Running, writing, and fighting: A profile of Tanya Denisova
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012 - 2:45pm
I MET TANYA Denisova during my first 6 a.m. track workout at the University of Illinois Armory, where the air is uncomfortably dry and Uni runners practice alongside several very intimidating ROTC training groups. While I was panting and struggling to run, Tanya maintained her perfect, gazelle-like running form and kept pushing herself to stay in the lead. As she lapped me within the first ten minutes, I thought, "Wow! This girl must be really tough!"
As I got to know Tanya over the years, I discovered that behind her tough, aggressive countenance, which is probably the result of her extensive martial arts experience, she is very fun-loving and a supportive teammate. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her to talk about her multitude of other talents and hobbies before she leaves Uni.
Unlike most Uni students, Tanya is not a United States citizen. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and lived there for two years. Her parents, who are both research scientists, decided to move to the U.S. because the scientific research programs in Russia were underfunded, and they had received an excellent job offer in St. Louis. When Tanya was four years old, her family moved to Urbana.
Tanya's Russian heritage still plays an important role in her life. She speaks Russian fluently and can also read and write in Russian. She attributes this to her frequent contact with her family overseas, whom she visits every two to three years.
"Most of my family is in Russia — my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins," she said. "Communicating effectively with them is definitely important to me."
While living in Urbana, Tanya began looking for an extracurricular activity to occupy her free time. She started with ballet, which improved her fitness and flexibility but eventually became overly strenuous and time-consuming.
"I had to quit ballet because I was getting to that level where I would have to take classes five times per week, and point shoes were messing up my toes, which was really painful," she recalls. "Plus I'm tall, which doesn't really work out with ballet."
Tanya moved from the artistic, graceful world of ballet to a more powerful, aggressive sport: martial arts. Although these two sports seem to be polar opposites, she noted that the transition was not overly challenging.
"Ballet really helped me with martial arts," she said. "I came in there, I was fit, I was flexible, and I could do all of these things. Although it was a problem getting me to do all of the yells and the powerful punches because I was like, 'Oh, look at me! I'm so graceful!'"
She started taking Tae Kwon Do classes at HMD Academy in seventh grade, and then picked up Kali Escrima over a year later. Kali is a Filipino weapons-based martial art that is somewhat rare in the United States, and it was taught by one of Tanya's favorite instructors.
"I really like Kali because you can basically do anything," she said. "The point is to teach you how to use anything you can pick up as a weapon to either attack or defend yourself. [...] In Tae Kwon Do, you have specific forms and positions, whereas Kali allows you to respond to every situation as it comes up."
Due to the free-form nature of Kali, participants do not wear any padding or gear. Though learning how to defend oneself without gear is very useful, Tanya learned that it can also lead to embarrassing accidents.
"This one time, I was practicing with a guy who was a few years older than me," she recounted. "I accidentally hit him in his 'area.' [...] I wasn't even aiming at it! I remember how it happened; I was striking and he blocked, and my stick glanced off and whacked him across there. He couldn't get up for five minutes!"
Tanya hopes to take Kali classes at the Inosanto Academy in Los Angeles when she goes there to attend Pomona College, majoring in neuroscience.
"Dan Inosanto is kind of the father of Kali in the U.S.," she explained, "and so I hope that I have the opportunity to drive over there sometime. He gives a lot of seminars, so I can learn some more Kali."
Uni sports career
To Tanya's disappointment, her Kali class was discontinued after a few years because the instructor decided to switch careers. She continued taking Tae Kwon Do classes until her sophomore year. Meanwhile, her parents, along with Doug Mynatt and Sally Walker, noticed that her 5K time was exceptionally good and encouraged her to try cross-country. She began running cross-country and enjoyed it, although she recalls it being difficult at the beginning.
"I thought [cross-country] was really, really hard," she said. "First of all, the first ever Windsor run, the standard first long run of the season, was horrible! I barely made it there!"
During her first season sophomore year, Tanya immediately showed off her talent in running and made the varsity team. She improved tremendously over the course of the season and got an impressive personal record at a less-than-favorable sectional meet.
"It was the absolute worst conditions," she recalls. "There was mud; it was cold and miserable. For every step you took, you slid back half a step. It was so bad! Before that, I had never run sub-23, and I got a 22:49."
After the success of her first cross -country season, she continued running by joining the distance track team. In track, she discovered that her real strength was the 800 meter run, for which she holds a personal record of 2:35.
Tanya will continue to run track and cross-country in college.
"You know the 'freshman fifteen' thing and all of that dorm food?" she asked jokingly. "[...] Running is my method of making sure I don't gain a bunch of weight."
Along with her athletic talents, Tanya also stands out in the classroom because of her more academic hobbies. In her free time, she enjoys writing novels and poetry. She mainly writes fantasy novels and is one of the few people in the school who writes exclusively formal poetry.
She began writing novels in fifth grade, as she was inspired by popular fantasy books like Eragon and Lord of the Rings. She continued writing novels throughout middle school and her time at Uni.
"I just kept writing novels [and] stories, and it progressed," she said. "I got a lot better at writing too. It got a lot more sophisticated, and the stories got a lot better planned out — and a lot more creative, might I add!"
Last year for National Novel Writing Month, Tanya wrote a novel that was so long it took up about 300 pages of a single-spaced Word document. She also joined Unique in order to offer her writing expertise to Uni's annual writing and artwork publication.
As for publishing her own work, Tanya has had some of her poems published in magazines and collections, but none of her novels have been published.
"Mostly I just write for myself," she said. "That's what I really enjoy about writing; I can just write whatever I want and I don't have to worry about what other people think of it."
A fond farewell
Looking back at her time at Uni, Tanya has no regrets. She arrived at Uni as a shy, quiet subfreshman, and then blossomed into an outgoing and athletic senior with a distinguished talent in writing. Though it is heartwarming to see how excited she is about going to her dream college, the Uni track team will never be able to replace our favorite Russian 800-meter runner.