Nick Dingus, Sports Editor
At a place like Oklahoma Baptist University, it isn’t hard to find people with amazing life stories. For the last four years, senior Zoya Timoshenko has been running cross country, earning second team All-Great American Conference and All-Academic GAC honors in the process. Although at one point, Timoshenko wasn’t sure if she would be able to attend college at all.
”It was really a strange phenomenon and miracle of God; going to college was not in my life plan,” she said. “I had no way to provide for myself to go.”
Timoshenko was born in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, but when she was two years old her family, forced by religious persecution, moved from Ukraine to Washington State.
“While my mother and her siblings endured some religious persecution, my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in harder times,” she said. “My great-grandfather spent time in a concentration camp in Siberia. Christians also could not find jobs because no one would hire you if they knew you were a Christian. If they did hire you, they would often not pay you for the hours you put in. Christian women were targeted for rape. It just wasn’t a safe place for Christians.”
While one side of her family suffered persecution for their faith, the other side faced no such treatment. “Ironically, my great-grandfather on my grandmother’s side was a communist cop,” she said. “To my knowledge they never really officially met. My grandmother was disowned by her family when she became a Christian as a teenager.”
That original move was hard on her parents as learning English was a struggle for them.
“In Washington, my father worked at a recycling factory while he and my mother tried to learn English. My mother was never really good at school, so to this day she has not been able to pick up English.” Timoshenko said this reliance on their home language has enabled her to learn Russian.
“That means I cannot forget Russian, otherwise I would not be able to speak to [my mother].” Fortunately for Timoshenko and her family, they were not alone in Washington.
“Washington has a large Slavic community, so my parents were able to cope with culture shock better than had they been completely on their own,” she said.
Not only were there other Slavic people in their community, but there was also an abundance of family nearby.
“I had about thirty cousins at that time and seven pairs of aunts and uncles,” she said. “We were always getting together on weekends to go hiking or have dinner and hang out. The apartment complex that we lived in also had quite a few Slavic families, most of which spoke Russian and another Slavic languages.”
After living in Washington for five years, Timoshenko and most of her family made the move from Washington, north to Alaska.
“Life in Alaska was harder for my parents, but they did not enjoy city life in Washington and my mother’s parents moved there as well so she wanted to be closer to her mother. “
The move was difficult on Timoshenko’s parents. While about a third of the community was Slavic, at the time there was still tension between the Slavics and the Americans. The difficulties were not constrained to her parents; it was about this time that she was preparing to enter school.
“Up until then, my parents never taught me English, mainly because they barely spoke it. When school rolled around I was too old to join kindergarten, and I spoke absolutely no English except ‘bathroom’ and ‘my name is Zoya.’”
Fortunately, there were other Russian children in her class on whom she relied to communicate with her teacher while she learned English.
“I will forever be grateful to those friends because communicating with the teacher was hard,” she said. “I remember one particular instance when I was feeling really sick. It was free time so the whole class was playing. I sat at my desk with my head down, which was the punishment for students who misbehaved. The teacher, Mrs. Arnold, came over and told me I could play with the kids. I did not know how to explain to her that I was feeling sick. The best I could do was, ‘I feel bad.’ She told me not to feel bad because I was not in trouble. So I responded, ‘No, I am bad.’ I could tell she was confused but at that point I was feeling so nauseous all I could do was lay my head back on the desk. Eventually she got one of my Russian friends to come over and explain to her what was wrong with me.”
It wasn’t long before Timoshenko was able to speak enough English to get by, though she continued to struggle in other areas.
“By second grade I was relatively fluent in English,” she said. “I was still a grade behind in reading and writing, but I could hold a conversation.”
While Timoshenko was working hard to improve her English and improve her school work, her parents struggled with culture shock and with making ends meet.
“My mother was not able to work because to this day she has not been able to adjust to the American culture nor has learned the language,” she said. “She also had four of us to care for. My father usually worked a couple of jobs to make ends meet. The cost of living in Alaska is high, and the job market in the town we lived in was small. I have no idea how my parents did it, but [they] managed to keep a family of six alive and healthy on a yearly budget of about $13,000.”
Alaska is one of the most expensive places in the United States to live; the cost of living is 29 percent higher than the national average. Due to its distance from the contiguous United States, every day amenities that most people take for granted, such as eggs or milk, end up costing much more than the national average. Due to her family’s financial situation, Timoshenko said she remembers harsh living conditions during her childhood, especially in the winter.
“The house I grew up in did not have running water,” she said. “We had a well outside and kept a lot of gallon jugs to fill up to bring the water into the house. Half of the winter the well would freeze over so we would have to go to town, which was about ten miles away, to get water from a gas station. When this would happen, we did our best to conserve the water so for baths we would gather buckets of snow then melt, boil and filter it. The house also was not insulated well so when it would get cold outside, the space under my sister’s and my bed would freeze. Literally we had blocks of ice under our beds which would make a huge mess when spring rolled around and the ice would melt.”
While many people would shudder to think about living in conditions like these, Timoshenko said she was not aware of her family’s situation.
“I honestly thought that everyone lived like this until one of my friends from school came over and saw my house,” she said.
Timoshenko said this encounter with her friend had a drastic impact that lasted throughout her adolescence.
“She ended up spreading juicy gossip to her friends who passed it on, which resulted in a loss of friends for me and quite a bit of being made fun of,” Timoshenko said. “After that day, I never let any of my friends come to my house. If I was meeting them, I would meet them at least a fourth of a mile away from my house.”
During her middle school years, Timoshenko began to question the faith of her childhood, faith that had been passed on to her from her parents.
“The Christian beliefs that my family taught me were more based on their personal preference and tradition mixed in with some Bible verses [used] to ‘prove’ that my parents were right when I started to challenge their belief. This complicated everything about God for me, so I decided I was not going to believe in Him.”
It was also during her middle school years that Timoshenko’s mother began to develop a mental disorder, paranoid schizophrenia. Schizophrenia causes patients to lose touch with reality, and sometimes hear voices in their heads, as was the case with her mother.
“Since God was such an important part of my parent’s life, when my mother started telling my father that she heard God speak directly to her, my father did not question her but simply did as ‘god’ told her,” she said. Without a diagnosis or information on the disorder, her mother’s episodes began to ruin their family’s relationship with the community. Timoshenko recalled how her family eventually became isolated in their community.
“My mother said that every Slavic in the town was working for the KGB and was trying to kill our entire family so we needed to hide,” she said. “We cut all ties to everyone, first from the Russian community and then with the small American community that we had as friends.”
Timoshenko said she remembers the impact that this contradiction between truth and reality had on her.
“When you are young and your parents tell you something is true, you do not question them.” As she grew older, Timoshenko began to become more aware of her mother’s illness. “It started to seem to me that either God was lying to my mother, or she was lying or she was going crazy.”
As her mother’s condition worsened, Timoshenko’s relationship with her mother, and eventually her family, became strained.
“As I grew older, she became verbally abusive until I got to high school and I basically could not handle it and moved out when I was sixteen. At seventeen, I thought I had run out of places to live so I asked if I could move back in with my parents, to which they said no.”
She was then homeless.
The majority of people in the United States will never experience being homeless. Timoshenko said she remembers the emptiness and loneliness that she felt during this time.
“This turned out to be a dark time in my life,” she said. “I felt like I had nothing and no one left. Being homeless in Alaska is not fun. I started hanging out with people who were not good influences on me. I believe that they were the best friends that they could have been in the situations they were in, but none of us were in very good places in our lives.”
During high school, Timoshenko began to run. Looking back, she said she believes that running was the way God reached her through the darkness.
“Cross country and track was a method God used in my life to break me out of the pit I was heading toward,” she said. “My coach was a Christian, and he was always praying for me and checking up on me. He and his wife were always making sure that my sisters and I had enough to eat and a place to stay. My teammates on the cross-country team and I grew really close.”
However, even being able to run was a struggle for her.
“When I left my house, my school counselor worked to get me independent rights so that I could better take care of myself,” she said. “In addition, I was allowed to start doing sports because I could sign my own paperwork and permission slips. I started running track my junior year of high school. That season was rough; the snow did not melt until after the season was over, the track had ice on it and we ran in parkas and thick pants. All the meets were cancelled except regionals and state, which were brutally cold.”
Despite the adverse conditions and lack of training, she found instant success.
“Somehow, out of nowhere, I was winning races left and right. I remember running the mile: I was ahead by a lot, and I was feeling pretty decent besides the fact that my fingertips were frozen and I could not feel my nose. I ran past my coach and asked him if I was going too fast, and he just told me to run,” she said, “Honestly, I did not like running that much, but I loved to win so I just kept running.” Timoshenko qualified for state in all of her events that year, and ended up winning the 800-meter race after running it only three times before.
Despite her success during her short high school career, Timoshenko was not sure if she would be able to make it at OBU. She remembers a conversation she had with a coach from another school who had been recruiting her.
“He said there was no way [a major school] was ever going to sign me. The thing was that I was decently fast, but I was a young runner with no experience and I was not exceptionally fast. I still could not believe that this guy would say something like that. I wanted to prove him wrong.”
Coach Ford Mastin ultimately decided to take the chance on her.
Outside of athletics, Timoshenko has a passion for helping others who face similar struggles as she has faced in her life.
“Everything that could have gone wrong in my life did, but even at the worst state of my life I felt God’s peace and presence and He proved to love and care for me even to this day,” she said.
“Jesus gave me a new life and helped me out of the trash I had gotten myself into. I want to continue to help others with the blessings that God has given me. One of my passions is helping refugees resettle in new countries. My goal is to one-day work on the front lines of where refugees are fleeing to and help provide necessary aid while also sharing the love of God with them,” Timoshenko said. “My long-term goal in life is to fight poverty in third-world countries. I would love to live in an impoverished community and help the communities learn how to thrive and provide for themselves and their children.”