By Natasha Cyrille, U SPORTS Women's Volleyball Correspondent
It's one thing to move away for school in your home country or province. The excitement of your first parent-less home, the feeling of adulthood as you take on new adventures and of course, the appreciation for home-cooked food during the holidays.
To come overseas on your own and, have minimal contact with your family? That's a whole different story – a story that Iuliia Pakhomenko would come to know of very well.
From the outside looking in, Pakhomenko appears to be a talented athlete with everything going her way. The fifth-year outside hitter with the Thompson Rivers Wolfpack women's volleyball team is a recent winner of the U SPORTS women's volleyball Player of the Year award, and a former First-Team All-Canadian, who was invited to train with Team Canada last summer. She was also a nominee for the prestigious BLG Award as U SPORTS Female Athlete of the Year last season.
But there was a time where things were not on Pakhomenko's side.
Just when she finished her undergraduate degree at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, the masters student in business came up north. Meeting with Wolfpack head coach Chad Grimm, the two would spend the next three years learning from one another.
"Iuliia has a lot of experience, not only in volleyball but also in life," says Grimm. "Iuliia has been able to overcome many obstacles in her life to be successful and has done it without complaint."
The biggest obstacle: hope for her family's safe journey to Russia, without being to communicate with them for two weeks.
"Since the war started and the army came to my hometown my family started their immigration journey to Russia where we had family," says Pakhomenko, a native of Donetsk, Ukraine. "They had to change their cell phones every third day for the security. I don't think a lot of Canadian players will understand the struggle that international players have to go through - meaning not being able to see your family for years. I went home in 2013 last, and it was before the war when everything seemed to be fairly fine. It was hard to accept that every time you talk to your family (it) could be the last time."
It would not be the last time for the Thompson Rivers outside hitter.
While some stayed in Ukraine and others went to Russia, the weeks of agonizing waiting were over. Since then, Pakhomenko has become one of the top hitters in the country. This year, the Wolfpack veteran leads the nation with 4.94 kills/set and 316 kills in 18 matches. She also has a hitting percentage of .295, good for eighth in U SPORTS women's volleyball.
Last season when she was one of eight finalists for the BLG Award after taking home the Canada West Female Athlete of the Year, Pakhomenko led the country in kills/set (4.67), total kills (425) and service aces (50).
"Iuliia has been the cornerstone of our program since I took over in 2014 and somebody that the group can rely on to put it on the line in tough matches," says Grimm. "(She's) somebody that is not afraid to go for it under stressful situations."
After all she's been through, it seems that few obstacles can stand in her way.
Pakhomenko will complete her U SPORTS eligibility this season, and will soon be departing the Wolfpack program. Volleyball has been her life – she has a tattoo of a winged volleyball to further demonstrate her passion for the game. Although she is not sure on her future plans, Coach Grimm is positive she will continue to go far.
"Iuliia trained with Team Canada last summer and definitely has that potential," he says. "She is looking at professional options and I know will be able to push herself at that level to be successful as well."
For the time being, Pakhomenko continues to dominate the U SPORTS women's volleyball scene.
While volleyball may be life to Pakhomenko, family is everything.
"Family is a foundation of success and happiness for each person, family is the most honest people you can find in the world, who you can rely on anytime of your life," she says. "The only thing I can say about my family is that they helped me to become a person I am today - their constant support and help, helped me to get where I am today. I don't think I could achieve half of what I did without them."
Pakhomenko has elevated the game not only for her teammates but for everyone in varsity women's volleyball. Her leadership, work ethic, and courage have brought new light to the Thompson Rivers program.
The stretch run to the playoffs is on the horizon – a time that may be stressful for some athletes.
But for Pakhomenko, it's where she thrives.