By Andrew Yourell, Staff Writer
In late August, some 3,000 students arrive in Durham and began the process of transitioning from high school to college. For UNH freshman Liza Baykova, this period had an additional hurdle to overcome.
Baykova, a standout on the women’s swimming and diving team, hails from Moscow, Russia, meaning that in addition to making new friends, adjusting to college scheduling and classes, and dealing with being away from home, Baykova also had to cope with being across the ocean from her family, friends and her native tongue.
“I experienced that [culture shock], because everything is so different, and I was just like, ‘where am I?” she said.
For someone who has been in country for only a few months, her English is almost impeccable. For Baykova, it’s something she’s focused on improving almost as much as her swimming.
“I feel like I’ve been learning English, I don’t know, from my first grade in school … Of course, my first thing was English, like improving a lot. Because it means a lot for me, and when I pick a career and that stuff.”
She may only be a freshman, but Baykova has already impressed many of those around her, building up a strong résumé through a semester. In the water, she ranks as one of the top sprint freestylers in the America East conference, with the conference’s top times in the 100 and 200-yard freestyle events and a 50-yard time that is none too shabby.
“After the first couple dual meets she just really blossomed,” Josh Willman said. “She’s probably one of the most talented freestylers I’ve seen at UNH. Ever.”
In his 22nd year as the Wildcats’ head coach, that sort of praise is no small thing, especially considering Willman’s demanding personality. But the head coach raves about the rookie’s strength in the water, which helped her to come within a few tenths of a second of the Swasey Pool record for the 200-yard freestyle, despite the fact that she was not shaving and tapering for the meet
The 200 has been Baykova’s most dominant, with the young swimmer recording wins in the event in most of the team’s dual meets this season. She was not immediately comfortable with the event—in the long course pools [50 meters] of Europe, sprinters like Liza don’t often do the 200, but in America’s short course [25 yard] pools, the race is considered a sprint. But it’s those kinds of differences that drew Baykova to UNH.
“I really like practicing with him [Willman] because his practices are so different,” she said. “I used to swim boring stuff, it was so boring, old practices. I could predict my practice at home,” she said while also gushing about how American swimmers are the best in the world and how she was eager to embrace some of their practicing techniques.
The fact that the regimen keeps her guessing made Willman laugh.
“That’s not just because she speaks Russian,” Willman joked. “It takes a while. You plan each week, and then monthly and yearly. You need to be at certain points during the year … She’s a sprinter and is really good at middle distance, the 200 free as well, so she came from a background where she was trained as a sprinter, and we do a little more endurance based training and then kind of move towards the sprints for someone like her.”
That means yardages that initially left Baykova exhausted. But she insists that she does not like naps. Instead, her rest time is spent texting, emailing and calling her mother. In her first semester here, Baykova said that she and her mother would talk twice a day on the phone, despite the 8-hour time difference between Durham and Moscow. She’s very close with her family, which includes her mother and father, twin brother, Pavel, his iguana and a German shepherd.
Teammate Bettina Caspersen, the ‘Cats’ lone junior swimmer, understands how hard being away from family can be for Baykova. A native of a small town outside the capital city of Copenhagen, in Denmark, Caspersen made a similar trek to the United States three years ago. Like Liza, she considers herself very close with her family.
“I think the cultural aspect of moving across an ocean is kind of big, as well as just being with a whole new group, and getting adjusted to the school system,” Caspersen said. “The first few months you’re just kind of, observing, I would say.
In her three years, she’s managed to get used to American culture, something she believes will come for Baykova with time.
Both Baykova and Casperson agreed that the pool helped them to get through the rough patches of their early careers. Neither thinks that they would have made it through the first semester were it not for their teammates, who served dual roles as friends and mothers for the newcomers.
In her mind, all of the upperclassmen proved how helpful they were, though Caspersen declared there was not much help that the independent Baykova needed after the first few days. Also helping was Baykova’s roommate, Jess Harper. It took only one word for Baykova to describe her roommate: “Awesome.”
After a two-week trip home, Baykova and the rest of the team returned to Durham to continue practicing and it’s paid off. In the Wildcats’ latest meet, against rival Maine, Baykova competed garnered three first place finishes in the individual events. Her 50 time of 24.09 was her best of the season, and the 51.77 she posted in the 100 just barely missed her America East leading time of 51.70. Her 200 time of 1:51.11 was three seconds ahead of teammate and silver medalist Oneida Cooper, and she, Cooper, Harper, and Sarah Broderick capped off her individual trifecta by winning the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Willman sees plenty for Baykova to improve upon, however, noting that, coming from a long course training system, her turns and streamlines need work. He also called her starts slow, but reiterated that if she could fix these issues, there’s really no telling how well she could do.
“I have a good feeling about her. She’s got a lot of talent,” Willman said. “She definitely has some details to work on…but just her power and her technique in the water between the flags is just awesome. So I think that if she can really clean up her turns and get herself a little quicker off the blocks…she’s definitely NCAA qualifier caliber.”
The future looks bright for Baykova as she adjusts to life in American waters, and her next step will come February 12-15, when the Wildcats travel to WPI to compete in the America East Conference Championships.