Ruslana Whiteside, a sophomore at Buchanan High School, lived in an orphanage in Ukraine until she was 9. Life there did not allow for the luxury of organized sports.
Today, Ruslana competes on the diving team at Buchanan, a pursuit full of challenges. Ruslana has severe hearing loss and cannot get her hearing aids wet. So when she stands on the 1-meter springboard and a coach at poolside tells her what dive to execute, she cannot hear.
Instead, she looks to an interpreter — positioned near the coach — who uses sign language to communicate the dive.
“The interpreter has to be focused, and I have to be focused,” Ruslana said.
She has faced much bigger challenges. Ruslana became an orphan at 1 month of age. Her adopted father, Chris Whiteside of Clovis, died when she was 12. Doctors diagnosed her hearing loss but could not explain the reason for it when she was 13.
Katherine Whiteside provided a mother’s love and important perspective after the diagnosis. She said Ruslana has adjusted well.
Today, 17-year-old Ruslana displays a lively personality. She smiles easily and often, but she also speaks with a maturity forged on the circumstances of her early life.
When Ruslana talks of the Whitesides, she said: “It just felt so right to have parents who could actually take care of me and do all the amazing things that I could only dream of.”
One of Ruslana’s current dreams is to get better on the twisting dives required in competitions. Some days are better than others for her on the diving board, but she always praises her teammates. “Everyone is doing an amazing job,” she said.
Ruslana was born in February 1999. She doesn’t know why she was placed in a government-run orphanage. The only bit of information came from a Ukrainian judge at the time of the adoption. The judge said her birth mother had a troubled life.
Eighty to 100 children lived in the orphanage, and Ruslana speaks fondly of life there.
“I had great friends,” she said.
Someone at the orphanage took a picture of Ruslana when she was about 6 months old and she still has the photo. She treasures it.
When Ruslana was 6 in July 2005, she was among a group of children from Russia and Ukraine who came to the United States for three-week stays with American families. A private adoption agency sponsored the trip.
Friends of the Whitesides were in the process of adopting a boy from Russia, and they encouraged Chris and Katherine to host a child. Ruslana was placed in their home.
“We just fell in love with her,” Katherine Whiteside said. “Unfortunately, it took two and a half years to get her back.”
The Whitesides — who had no children — started the adoption process when Ruslana returned to Ukraine. “We were full of hope,” Katherine Whiteside said. But the Whitesides had to switch adoption agencies because of agency problems, which caused the process to drag out.
Meanwhile, Ruslana waited and wondered in Ukraine.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get adopted,” she said. “I just had to hope for the best.”
Finally, in 2008, the Whitesides brought Ruslana to Clovis as their daughter. Even though she was almost 10, she was placed in second grade, a lower grade than other children her age. The reason: She spoke little English. But she grasped the language quickly and today has high verbal skills because she learned English before the hearing loss.
Ruslana lost her father in 2011. He died 13 days before his 47th birthday. Chris Whiteside was an avid sports fan, and in high school, he spent a lot of time in the pool — just as Ruslana does today. He played water polo and was on the swimming team.
In 2012, still adjusting to the loss of her father, Ruslana was tested for hearing loss.
“It started when I couldn’t pick up voices,” she said. “I couldn’t understand what people were saying.”
Ruslana had suffered no illness that could have caused the hearing loss, and whether it’s related to heredity cannot be determined because her family — and their medical history — is unknown.
“A mystery,” Katherine Whiteside said.
“I wish I knew,” Ruslana said.
Whiteside helped Ruslana take a pragmatic approach when she was fitted with hearing aids.
“It’s like glasses,” Whiteside told her daughter. “You just have to wear them to help your ears.”
The hearing aids instantly made a difference.
“It was like a light bulb went on, and Ruslana had tears in her eyes,” Whiteside said.
Meanwhile, Ruslana’s athletic interests grew. She participated in gymnastics and diving at Alta Sierra Intermediate School, and she has continued with both sports at Buchanan.
The twists and somersaults of gymnastics led Ruslana to diving. “I thought it would be amazing to do them on the board,” she said.
Ruslana competes on the junior varsity team.
“Ruslana is a beautiful diver with long, ballet-like lines,” Buchanan dive coach Teresa Hall said. “We enjoy having her on the team and appreciate the added element she teaches us in having to learn her dives without the benefit of hearing.”
Interpreters Heather Jordan and Veronica Gamch trade off signing for Ruslana with her diving. Jordan also goes to most of Ruslana’s classes and signs for her.
In addition, Ruslana uses a wireless system that makes it easier for her hearing aids to pick up the teacher's voice.
The interpreters — employees of the Clovis Unified School District — are getting an education in diving. “It’s an individual sport but a team effort” when it comes to Ruslana, Whiteside said.
Recently, Whiteside sat with a group of parents who watched Buchanan host Clovis North High School in a swimming and diving competition. When all the divers were done, Coach Hall announced the results.
With Gamch translating, Ruslana learned that she had placed first in the junior varsity girls competition. She clapped her hand over her mouth and bent over in joy.
Gamch translated a reporter’s question.
Her eyes bright with excitement, Ruslana replied: “I feel so great!”
Other members of the Buchanan diving team are Maddie Charnow, Elizabethann Cook, Marcos Garcia, Paige Le, Kiree Lowe, C.J. Paollili, Tori Parsons, Skyy Vang, Eddie Volochiy and Emma Yarbrough.
Garcia, Le, Lowe, Paollili and Vang qualified for the Central Section Division Championships, scheduled for May 11 and 12 at Clovis West High School.