Being one of the youngest head coaches in college sports has its pros and cons, according to women’s tennis Head Coach Olga Elkin. Hired at 23 years old, Elkin is still mistaken by many to be one of the players.
“We have been at many restaurants where we will sit down and the staff will ask, ‘Where is the coach?’” Elkin said. “Even at the doctor’s office, when I was wearing my tennis jacket, this couple was congratulating me for winning the OVC Championship and asked if I was a senior.”
While her team may be getting annoyed with people not knowing who its coach is, Elkin views the situation positively. Being a student-athlete just a few years ago benefits her as a coach in many ways.
“It helps me relate to the girls because I used to play and I know when I can and can’t push them,” Elkin said. “I schedule and know what to do because I went through that as a player.”
Elkin’s journey to Murray State wasn’t one she thought she would be on, as she originally planned to be in Europe.
“I had played for four years, and coached for two years and had gotten my undergraduate and master’s degree and I was tired,” Elkin said. “I was planning on going backpacking in Europe but my dad sat me down, and after a long talk he told me that I should apply for a couple of jobs.”
Elkin’s mother was a professional tennis player in Russia before her family moved to the U.S. Elkin was very young at the time. She participated in activities such as soccer and tae kwon do at first, since they were cheaper than tennis.
At 11, Elkin started playing tennis, and the sport once again became an important part of the Elkin household.
“The mood at the dinner table was determined by how tennis went – everything revolved around tennis,” Elkin said. “Our family dynamic revolved around tennis.”
While Elkin’s mother was the professional, it was Elkin’s father that quickly learned the sport and became her biggest coach. Despite starting at an older age, the game was in Elkin’s blood, and she quickly found success.
“I started at 11, which is very late in the tennis world,” Elkin said. “There wasn’t much in Omaha, so I started playing tournaments and got to be a top-50 player in the nation.”
The success continued into high school when Elkin won a state title as a freshman. At that moment, Elkin and her family knew that she could earn a scholarship. With that goal in mind, Elkin began training at the Mike Woof Tennis Academy in Kansas.
Elkin’s hard work led her to become a four-star recruit and the No. 1 recruit in Nebraska. Being the top-ranked tennis player in state, Elkin started attracting attention and offers from many programs. With numerous options, it was the bond with an assistant at Wichita State that cemented her choice.
“She was Russian and I just fell in love with her and so did my parents,” Elkin said. “It is tough choosing a school based on a coach, but the academy that I was playing at was close to the school and Wichita kept watching me play. It established a strong bond between me and the program.”
As a Shocker player for two years, Elkin won the Missouri Valley Conference Individual Championship in the No. 4 draw, but she still wanted something bigger. Elkin transferred to West Virginia after her sophomore year of college.
As a Mountaineer, Elkin won 24 matches her junior season playing doubles and three different spots in singles. A sudden knee injury early in her senior year changed her goals for the future.
The injury occurred just before the team’s annual trip to West Point, New York. Elkin’s head coach decided that she should travel with the team, but not as a listed player.
“He allowed me to travel because in women’s tennis you are allowed to bring three coaches, so I was made a student coach for that trip,” Elkin said. “I fell in love with it and wanted to go into coaching right after that moment.”
When her collegiate career ended, Elkin took a graduate assistant position at Kennesaw State and met Head Coach Jeffery Kutac. The relationship they formed continues, as the two still speak daily.
“He has been (coaching) for 30 years and he has been through it all from big universities to Division-III schools,” Elkin said. “He has had every scenario thrown at him, so he is someone that helps me out.”
As Elkin prepares to lead the Racers into the NCAA Tournament starting at Vanderbilt, she said she is thankful for everything the sport has given her, even if it means she will have to postpone backpacking in Europe a while longer.
Story by Tom Via, Staff writer