Sadly, the citizenship race doesn’t end positively for all athletes. In 1996, Tatiana Brikulskaya was a 17-year-old top rhythmic gymnast from Ukraine when she moved to Brooklyn with her family. At first, Brikulskaya was miserable. “I couldn’t speak English, and I didn’t know how this country worked, how the lifestyle was,” she says. A month after her arrival, she met a fellow gymnast at the Jewish center where she was taking English classes. The woman gave her the name of a coach; even in a foreign country, gymnastics was something that Brikulskaya understood. “I started doing gymnastics again for myself, just for myself,” she says.
Brikulskaya, now 21, had bigger ambitions: to go to the Olympics. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service has refused to bend its five-year residency requirement (she’s been here for three years and five months). Brikulsakaya says, “I think there should be some way to make an exception when you want to compete for this country.”
There isn’t, says Elaine Komis, public affairs officer at the INS. “By law it’s five years, no matter who you are.” Brikulskaya, who will be 25–geriatric in gymnast years–by the 2004 Olympics, is trying to be philosophical. “I would love to compete in Sydney,” she says, “but not more than I want to become an American. This is my country now.”
Anna Kozlova says that October 7, the day of her citizenship exam, was more nerve-racking than any competition. That morning, U.S. synchronized swimming coach Chris Carter loaned her the red-white-and-blue scarf that she had worn at the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics. Kozlova aced the oral test-questions such as “Who was the first president of the United States?”–and breezed through the English competency section (she was asked to write the sentence “I swim often”). That afternoon, surrounded by friends, teammates and her father, Arvid, who was visiting from Russia, Kozlova was sworn in as a new U.S. citizen. “I couldn’t say the pledge of allegiance because I was crying so much,” she says. “The best way to describe it … well, it must be like getting married. You’ve been waiting so long, and then it’s all over in one instant.”
Louise Jarvis began her journalism career as an editorial assistant at WS&F before becoming a freelance writer two years ago. For this month’s Sydney 2000 Countdown, “American Dreams”, she interviewed top athletes who have immigrated to the United States, several of whom are anxiously waiting for citizenship so they can participate in the Olympics. “These women have a totally different sense of what it is to compete for a country,” Jarvis says. “For them, it’s not about money or fame. It’s about freedom.” Jarvis also wrote “Champions” and is an avid fly fisher. She contributes to Mirabella, Elle and Mademoiselle.