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Hosts Sweet Hosts

Ukrainian gymnasts and the Southland families who open their doors to them are enjoying getting to know each other.

August 11, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Dressed in shorts, summer tops and flip-flops, their hair pulled back in ponytails, the young women scattered around the spacious living room of Colleen and Buck Yedor's Thousand Oaks home appeared to be typical teenagers pausing for a rare quiet moment on a sunny summer afternoon.

A few sprawled on chairs or sat on the snow white carpet, leafing through a catalog. One slipped out to the patio and slid into the pool. And when Colleen Yedor hooked up a "Dance Dance Revolution" interactive video game to the TV and a techno-infused version of Olivia Newton-John's "Have You Ever Been Mellow" filled the air, they giggled like typical kids -- until the game's instructions popped up on the screen.

Standing on the game mat and staring at the TV, Marina Proskurina was visibly puzzled. The instructions were in English, a language she and the other girls don't speak because they're from Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union but now an independent country that has sent her and the others to the World Gymnastics Championships in Anaheim.

Thanks to a combination of gestures, smiles and vigorous demonstrations by Colleen Yedor, Proskurina and the others soon figured out how to play and were happily stomping on the mat in time to the music. One more gap bridged on a visit that enriched their hosts as much as it helped the gymnasts prepare for their competition next week at the Arrowhead Pond.

The Ukrainian team and its entourage, which included three coaches and a masseuse, spent its first week in the U.S. training at Monarchs Gymnastics in Newbury Park and living in homes of members of the gym's booster club. The visit was arranged by Yelena Urusova, who emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. 14 years ago and owns the gym with her husband, Vitaly. To her delight, it became a community effort that will be fondly remembered long after the medals are awarded in Anaheim.

"There is no borders for the friendship," said Urusova, once an elite competitor in her homeland. "We are so happy this is happening. We are all simple people, not politicians.

"Some of the kids were scared to come here because of all the talk about America in Europe, and about security. Now, they're very happy they are here. Warm and happy and comfortable."

Three families took in gymnasts or coaches, but others contributed however they could.

Some chauffeured the group to practices at Monarchs Gymnastics. Other parents donated tickets to send the Ukrainians to Universal Studios, the girls' unanimous choice as the highlight of the trip. Still others funded a shopping spree.

Beth Ziegler, who was host to two girls, bought Alyona Kvasha a bathing suit when she realized Kvasha had nothing but a gym leotard to wear on an excursion to Zuma Beach. Waiting for the girls to finish an afternoon workout one day last week, Ziegler proudly displayed a picture of Kvasha in a vibrant bikini, enjoying the white sand and aqua water with her teammates. The girls' sunscreen and beach towels also were provided by booster club members.

"We didn't expect as much as this. We couldn't imagine what we could see," Kvasha said through Urusova's translation. "Every day there is something different. It feels like they want to help us so much."

The Yedors had a spare room while their daughter, Leslie, was away at a gymnastics camp and opened their home to Kvasha, Irina Yarotskaya and coaches Viktor Lutayenko and Nadia Koryakina. The Yedors also provided a bountiful barbecue lunch nearly every day so the group could eat its main meal together.

"They're just normal kids," Colleen Yedor said. "You see them at the gym working so hard, but at home they're relaxed and just like any other kids. They could be my daughter."

The language barrier kept the gymnasts and their hosts from conversing in depth, but Yedor quickly learned her guests wanted strong coffee, lots of vegetables and fruits but little bread, and that they loved guava juice after she gave them their first taste.

Pantomime came in handy: When one girl wanted a pair of scissors and didn't know the word, a cutting gesture conveyed the message; when Yedor offered to do some laundry for them, she got her point across with improvised hand motions.

"They've learned more English since they've been here than we've learned Russian," Yedor said. "They've started saying, 'Thank you,' and 'Good morning.' They're so polite. They're very easy house guests and they really seem to appreciate it. It's just such a great culture experience."

That goes for both sides. "The people we have met are always smiling," Alina Kozich said through a translator. "I don't feel any differences."

Irina Krasnyanskaya, 15, loved the Yedors' heated pool and was touched by the Americans' generosity. "Any wishes, whatever we ask, they have," she said.

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