Rolland Ranson knew he was witnessing a special athlete the first day he watched Viktoriya Rybalko practice at the University of Maine.
“She single leg-hopped the entire [Alfond] Stadium stairs [bottom to top] many times with each leg, and then double leg-hopped, and then ran the stadium stairs eight times,” said Ranson, an assistant track coach for the Black Bears, via e-mail.
“No one has come close to that since, although several who met Vika and trained around her attempted to.”
That athletic prowess was one of several factors that set Rybalko apart from the field in Orono — and set the stage for her emergence as a world-class long jumper who will represent her native Ukraine in the 2008 Summer Olympics at Beijing.
Rybalko won her specialty at the Ukrainian national championship and Olympic Trials meet in early July with best jumps of 6.7 meters during the qualifying rounds and 6.72 meters in the finals — both efforts of just over 22 feet.
The 25-year-old Rybalko followed up that performance two weeks ago by finishing fourth in the 2008 European championships.
“Her dream is finally being realized,” said Ranson, who corresponds with Rybalko frequently.
Rybalko arrived in Maine at age 16, having already attended an English-speaking school back home in order to prepare for life in the United States.
“My first impression was a letter she postal-mailed to me from her home as a high school senior, with a photo of her standing beside a map of the world and a small bag packed sitting on the floor and old track spikes beside her,” Ranson said. “She was barely 16 years old and her goal was to come to the USA, earn a degree and make the Olympics.”
Nine years later, she’ s 3-for-3.
Rybalko competed for the Black Bears from 1999 to 2003, winning six New ,England titles in indoor track and field, two in outdoor track and 10 America East championships while establishing 11 school records.
In 2003, she led the UMaine women’ s team to the New England championship and placed second in the NCAA Championships in the long jump, earning All-American status.
“Her goal continuously was to develop the highest level of conditioning and technical excellence that would allow her to then perform at the highest level of performance that was out beyond anything an ordinary athlete would expect,” Ranson said. “Easy days were harder than the hard days for most athletes.”
Rybalko was similarly motivated in the classroom under the watchful eye of her academic mentor, Dr. Dorothy Croall, and she graduated from Maine in 2003 at age 20 with a double major in biochemistry and microbiology. She also won the America East scholar-athlete award and the Dean Smith Award, which recognizes the university’ s male and female student-athletes who exhibit exemplary academic and athletic achievement along with leadership and character.
“Earning the many academic awards and athletic awards are accomplishments that so few push themselves to achieve, or stress out doing so,” Ranson said. “Not Vika. She kept herself grounded. A great part of that was her parents’ influence.”
Rybalko continued her education at the University of Rochester, where she had accepted a full graduate research scholarship in virology.
She also continued to pursue her Olympic dream, which eventually ran into a roadblock because she was not yet eligible for U.S. citizenship and would not be allowed to compete for her home country unless she moved back to the Ukraine.
Ultimately, Rybalko made that move, taking a leave of absence from Rochester — after earning her master’ s degree — to return to the Ukraine.
She won the long jump at the 2006 Ukrainian national championships, and continued strong performances earned her gradual acceptance from her national team.
She won her second straight Ukrainian national long jump crown in 2007 with a wind-aided best of 6.87 meters, or 22 feet, 6? inches.
“This big jump really, finally, began to open doors for her,” Ranson said. “She was becoming more accepted by her country and her teammates.”
Rybalko subsequently finished fourth at the European championships, then 11th at the 2007 world championships.
Rybalko struggled with a hamstring injury early in the 2008 season but worked herself back into condition to long jump 6.71 meters during a meet in England before returning home to earn her trip to Beijing.
After the Olympics, Rybalko plans to return to the University of Rochester to complete work on her doctorate.