COLUMBIA - Dana Ivanova fits in with the Hickman girls cross-country team.
Before the Missouri Cross Country Challenge on Saturday morning, you could find her with the team stretching and listening to a borrowed iPod, helping to ease prerace jitters.
But if you listen closely, you will hear what makes her stand out from the rest of the pack. You will find Ivanova chatting with fellow teammate, Marit Schlagbeck in German. German is one of the four languages Ivanova speaks.
This year, Ivanova is a foreign exchange student living in Columbia. She grew up in the eastern Slovakian mountain town, Poprad. Her family spent three years living in Germany, where she was immersed in the German language. Last year she lived in Spain for the school year as an exchange student, improving her Spanish. Now in Columbia, Ivanova will be able to work on her English.
Ivanova wanted to spend time in the United States. Her grandmother, who lives in Columbia, helped make that happen. Her grandmother worked with the American Intercultural Student Exchange (AISE) program to directly place Ivanova with the Occena family.
“Grandma knew I liked to run,” Ivanova said. Ivanova’s grandmother made sure Ivanova was placed with a running family.
“Dana’s grandparents chose our family because she knew we were runners,” Erin Occena said. Occena is Ivanova’s host sister.
Running isn’t the only thing the two girls have in common.
“We speak Spanish at home. It’s a bonding thing,” Occena said, “We get distracted from homework because we spend hours talking in Spanish.”
Multi-talented Ivanova has made an impact on the team with her running skills.
“She’s established herself as a strong No. 2-runner on the team,” said Pete Doll, assistant coach, “Team-wise, she’s a bridge between Nicole (Mello, freshman front runner) and other runners who run with the pack.”
Ivanova’s attitude also makes a difference.
“She has a very competitive, fighter-type spirit,” said Noelle Gilzow, assistant coach. “I hope it’s contagious.”
Ivanova's host mother, Kathleen Occena, agrees.
“She’s a great gal,” Kathleen Occena said, “ She has a positive attitude and makes adjustments easily.”
That attitude will help especially after races like Saturday. The Hickman girls cross country team placed fifth overall in the Missouri Cross Country Challenge. Ivanova placed 14th overall, behind Mello, who finished sixth.