Joyous Tharrington, former women's basketball player at George Mason, traveled to Ukraine with Athletes in Action. GoMason.com caught up with Tharrington upon arriving back in the United States to see how the trip went.
Describe you overall experience with the trip?
Overall, the trip was an awesome experience. Being immersed in another culture definitely was eye-opening and enlightening. Being able to play basketball in Ukraine while also serving the Lord was fulfilling and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
How was basketball different in Ukraine?
The game was played at a faster pace because the shot clock is 24 seconds and there is an 8 second back court, if I remember correctly. I really enjoyed this because it creates more opportunities to score as well as get up and down the floor in transition. The one difficult adjustment was how the refs call fouls. Needless to say, we play a much more aggressive brand of defense in the US and we had to adjust to this! Overall, I enjoyed the style of play and I think adopting it here in the US would create a better product on the court at the collegiate level. I mean, who doesn't like shooting whenever they are open and getting buckets in transition?!
You got to play against several national teams of Ukraine? How was that experience?
It was great playing against several of the Ukrainian teams! I felt honored to be a mini-representative of the United States! They played our national anthem and the Ukrainian national anthem before games, so it was neat to see our country honored in that way. In addition to eating meals together, we also got to trade gear and gifts with the teams. I gave away a pair of my basketball shoes and witnessing the excitement of the player I developed a good bond with was priceless. I came home with some pretty cool Ukrainian gear, too!
How did the players and kids receive the group?
The players on the teams we played received us well. Two women off the veterans national team ate dinner with us, showed us around Kiev one evening and bought us chocolate. We were able to get to know them on a more personal level. We also had the privilege of eating with the other teams we played and spent time with them after the games. With the junior national team, we played some group games and also exchanged gear. Our coach developed a good rapport with their coach and was asked to not only run them through some practices during some of our down time but also possibly come back in the summers and train the junior national team. The Lord opened many doors for us!
The kids we worked with at one of the camps also received us well. We were paired up and helped coach 3 on 3 teams (my team won the tournament J ). It rained at the beginning of the camp so we had to use long branches on the outdoor court to clear off the water in order for them to play. After the second day of camp, one of the FCA representatives in Ukraine shared a personal testimony and spoke to the young boys about not wasting their lives. Afterwards, one of the girls on my team was also given the opportunity to share.
Were they any major cultural differences you had to adjust to In Ukraine?
Yes! Some of the people we worked with said they could tell we were American because we show teeth when we smile and they don't. Also, in most places we could not flush our toilet tissue; instead they have mini-trashcans beside the toilet where you put your toilet paper. No air conditioning. Ice is not as prevalent, either. I only had ice in a drink maybe a couple times while over there. The food wasn't bad, though. We had a lot of chicken, potatoes, soup, fresh vegetables, bread, etc. Minus the language barrier, the cultural differences were relatively minor and easy to adjust to!
What was the most exciting thing you did or saw while in Ukraine?
There were a lot of “highs” on the trip but what was most exciting was going to church and seeing people from another culture serve the same God. We could recognize some of the songs they sang and could sing along in English. We could not always communicate with others well but after the service different members smiled and hugged us as their way of saying welcome. It definitely showed how big our God is and that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of nationality.
What was your most rewarding experience in Ukraine?
The most rewarding experience in Ukraine was watching as we helped other Christians in Ukraine move toward their vision of a Christian women's basketball league. It was rewarding developing a good rapport with Ukrainian coaches and players and opening doors for one of the couples we worked with to speak with those coaches and players about their vision. Just knowing I have become part of something much bigger than myself in that we were helping with the revival of women's basketball in Ukraine is rewarding.
With the community service work you have done in the U.S., did u see anything different in terms of the needs of the people overseas?
In my opinion, the needs of people all around the world are the same: the need for shelter, food and security. What we focused more on, however, was others' need to hear the Gospel and learn about Jesus. The majority of Ukrainians identify as orthodox Christian but have never heard about Jesus Christ. It was our goal to build relations with those we worked with and share God's love with them in addition to more about Christ if the opportunity presented itself.
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
I went into the trip open-minded and with few expectations. I wanted to get as much out of it as I could and I know I did! It gave me a greater perspective on my faith while also making me appreciate where I live and what I have! I hope I can continue traveling and spreading God's love through sport!