Legendary Latvian sportswoman

  • 2000-01-20
  • By Vineta Lagzdina
Ten years down the track, gentle giantess Ula Semyonova talks about
her remarkable career as an international superstar and what
followed. Vineta Lagzdina reports. She strikes a grand figure at 2.1
meters, smartly dressed, a touch of makeup on a naturally radiant
face with a low-pitched gravelly voice and softness in her manner.
Admired and loved by so many who have seen her in action over a span
of 24 years on basketball courts throughout the world, Iuliyaku
Semyonova, more commonly known as Ula or Ulyana, now works at the
Olympic Committee's headquarters in Riga.

The transition from the world stage of professional sport at a time
when Latvia was still a Soviet republic was not an easy one for

"It was like being thrown out of a boat when I stopped playing. For
months I asked myself, "What can I do?" said Semyonova.

Because of problems with her knees, hips and back necessitating
numerous operations on her legs, "from so many years in sport, and
being so tall and having to jump all the time," Semyonova did not
want to be a trainer, because she tired very quickly. Unlike in the
West, where she would most certainly have had millionaire status for
her contribution to sport, there was no support system here for
Olympic veterans. When the president of the newly founded Olympic
Committee, Vilnis Baltins, suggested in 1991 that a social foundation
for retired professional athletes and Olympic veterans with the aim
of providing moral, medicinal and financial support was badly needed
in Latvia, Semyonova set to work immediately.

"Before, I was applauded for my good work on the court, but as
president of Latvia's Olympic Social Foundation, I feel as if I am
back in the saddle. My work is appreciated," she said.

When she started there were six Olympic veterans from the 1936
Olympics in her charge. Now only one remains, but there are many
former athletes the foundation helps, and the number is growing daily.

Ulyana has led a remarkable life. At the age of 13, being 1.9 meters
tall, she was taken from her farmhouse home near Daugavpils to Riga
by trainers who saw her as a potential basketball star. A shy but
willing teamster, she joined the Latvian TTT women's basketball team
in 1967 when she was 15. They won the European Cup in 1968.

She was selected for the Soviet team later that year after a rigorous
selection that plucked the best players from all the republics, she
represented the Soviet Union for 22 years in games throughout the
world - Africa, Canada, USA, Japan, and all of Europe.

Semyonova won gold at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and at the
Moscow Olympics in 1980. She was nominated "Woman Athlete of the
Year" 12 times, has many trophies, and appeared in the Guinness Book
of Records as the tallest basketball player in the world for more
than a decade.

"My one regret is that I never had the chance to play internationally
under my own Latvian flag," said Semyonova, because she retired from
competitive sport in 1989.

"But I am happy that I gave so many years to sport. If I had my life
all over again, I'd do the same. Times have changed, but during the
Soviet years it was one of the only ways you could get to travel, and
I traveled the world. No one can take that wealth away from me, nor
can they replace it."

She also loves music and was able to bring back a collection of LPs
that were unavailable in the republics at the time and which still
give her great pleasure.

Semyonova's's contribution to sport has continued to be highly
honored and is indelibly recorded in history. In 1993 she was the
first European woman to be nominated and accepted in the USA's
Springfield "Basketball Hall of Fame," and in 1995, the International
Fair Play Committee awarded her a diploma of honor for her extensive
contribution to the world of sports and for her significant public
activities after concluding her athletic career.

Not to be outdone by other internationals, she received one of
Latvia's highest civilian honors, the Order of Three Stars, from
former president of Latvia, Guntis Ulmanis.

Many tributes came last year in June after being nominated and
accepted in the world's newly-opened women athlete's Hall of Fame in
Knoxville, Tennessee. The applause rang out loud and strong to
Semyonova's opening words, "I love this game."

To young athletes, Semyonova says, "If you want to achieve results,
then you have to work for it. I used to train three and four times a
day. Sport prepares you for life, because it puts you in situations
where you have to use tactics and make split second decisions. You do
it, and it makes you strong. It gives you the courage to be decisive
and take action in daily life. But it's also important to educate
yourself. It was hard for me at the time, but I finished school and
graduated from the Institute of Sport. It was worth it."

By popular request, Semyonova published an autobiography in 1998
called "Kad es biju laimiga (When I was happy)," which is available
only in Latvian.