Erika Stasakova, a 17-year-old senior at John Carroll, has made an impressive transition to life here after immigrating from Slovakia with her family when she was in elementary school.
Stasakova always wanted to play sports, but girls in her native country didn't often do that. She took up soccer, and then some friends got her into cross country and running. She has developed into one of the state's top runners.
Stasakova won the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland championship last year to help the Patriots capture the team title and was named to the All-Metro team. She's off to another strong start this year, combining with Nicole Clarke and others to make No. 2 John Carroll a team to beat.
Stasakova is deciding on colleges and hopes to major in international relations. How old were you when you came to America?
I was 8 years old, and I moved with my parents and my two brothers. That's kind of tough to still have most of my family across the ocean. My grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles and friends are still there. I actually went back last April, and it was as if I didn't leave. It was awesome just seeing everyone again. I just wish they could be here with me in America to experience the things that I've experienced. It's been a great opportunity to live in this country.
Why did your parents come here?
They wanted to come for us to have better opportunities They wanted us to be better off with a job when we were older. I just became a citizen here my sophomore year, and I'm a still a citizen of Slovakia.
What was the hardest thing for you at first?
The language - that was the big thing. I had to attend this program, English as a Second Language. I would basically read everything in my language and write it down in my notebook. Then, about a year later, I began to understand it in English. I adjusted really fast, I think. In third grade, my grades were awful, but by fourth and fifth grade I started getting all A's and B's. I started learning really fast. I just wanted to understand what everyone was saying. I felt really left out at first because I didn't understand what anyone was saying. It was difficult. I missed my family so much, and I really didn't know why we were here. But now, nine years later, I know why. There are so many things I've done here that I couldn't have done in Slovakia.
How and when did you get into running?
I played soccer ever since fourth grade, and that was one of the things I wouldn't have been able to do in Slovakia. I always remember watching the boys play there. But with running - I was playing soccer for my middle school, and Larry Pickett, who was my friend's parent, encouraged me to join cross country. His wife, Sharon, did that also. They saw me play soccer and said, "Erika should sign up for cross country." I just did it for fun for two years, and Mr. Larry would run next to me, cheering for me in races. He and Sharon still support me all the time. I think that without Larry and his wife and son, Josh, who just graduated from John Carroll last year, I probably would never have run in high school. I got the love of running through them.
What are your feelings about running?
I like the challenge of it, the competition. I like how you feel after a workout; it just clears my mind and makes me feel like I've accomplished something. I don't focus on anything that makes me stressful.
What's your best moment as a runner for John Carroll?
I think it was the fact that - what I like the most - was I got one of my best friends to go out for cross country. That's Nicole Clarke, and she turns out to be this amazing runner. I just know that cross country season wouldn't be the same without her. We train together, we run together, we hang out together. It's just good to have her with me when we go through our hard workouts, our hills, and it's good to have someone to push me. We push each other, and it helps with our training. It's good to have someone right beside me. It's good to have someone with me.
What's in your iPod right now?
Most of the music I listen to is Spanish worship songs. I went on a trip to the Dominican Republic this past summer, and this man there gave us music, and it just helps me feel better when I listen to it. It encourages me - it's inspirational. There's also rock music. There's happy and get-you-moving songs.
What are you reading now?
Actually, I'm just reading plays for school and textbooks. ... I've also been reading the Bible.
What do you do at John Carroll?
I like to be active in my school. I'm vice president of the senior class and do the Fellowship of Christian Athletes leadership meeting. I'm a captain of the cross country team. I enjoy getting the chance to speak in front of my school and like trying to make a difference.
Are you going to run in college?
I would like to. I enjoy running, and I think I would like to do that in college. It would just depend on where I go and how things work out. But I would certainly love to.
What's your goal for this season in cross country?
I think that it would be amazing if our team had the opportunity to go to the Nike team nationals, and it's a possibility. Certainly, I would like our team to win the IAAM championships again and then the state private school championships, where we were second last year. For myself, I would really like to get my times down and keep improving and just enjoying every moment of my last cross country season in high school.
What are your thoughts about going back to Slovakia to visit again at some point?
I would love to go back to Slovakia and make a difference in my family's lives and my friends' lives. They've seen so much of the things that I've done, and I would just like to bring something to them and help them more with their lives.