Conditioned for Success
By Ashley Festa
As Aliaksandr “Alex” Yatsko describes it, he “crossed the ocean” to get here. In fact, he did, but the comment sounds funny coming from a NCAA champion swimmer.
Yatsko is the University of the Incarnate Word’s 2008 Male Athlete of the Year. He joined the university’s men’s swimming team when he arrived in 2007 from Minsk, Belarus, his home.
UIW swimming Coach Philip Davis recruited him and was pleased to discover that “he’s a great kid, and he’s fast.” So fast, in fact, that he was awarded four national honors this past season.
On March 13, he swam a 500-yard freestyle race in 4 minutes 25.84 seconds. It was fast enough to earn him the NCAA Division II National Championship title. It was UIW’s first national title in any sport since 1995.
In addition, Yatsko was named All-American for winning that race, and he earned three other All-American designations after finishing third in both the 200-yard freestyle and 1,650-yard freestyle events, and fourth in the 1,000-yard freestyle race.
“He makes me look like a great coach,” Davis said with a smile.
Alex Yatsko earned four All-America distinctions this season, including the NCAA Division II National Championship title, which was UIW's first national title in any sport since 1995.
Yatsko is part of the first UIW men’s swimming team. Davis, who joined the university in 2006, has been crucial to building this team. When he arrived, there was no men’s team, and only three swimmers on the women’s team. After only one year of having a men’s team, UIW ranked 17th in the nation.
“Our goal isn't to be good. It’s to be No. 1,” Davis said. He said it wasn’t because he was such a good coach that the team was able to accomplish this achievement. He attributed the success to his experience recruiting college students.
“I know what it takes to be the best,” he said. “Salesmanship is what it is.”
It’s easy to sell UIW. Davis emphasized that for these athletes, the university offers a quality education and a quality swim environment. “God’s been good; I’ve just taken advantage of the resources.”
His goal for next year is to have 60 students on the roster and at least two or three athletes competing for national titles.
Since he has been at UIW, Yatsko has felt more motivation to push forward.
“I was going to give up when I was 19 or 20 years old because I had no support” in Belarus, Yatsko said.
Knowing he has the privilege of representing the university helps give him a sense of purpose. His swimming schedule tells him what’s next, and he says “it’s much better” than competing in Europe. “When you swim, you have to know what you swim for,” he said. “You just strive as much as possible.”
After recruiting by Davis, Yatsko chose UIW in part because of a scholarship and also because of the warm weather, which he isn’t used to in Minsk. However, there was more to it than that. “It was important to change my life, make it absolutely different,” he said. Better, for him, because there are more opportunities available to him in the United States, he said.
Even so, he was a champion when he lived in Europe, too. He competed at the European Junior Championship, and at the Belarus National Open Championship in distance swimming.
“When you touch the wall after 16 miles you realize ‘yeah, I did that, and I’m first.’ That’s a great feeling.”
Though Yatsko already has won many swimming awards in his 22 years, he said winning the national championship was his greatest accomplishment so far. But he’s still determined to improve his time because he has his eyes on an even greater honor: competing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“That’s the greatest game in the world,” he said. “To go over there, it means a lot.”
But he has a lot of work to do. “I don’t think I’m ready.” But he’ll be ready by 2012, he said with a laugh. In order to qualify, though, he’ll have to swim a sanctioned event within a certain time. “If I show the time, I can go over there. I will go over there.”
"Alex is everything you'd want in a student athlete. He's a good student and a good athlete. He makes me look like a great coach."
UIW Swimming Coach
Davis is just as confident about Yatsko’s ability. “He can do it,” he said, but stressed that it won’t be an easy task. Yatsko will have to keep practicing with lots of yardage at high intensity to keep up his gift.
“You can’t quit swimming and still be the best,” he said. “Swimming is all about conditioning.”
“When you don’t swim for two weeks, you forget the feeling,” Yatsko said. But when he is not able to swim, he works out at the gym to stay in shape.
NCAA rules limit the number of hours athletes are allowed to practice during the season and offseason. Eight hours after the season and 20 during the season are all that’s allowed, but it’s still a lot. Several days out of the week, the athletes are in the pool by 6 a.m., and even Saturday mornings, they are swimming by 8 a.m.
“I hate getting up in the morning, but I hate losing more than I love sleeping,” Davis said.
Yatsko, a junior in the fall, has two more years to swim, and Davis is certain “he’ll continue to do great things.”
"We’re really proud,” Davis said. “We’ve set the bar pretty high.”
On a personal level, Davis has a high opinion of Yatsko. “He’s an awesome kid.”
“He’s always here, he works hard every day,” Davis said. “Alex is everything you’d want in a student athlete. He’s a good student and a good athlete.”
He isn’t exaggerating about Yatsko’s academic ability either. Yatsko, a computer information systems major, posted a 3.75 grade point average for the fall semester and a 3.52 GPA in the spring. Though English is not his native language, Yatsko placed out of English as a second language classes after only two weeks at UIW. His education is very important to him.
“I have to break my best time (in swimming), and it’s the same with school,” he said, because he constantly wants to improve.
He likes the challenge that swimming brings because he said he would be bored to just go to school without anything else to look forward to. He said it is difficult, but he likes being busy.
Nowadays, when he’s not practicing or studying, you might find Yatsko lifeguarding at the Barshop Natatorium. Born under the astrological sign of Cancer, the crab, he noted, he’s a water sign. “I have a connection with water,” he said. Going two weeks without being in the pool is hard for him.
“It’s in my blood.”
UIW hopes to sponsor the NCAA National Meet in March at the University of Houston. Davis hopes for a large turnout in support of Yatsko and the rest of the team.