Osage tennis players share experience as first-generation Americans
By the tennis courts at School of the Osage this spring, English may not have been the first language one could hear.
It may have been Polish, it may have been Ukrainian or it may have been Russian or Armenian, but it is a story as American as any other.
Osage junior Mark Pankiv and his sophomore teammate Vladimir Nahapetyan have teamed up as doubles partners on the tennis courts and won a district title together while also helping their program win a team district title as well.
But, that is not all they share.
They are first-generation Americans and are living examples and reminders of some of the ideas and principles the United States is supposed to represent- that people of all backgrounds can immigrate to this country and thrive.
“It is pretty special to see how my parents grew up in a poor family, came to the United States and live a pretty good life,” Pankiv said of his mother and father. “I look up to them a lot because of everything they’ve been through. Their parents have been through a lot and it means a lot to me.”
Pankiv’s father immigrated to the United States from Ukraine and his mother came from Poland. Pankiv, who was born in Chicago, said his parents met by living in the same apartment complex with his mother living on the first or second story and his dad being a little higher up. Meanwhile, Nahapetyan was born in the Lake area, but his roots stretch across the globe as his father came from Armenia and his mother came from Russia.
When kids entered the picture, after moving to the United States, the parents naturally sought to make life easier for their children. For Pankiv and Nahapetyan, it started with communication for the first-generation Americans.
In the first four or five years of his life, before he moved to the Lake area, Pankiv recalled how he just knew a mix of Ukranian, Polish and Russian and actually didn’t know any English during his time in Chicago. That quickly changed, but he is glad to still have some mix of those dialects in his background.
“I was fluent and when I came here my parents were afraid I would not be able to go to school here. They put me in a little private school and I kind of forgot about the language and adapted to the English language,” said Pankiv who has also gone by Marek (Polish), Marko (Ukranian) or his nickname of “Pancake” for fun.
“We have Russian, Ukranian and Polish friends in Chicago and coming here to the Lake, I think learning English was pretty easy because I had childhood friends that could help me. What sucks is I kind of forgot those languages, but still remember some stuff, which is pretty cool. I’ve learned when you are a kid, it is so much easier to pick up everything because you’re learning how to do everything.”
It was a similar story for Nahapetyan, who also goes by “Vlad” or his Russian nickname of “Vova” as his sister sometimes calls him.
“They taught my sister Russian when she was little and then she came to Osage and had speaking problems so they stopped teaching me Russian and started talking to me in English,” said the sophomore who also started using English a lot more around the same age as Pankiv.
“The Russian I know has really faded and it has been a while. They still speak Russian around me and we still hang out with some of our Russian friends, but it has definitely faded over the years.”
Learning different languages were not the only lessons imparted upon Nahapetyan or Pankiv, though. Both of their parents also sought to ensure a strong moral upbringing that shapes their characters to this day.
For Pankiv, some of the lessons that stuck with him were the value of hard work and a work ethic, as well as the importance of family, friendship and his faith. The last of those, he certainly does not take for granted.
“I think my parents shaped me into a decent guy. They built me pretty good, and are very Christian-like people, which was hard in Europe,” the Osage junior pointed out. “When my dad was in Ukraine, Christianity was kind of not allowed. His dad, my grandfather, got arrested for reading the Bible. So, him encouraging me to go into the gospel and learning that- the same with my mom as well- it was kind of how they built me into a better person.
“Christianity is something they did not really force upon me, but encouraged, and that shaped me quite a bit. The freedom to express it is really nice.”
Nahapetyan said the idea of responsibility has been a major influence for him, growing up, and it has played a role in his education.
“My dad’s strictness has shaped me to become how responsible I am. I believe I am pretty responsible and get on top of all my things,” the sophomore noted. “All my homework and everything, I take it pretty serious.”
And, of course, taking care of the academics allows both Nahapetyan and Pankiv to enjoy sports and all the bonds that have formed from that. In the fall, they enjoyed time on the pitch together playing soccer for the Indians before reuniting on the tennis courts this spring.
“I really do like being active and my whole friend group here at school is pretty much the soccer team and tennis team,” Nahapetyan said. “Those are the really close friends I have. They all come from the sports I play here at Osage.”
The sophomore also credited soccer coach Jason Long and tennis coach John Baumstark for making his athletic experience a more enjoyable one.
“I really do appreciate the coaches I have over here,” he said. “Coach Long is new to the system and he has done wonders, I would say. He is a fantastic coach and Coach Baumstark is new to the system and this is his first actual year because of COVID. He has been doing an amazing job and they have both been putting us through the work and shaping me to be a better player in both sports.”
Pankiv has also formed close friendships with Osage teammates along with Nahapetyan. He credits sophomore Alex Baklashev, also a first-generation American who has a Russian background, for helping him get into the sport of soccer as a second grader and he has close ties to junior soccer player Veton Abazi who is a first-generation American with family from Albania.
But overall, he considers his teammates like a second family, and Baumstark has gotten to see some of that this spring in his first actual season of coaching tennis after COVID-19 cancelled the 2020 season. The coach said he has enjoyed getting to know both Pankiv and Nahapetyan and all of his players a lot better in his first year of teaching at the high school where he can see them more often beyond their role as athletes.
“Getting to see them outside of the court or field and getting to see the ‘every-day’ person instead of just the player has been great. I feel like Mark, Vlad and I have grown from just meeting them last year and getting our season taken away,” Baumstark stated. “This year, having a full season and being with each other for two months with bus and suburban rides to our games, it feels like we have a great relationship and I feel like I’m the type of coach that if they need anything they can talk to me.
“They are great guys, they work hard and they are good players to have on your team because they are going to show up and work their hardest,” the coach continued. “They love doing it and are great teammates and it is great to be around them.”
Now that the season is over and summer has arrived, Nahapetyan is looking forward to a potential opportunity to go see family on the other side of the world. He has only met his great grandmother on his mother’s side so far, in terms of his extended family, but that will change with plans to go to Armenia. He also looks forward to future plans of visiting St. Petersburg in Russia.
“This will be my first time going over there. I’ve never been there, so it is going to be a fun experience,” Nahapetyan said of getting to meet more of his extended family for the first time. “It is going to be fun seeing them.”
Pankiv wants to visit his mother and father’s hometown in the near future when the opportunity arises and he is actually the only member of his family who has yet to go to Europe.
“It makes me kind of mad,” Pankiv said with a smile.
At the same time, he has enjoyed being at Osage and said the Lake area was not such a bad place to be.
“It has been pretty fun growing up over here. I have to realize this place is a lot better than other places because I feel like I don’t appreciate this place as much as I should,” the junior said. “We have a lot of tourists who come here and say this is such a beautiful place.
“You know in Florida how the sunsets are really nice. Even over here, the sunsets are really nice.”
For now, he can maintain those ties by carrying on one of the traditions of his grandmother and make some favorite Polish dishes.
“My grandma used to make food called gulompki and pierogi. Gulompki is a cabbage roll filled with meat and rice and pierogi is a dumpling filled with potatoes and is really good,” Pankiv explained. “That is one thing I’d pass onto the next generation.”
And, that next generation and this country may be better for it- the opportunity to engage and share in unique cultures and backgrounds- simply because some took a chance and moved to the United States to forge better futures.
Michael Losch is the Sports Editor at the Lake Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-346-2132