March 1, 2012

SISTERS, FRIENDS, TEAMMATES, COMPETITORS

Going away to college has its challenges and obstacles. So, too, are there challenges in being a collegiate athlete. Now throw in being sisters, competing against each other but for the same team, and you have the potential for a very tempestuous four years.

At VCU, it's allowed a pair of sister acts to thrive.

Alex and Ana Bara, seniors on the women's tennis team, are currently ranked 42nd in the country in doubles. The duo is also a combined 25-19 record in singles this season.

Jessica and Jaleesa Williams have impacted the VCU track & field record books. Most recently, Jaleesa broke her own school record in the shot put with a throw of 14.57 meters.

Both the Bara and Williams sisters have found ways to enjoy their time together as sisters, friends, teammates and competitors.

Ana and Alex have always been together, and always been comfortable away from home. Hailing from Romania, the sisters spent six years playing tennis together in Germany. They developed a close bond because no matter what, they always had each other.

"We've always been away from our parents." Alex said. "But home was still close to me, because Ana was there."
When it was time to look for colleges, Ana and Alex decided they were ready to split up. Ana was approached by VCU and immediately knew that the school was the right fit for her. Alex, meanwhile, applied to the University of Pennsylvania but was waitlisted. Faced with a difficult decision, just two weeks before the fall 2008 semester started, Alex chose "home."
She joined her sister in becoming a Ram.
Jessica and Jaleesa had an opposite, but very similar, experience. The Virginia Beach natives attended different high schools but met regularly on the track in competition. However, both remained sisters-first.
"Honestly there was no difference." Jessica said. "I could be in the middle of stretching with teammates, and Jaleesa would come by and I'd leave them in the middle of a stretch to talk with her."
When time came along for the Williams sisters to chose colleges, Jaleesa knew where she wanted to be from the start: VCU. Jessica was a little tougher. However after seeing the business building and what academic advantages she had in front her—along with some good-natured parental nudging—Jessica joined her sister.
Today, all four athletes have benefitted from the full experience and advantages of VCU life, both academically and athletically. They've been sisters, friends, and teammates while simultaneously competing against each other.
Ana and Alex are a formidable doubles team but have competed against each other for playing time in singles. Throughout the years they have learned how to make the best of it.
"We're there for each other," says Alex. "We work together as a team and know not to be jealous or envious because (the other) is playing higher or better."
Ana agrees. "You're there for a team so it doesn't mean what you do as individuals. No one remembers your win when everyone else lost."
Jessica and Jaleesa have always been naturally competitive."In high school we were facing each other every week," says Jaleesa. "We were always facing each other and that just added fuel to the fire."
The sisters realized—with a maturity many athletes obtain in college—that being teammates was a healthy competition.
"When it comes down to it, it's about both of us being successful," Jessica said. "(Freshman year) wasn't my greatest season, so she beat me in the discus, but my thing is that as long as Jaleesa wins I don't care what happens. One of us has got to be on top."
All four agreed that being on the same team has its perks. From road trips to having a roommate who can truly understand life's challenges, the game day pump-ups and grocery shopping carries extra meaning. It's an easier conversation with a family member who knows the whole story.
Ana and Alex have gone from Romania to Germany to VCU together, and the Williams sisters now warm up together in what Jaleesa calls "perfectly synchronized a-skips."
All four are closing in on the end of their athletics careers, but the beginning of their lives.
Just as the months prior to entering VCU, the tennis sisters are preparing for a split. Both graduate in May, and while Alex plans to pursue a graduate assistantship in tennis to pursue her masters, Ana plans to travel to New York. Until then, they will try to make the best out of the time they have left together on and off the court.
"We're enjoying every moment and every single practice," says Ana. "You try to make it the best of it because you know it's (almost) the last one so you work hard."
The Williams sisters—again, very similar to how they entered VCU—will remain close, despite the potential for distance.
Jessica will look to find a job immediately after graduation, while Jaleesa will stay at VCU while she works on her medical degree. Jaleesa laughs and notes that Jessica keeps packing her bag.
That's the thing you see as the common bond. The tie that perhaps few others can understand. The sisters have experienced the benefits and challenges of being teammates and rivals. Partners and sisters.
And no matter what happens in the future, no matter what the geography says, they will always be together.
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