Yelena Leuchanka – Center, WNBA Team Atlanta Dream

Yelena Leuchanka

The Road to Success

By Cynthia Good

She grew up in the shadow of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster and into an “awkward” teen – the tallest in her class. Today, now stunning and poised, the 6’5” center for the WNBA Atlanta Dream, Yelena Leuchanka knows much about perseverance and overcoming the odds. Yelena is a fierce competitor whose life outside of basketball encompasses giving of her time to young women and girls. Yelena sees a tremendous opportunity in the U.S. to help girls overcome self-imposed obstacles so they too can win. As a mentor for Cool Girls, Inc., Yelena dedicates a great deal of her free time to her Cool Sisters, her mentees, and has hosted more than 250 Cool Girls at Atlanta Dream games.

Here, Leuchanka tells PINK how she did it and why she takes time on the sidelines to help young women and girls feel better about their self image.


PINK: What’s your success secret?

YL: Personal determination, especially if someone tells me I can’t do something.  Also, overcoming barriers, like not being able to speak English when I arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago. I taught myself by listening to music and reading children’s books.

PINK: What is the biggest concern facing professional women right now?

YL: In professional basketball, as in most of corporate America, the discrepancy in salaries between women and men is still out of balance. The salary cap in the WNBA is $827,000. The cap for the 2010-2011 season in the NBA is $58 million. Clearly, the NBA generates more revenue to justify the higher salaries, but that is quite a gap. I encourage all sports lovers to attend a WNBA game. It’s exciting and competitive with amazing long shots, slam dunks and down to the second battles to win.

PINK: What’s best business advice you’ve ever received?

YL: No matter how tough the road to success may be, never give up.

PINK: Describe your leadership style.

YL: When you’re a leader, you have to do what’s right for the entire team. Walk the walk and be prepared to work harder than anyone else. In crunch time, leaders step up and know what approach to take with peers to get the desired result.

PINK: How do you motivate your team?

YL: I’m big on showing, not talking. So, I try and push myself to do my best and challenge my teammates. Everyone has ups and downs, so keeping a positive attitude, especially during the down times, is how I motivate.

PINK: What are your best balance tips?

YL: Even though basketball is my work, it is basketball I turn to when I am stressed out. It is my friend that’s always there. Basketball is also a great form of exercise, and working my body, and having fun doing it, keeps me balanced.

PINK: You say you felt awkward as a teenager since you were the “tallest, overweight” and “from a poor area.” Is that why you’re concerned about how women see themselves?

YL: Yes. That’s why I love to volunteer in the community with girls and young women. It keeps everything in perspective. I volunteer as a mentor with Cool Girls and teach fitness to them. It’s an award-winning early intervention after school program dedicated to the empowerment of low-income girls. With the challenges I faced as a girl, especially growing up in a poor area, being the tallest and biggest, then speaking no English when I came to America at 17, I want to share some experiences I had to overcome. I want them to know not to worry about their size or weight if they are living a healthy life, through nutrition and exercise. Remember, muscle weighs more than fat! Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Pursue your dreams no matter how challenging it may be! And remember, there is so much opportunity in America to be whatever you want to be. Go for it!

PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

YL: I played piano for five years, am left-handed, but shoot with my right. I’m from Chernobyl and was age three when the Chernobyl nuclear plant incident occurred. A lot of details were covered up, so I’m not sure we ever heard the entire story. We were told to eat as much iodine as possible, because of the radiation. I truly believe this is why my family wanted me to leave and go to the U.S. when I was a teen. They wanted a better life for me.

PINK: What is one personal goal you haven’t yet achieved?

YL: Career-related, I want to win the Euro league. Winning a WNBA championship would also be incredible. I would love to endorse something in the skincare or health/beauty arena. After basketball, a career in the fashion industry is a personal goal, as well.

PINK: How do you remain inspired?

YL: When I want to give up, and feel like not doing something, I think of someone else who does what I do, working harder than I am, and that fires me up.

PINK: What is your workplace pet peeve?

YL: When people don’t give their all or just go through the motions. I’m a team player, so I like to play with team players. Not just basketball but in any job, it drives me crazy when people just do enough to get by. Don’t you always feel better when you know you’ve done the best you can do?

PINK: What do you do for fun?

YL: Movies, hang out with friends, get a massage, go shopping.

PINK: What has been the biggest career challenge for you?

YL: Playing year around takes its toll. There is no down time. Basketball is also such a competitive sport, you have to always improve your game. Your job is really never done.

PINK: Of what are you most proud?

YL: Coming to America, learning English, going to school, having five knee surgeries and proud I didn’t give up. Being the first woman from Belarus to play in the WNBA also makes me very proud.

PINK: Who are your role models or mentors?

YL: My mom. She has a strong will. Nothing has been easy for her, but I admire her for how hard she’s worked to get where she is. She instilled solid values in my brother and me. It wasn’t easy leaving home and going to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, but she prepared me well for it. She still hasn’t seen me play in the WNBA, which breaks my heart. One day.

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