Maria Sharapova plans first trip back to Chernobyl since family fled

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Maria Sharapova plans to visit the place her parents fled — the region devastated 21 years ago by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. (AP file photo)

One of tennis's biggest stars will serve as a goodwill ambassador.

CARSON, Calif. -- Maria Sharapova travels the world as the highest-paid female athlete, cocooning in fancy hotels, dining at swanky restaurants and indulging her love of shoes.

Yet there's one place the 20-year-old tennis superstar's journeys have never taken her -- the region devastated 21 years ago by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster.

Sharapova's mother, Yelena, was pregnant with her only child when the plant in Ukraine exploded and spewed radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe.

"A lot of families were moving, but not a lot of them could because they didn't really know where to go," Sharapova said. "My mom's dad happened to be working in Siberia, so that's why we had a sense of direction."

Sharapova's father, Yuri, and her mother fled the city of Gomel in Belarus -- about 80 miles north of Chernobyl -- shortly before she was born in Nyagan, Siberia.

Gomel was one of the areas most affected by radiation. Sharapova said she still has family there, including grandparents.

Sharapova plans to visit Chernobyl as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, perhaps after Wimbledon next July.

"It's in the beginning stages of what exactly I'm going to be doing," she said. "But I want to visit the facilities that they're building right now for the children -- computer labs and hospitals."

Sharapova started hitting tennis balls at age 4. Two years later, she was discovered by Martina Navratilova at a Moscow exhibition. At 9, Sharapova and her father moved to Florida, beginning a two-year separation from her mother because of visa restrictions and limited finances.

She's never forgotten her roots.

In 2004, Sharapova won the season-ending WTA Championships and received a car worth more than $56,000. She donated the money to those affected by the Russian school hostage crisis in Beslan in which 334 people died, more than half of them children.

In February, when Sharapova was appointed an ambassador for the U.N. Development Program, she donated $100,000 to help recovery in the Chernobyl region.

Goodwill ambassadors try to draw attention to the plight of some of the world's poorest spots. Sharapova, who has earned more than $9 million in career prize money, has a two-year contract with the UNDP that pays her a symbolic salary of $1 a year. Goodwill ambassadors pay their own way on trips.

"They wanted me to work with them because they felt like people in those areas didn't really feel like they had a chance to survive," Sharapova said. "They wanted me to help raise the awareness that by building schools, hospitals, cleaning the air that there is pride and a side they can head toward instead of thinking all those negative things."

Her trip to Chernobyl will last just a few days.

"Unfortunately, I have about 28 days a year for the work that I do and for the sponsors, for the photo shoots and the visits," she said. "Time is very, very limited."

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