For these two Missouri athletes, Eastern Europe is home, but Columbia is where the track is

Valeria Kostiuk and Rauno Liitmae have each settled in far from their home countries to don black and gold, reflecting the trek of many international collegiate athletes.
Junior Valieria Kostiuk competes at a meet for Missouri track and field. Christina Long, Mizzou Athletics

Eastern Europe and mid-Missouri don’t have much in common. Separated by language, culture and, of course, distance, it isn’t always easy to find people who have spent significant time in both areas.

Unless one looks to the Missouri track and field roster.

Junior Valeria Kostiuk of Ukraine and senior Rauno Liitmae of Estonia both wanted to continue their educations without sacrificing the chance to carry on at high-level athletic competition. Both were attracted to the American college sports system, and both eventually found their way to Columbia.

Kostiuk, a high jumper, grew up in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Her father, a former sprinter who once represented the Soviet Union internationally, was well-connected with local coaches and encouraged her to take up track and field.

“[My dad] always wanted me to do track,” Kostiuk said. “I came to track, I tried high jump — liked it from the first jump.”

As she developed into one of the best young high jumpers in Europe, Kostiuk was spotted by Missouri assistant coach Iliyan Chamov, who leads the program’s international recruiting, at the European Athletics Junior Championships in July 2015.

“I was watching the women’s high jump, and [Valeria] and one more athlete were just standing out from the whole field,” Chamov said. “Valeria didn’t have a great competition that specific meet, but I saw amazing qualities in her as a athlete. I approached her, approached the family, and it turned out that they were very interested to continue studying and competing in the United States.”

However, Kostiuk would be unable to come straight to Missouri as a freshman. She was already sure she wanted to be a Tiger, but in order to earn certain credits to enroll at Mizzou, her first taste of American life came at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

Kostiuk had a background in English, having studied it since first grade in Ukraine, but it was still a challenge to study and communicate in English on a regular basis. She recalls feeling lonely in El Dorado, which at just over 13,000 residents pales in comparison to Kiev’s 2.8 million.

But she managed to make a quick impact in competition for the Bulldogs, finishing in the top 10 nationally at the junior college level in both the indoor and outdoor seasons in both years at Butler. After signing her national letter of intent last spring, Kostiuk was finally ready to arrive at Missouri for the 2017 fall semester.

In contrast to the bright lights of Kiev, Rauno Liitmae grew up in the Baltic Sea on the Estonian island of Muhu. With a population of less than 2,000, Liitmae had to move to the larger island of Saaremaa to attend high school. Rather than family influence, it was a national sporting culture which inspired Liitmae to take up his event, the decathlon.

“I think this goes back to Estonia being a kind of decathlon country,” he said. “It’s like a national sport there. The mentality there is, when somebody jumps far in long jump or throws [a javelin] over 70 meters, everybody is instantly thinking: ‘How many points would you get for that [in a decathlon]?’”

Liitmae found success from an early age, competing in different age groups at the Estonian national championships and representing the country at various Scandinavian championship competitions. It wouldn’t be long before he began to turn an eye toward competing in the U.S. for college.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of traveling around the world,” he said. “And since I’ve heard so much about the U.S. collegiate system, how rewarding it is, the amount of staff they have here and opportunities, it sounds like a dream.”

Still, Liitmae was reluctant at first to leave his home. But after staying to earn a bachelor’s degree in law in Estonia, and with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining, he began to feel the time was right to make the switch.

“During the university years, it grew inside me, the wish to be somewhere else and just to travel a bit more and see other places,” he said.

He was hardly alone in his decision. There are three other Estonian decathletes in the Southeastern Conference alone — two at Georgia, one at South Carolina — which helped Liitmae decide he wanted to attend an SEC school.

“As long as they are Estonians, we know each other,” Liitmae said. “It’s not a big country; it’s just 1.3 million people, so as long you’re a decathlete, or even just a track and field athlete, we know each other well … I’ve known them since fifth grade, sixth grade, something like that.”

Liitmae took on the responsibility of contacting SEC coaches, and his first scholarship offer came from Georgia. However, Liitmae knew he could not arrive until January 2017 due to restrictions on his NCAA eligibility, and Georgia was unable to delay his scholarship until the spring semester. Missouri had no such issue and Liitmae soon found himself arranging to become a Tiger.

“We had an open spot, and we were looking for a decathlete at the same time,” Chamov said. “And Rauno showed amazing academic success in his undergrad, amazing English skills. We decided to go with him, and he’s proving himself pretty good in the classroom and on the track.”

Similar to Kostiuk, Liitmae was proficient in English before arriving, but initially struggled to use it full-time.

“It was pretty exhausting at first,” he said. “I would just feel my brain being so exhausted after every day for like two months when I got here. But toward the spring, it got better.”

Away from everyday studies and communication, Liitmae also noticed certain lifestyle differences between Estonia and the U.S., even citing an eye-opening spa experience.

“One of the first days when I was just taking my shirt off for a massage, people here just got so scared,” he said. “Back [in Estonia], we just, you know, guys and girls, we go to saunas; nobody really cares about that. Also, we don’t have any pickup trucks, basically. In here, it’s like every other car is a pickup truck.”

Kostiuk and Liitmae have each made their mark in pickup truck country. On Feb. 16, in her fifth meet as a Tiger, Kostiuk tied the school record in the indoor high jump with a 1.83-meter leap at the Missouri Collegiate Challenge. Liitmae ranks fifth in program history in the decathlon and has qualified himself for June’s NCAA Championships with 7,524 points, a mark he set on May 12 at the SEC Championships.

Chamov, himself a native of Bulgaria who competed in jumping events at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, recognizes what Kostiuk and Liitmae have gone through to compete and study in a new environment.

“Every international transition is difficult, and I know from experience,” he said. “I was in their shoes not a long time ago. For them specifically, it was a fast transition. Valeria tied the [indoor] school record her first semester competing. Rauno, off the top of my head, is one of our strongest students, and he is in grad school, so he is a great example for that.”

Since late in this indoor season, Kostiuk has been limited by minor inflammation in her ankle but she still hopes to gear up for an impactful senior year in 2019.

“She was still active, she was still practicing, but couldn’t perform at the level that we wanted to see right after the indoor conference championships,” Chamov, who specializes in coaching jumps, said. “Next season, our goals are always to be top in the SEC and top in the country.”

When Liitmae graduates, he plans to keep up with his love of travel. This summer, he plans to visit Israel, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Denmark before settling down, possibly as a lawyer, back in Estonia. His performances down the final stretch of the season will determine whether he continues to pursue decathlon as a professional.

“If he makes the Estonian team in the decathlon this summer [for] the senior European Championship ... that is a pretty good sign that he can have at least a few more years of professional track and field,” Chamov said. “We’ll want to see how the season unveils, and that’s going to be the straight answer for us.”

It will be no small task to make the national decathlon team in a country as passionate for the sport as Estonia.

“Obviously I would want to go to major title competitions, either Worlds or Europeans or Olympics,” Liitmae said. “I think that’s a goal for every athlete. It’s going to be pretty tough to make it, but let’s see.”

In the meantime, the flow of international athletes into mid-Missouri shows no signs of stopping. Chamov travels the world each summer in search of athletes in all events to recruit to the program, all across language and cultural barriers.

Edited by Bennett Durando |

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