching the girls play, one would never assume they hadn't played until a couple weeks ago. They’re focused like anyone else on the court and understand how to return the ball.
Similarly, the girls have soaked in what they’ve been taught and have shown their appreciation for Ibarra’s help.
“[Ibarra’s] like my best friend, we always talk about everything,” Semyuk said. “As coach, he’s very good because he can tell you everything you did wrong. You understand which mistakes you made so you understand what you can do to improve yourself.”
Kelly shared the same sentiments and said that her coach has been supportive of them and has pushed them.
“My coach, he taught us everything,” Prosianchina said. “We didn’t know the rules, we didn’t know how to play, how to hold the racket. All of these things, he taught us.”
Ibarra wishes he could keep the girls for all four years, but understands the reality of it. He’s trying to make them better now and wants them to continue even when they leave.
“I know it’s only for one year, but if they take anything out of this and try to get better at it in their own hometown, or even show somebody in their hometown, that right there would make me feel a lot better,” Ibarra said.
Around the world
Prosianchina, 17, hails from Bălți, Moldova, a country located between Romania and Ukraine.
“We had 50 exchange students from my country and I was the only one who went to California,” Prosianchina said with a big smile on her face. “So I was the lucky one.”
Sagnayeva comes from Astana, Kazakhstan. Astana is the capital city and in Kazakhstan, there were more than 6,500 students who wanted to take part in the foreign exchange program, but only 118 were selected.
Originally, Sagnayeva, 16, was not chosen for the program. Instead, she was an alternate that would only take part if someone else defaulted. Lucky for her, the call came.
“When they called me and said that I’m an actual finalist, I was really happy. I was screaming,” Sagnayeva said.
Then there’s Kelly from Cape Town, South Africa. The 15-year-old is the youngest of the bunch, turning 16 in October.
Kelly and Prosianchina are actually host sisters. The two have their own rooms with their host family and share a bathroom.
“She’s amazing and we spend a lot of time together,” Prosianchina said about Kelly. “It’s easier when you have somebody who can support you and I can support her, also, so it’s amazing.”
The girls in general have come to rely on each other and spend much time together, since they all understand each other’s situation. They’ll go shopping, eat together and just hang out.
And finally, there’s Semyuk, from Kolomyia, Ukraine, who was also ecstatic and caught a little off guard when she got into the exchange program.
During the selection process, Semyuk had a nonchalant attitude about the whole thing. She didn't believe it would happen, even as she progressed through the three different rounds of selection.
“At that moment I didn’t understand that I was going to America because it was like, ‘Uh, what!?'" Semyuk said. "But then after a while I understood."
None of them had a say in where they would end up. They knew they would be coming to America, but where was a mystery. They didn’t find out until about a month before leaving.
When asked why they decided to take part in the foreign exchange program, they each had their own reasons.
“Why?” Prosianchina quipped with surprise. “Oh my God, you just need to come to my country. It’s not so bad, but when you see our country and California, you understand the level of life here is higher.”
Kelly was introduced to it by a teacher and decided to give it a go to experience something new. Sagnayeva wanted to take the opportunity to explore a new culture, knowing she might not ever get a chance again. Semyuk felt the same.
“I use all the opportunities which my life gives me,” Semyuk said. “It makes my life more interesting. I like to try new experiences because why not?”
Their best experiences in America so far? Kelly and Prosianchina went to Disneyland last weekend.
Sagnayeva said her favorite was just trying everything new, while Semyuk said her favorite moment was waiting to meet her new host family.
“The best moment was when I met them for the first time,” Semyuk said. “The first few seconds, you still don’t know them, but you understand that you will spend one year with them and that we will become family. It’s a very cool feeling.”
The four juniors will be in the United States for the entire school year before they return to their respective countries. From there, they’ll either continue or finish their schooling. University will await and where they go from there will be up to them.
“Sometimes you just think it would be so nice to be at home where you know everything and everybody,” Sagnayeva said. “In the same moment, you understand that you won’t have such an opportunity, maybe ever. So, you have to take every chance here.”