MARTIN, Tenn. – Their native countries may be at war but you wouldn’t know it if you spent time around University of Tennessee at Martin tennis student-athletes Elina Geut and Olha Burak.
Not only is the duo a part of one of the most successful Skyhawk athletic programs but they are doubles partners and also suite mates at their on-campus housing dormitory.
A native of Orenburg, Russia, Geut has been a member of the UT Martin tennis team for the last three seasons. Burak hails from Lviv, Ukraine and wrapped up her first season as a Skyhawk this past year.
Tensions arose in Russia and Ukraine following a dispute that involved the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and their two home countries have been in the middle of a war that has divided a section of Europe ever since.
“The war is not affecting us – it actually makes us closer,” Burak said of her friendship with Geut. “We like to have fun and joke around.”
“We are very close friends,” Geut said of Burak. “Sometimes people don’t understand our sense of humor but that’s ok because we do.”
Geut and Burak grew up approximately 1,600 miles apart but had to cross international borders halfway around the world to develop a common bond. The pair first met at the James Henson Tennis Center, located on the UT Martin campus.
“We make contact with our new recruits before they actually come here so we can already establish some kind of a friendship,” Geut said. “Olha was the only one coming on her trip so it was quite easy. She speaks Russian so it was already like she spoke my native language. It’s a different culture where we come from – we joke differently, we eat different food, we dress in a different way. But we felt closer to each other because we have similar styles in everything.”
The two Skyhawks formed a bond not only off the court but on the court as well. They combined for a 7-2 record this past season while playing alongside each other.
“When we play together in doubles, we know what each other is going to do,” Burak said. “We have each other’s backs. We observed through this year how other top teams played so we know what we need to work on during the summer for us to better.”
“We have to be very close to play doubles,” Geut said. “It’s a lot of trust. You have to think the same and pretty much have the same mindset every time you go on the court.”
The tandem has encountered several skeptics who feel as if the partners cannot coexist based off the beliefs and traditions of their home nations. That is simply not the case.
“People have asked a lot of questions about it and that’s understandable,” Geut said. “It’s about personal relationships – not about what our countries do or what our government does. There’s nothing wrong with us being friends. A lot of people ask if we fight and I explain that it’s just about our relationship as two people, not as Russia and Ukraine. We don’t really have time to argue about politics because we are so loaded with school and tennis and that’s what makes us closer.”
“They just see the overall picture but they don’t think that we can leave it behind and see what the other person is like,” Burak said.
The unlikely friendship of Burak and Geut have even earned approval with each family back in Ukraine and Russia.
“My parents are perfectly fine with our friendship,” Burak said. “We have family members who are in Russia so we talk with them and know what is happening on both sides. They were pretty excited that I have a Russian friend.”
“My Mom was calm about our friendship,” Geut said. “She said if she’s your close friend, I really don’t care who she is or where she is from.”
As final exams wrap up at UT Martin this week, both Geut and Burak will return home for approximately two months. They are hoping to visit each other’s homes in the summer of 2018.
“There’s no difference between which country people are from or what language they speak or what they look like,” Geut said. “Sports is what brings people together.”
“You can see that example in our team because we have eight people who are from all over the world,” Burak said. “We are all friends and are really close like a family.”