Maria Sharapova, Chernobyl Survivor, Feels Personal Connection to Japan Crisis

Sharapova visits kids in Russia (photo from Daily Telegraph)

At some point, Maria Sharapova just wanted to know more. She had heard the horror stories from her parents, about the escape they made from the radiation that had leaked during the world’s worst nuclear disaster. When they fled, Sharapova was in her mother’s womb.

Maria Sharapova is a Chernobyl survivor.

And as she grew up, she started to study it, read about it, take it into her soul. Since then, she has donated time, made visits and given hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the children and grandchildren of the nightmare that reportedly released 100 times more radiation than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

So, with a personal sense, she has been following Japan’s nuclear crisis, which resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami. Radiation has leaked into the air again.

“Crazy, right?’’ she said at a post-match press conference this week at the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. She was wearing a t-shirt commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.

“Can you believe one disaster 25 years ago, and now another? I heard there’s a big cloud coming towards the West Coast.’’

Someone told her it is expected to dissipate.

“So the tournament goes on. . .’’ She said, and laughed. “In terms of what’s going on over there, it’s crazy and something that you can’t even prepare for.

“It happens, and you see the coverage on it and the videos, and it’s really incredible that something like that can even happen in the world.’’

Oftentimes, Sharapova comes across as aloof, terse. (Also, as a supermodel/Barbie Doll who wins Wimbledon.) But maybe that’s because of her serious nature, her determination. Even when she’s talking about tragedy, it can be nice to see her come off so human and connected.

In Japan, multiple nuclear reactors are overheating, leading to dangerous spikes in radiation levels. According to the New York Times, Japan’s health ministry has raised the legal limit, by more than double, that rescue workers at a nuclear plant are allowed to be exposed to. The ministry said the move is unavoidable due to circumstances.

The new limit is five times the level American workers are allowed to be exposed to.

The Times also quoted Douglas Almond, a Columbia University professor who has studied the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, saying he doesn’t think the Japanese government is doing enough to warn pregnant women of the dangers. He believes the danger goes much farther from the nuclear plants than people have been led to believe.

“The fetus may be particularly sensitive to low doses of ionizing radiation, a susceptibility that current public health responses in Japan seem to have overlooked,’’ he said. “Evidence comes from a recent study of Chernobyl fallout in Sweden, which experience comparatively low doses from the accident; indeed radiation levels in Sweden were believed safe at the time. . .

“Swedish students who were in utero during the accident experienced significantly lower cognitive function. . .’’

Ghosts of Chernobyl

At Chernobyl, a reactor exploded in April of 1986 after a safety test. Sharapova’s parents lived roughly 80 miles away. They stayed for four months while others left. But then Sharapova’s mother, Yelena, became pregnant. In fear of what might happen to the baby, they left to be near relatives in Siberia.

“I remember my mom and my dad telling me that it was really chaos,’’ Sharapova told ESPN last year, when the network went with her on a trip back to Russia to visit children in the area. “Everyone just wanted to leave, and they were leaving everything in their house, their valuables and their photographs and memorabilia. And the only thing they would take was their passport.’’

Two years after moving to Siberia, her family moved again. Maria ended up in a tennis camp that Martina Navratilova happened to visit. That’s how Sharapova was discovered. Next thing you knew, she was in the U.S., learning tennis at the Bollettieri Academy.

She seems to be an All-American girl, but has taken her Russian heritage, which involved hardship for her parents, to heart. She has become a goodwill ambassador for a United Nations program.

“In the beginning, my job was raising awareness to the world, really, and basically getting the message across that even though something like that happened such a long time ago, it still causes many people on a daily basis (health risks),’’ she said. “Especially kids that were born (then), and now are having kids. You also find that they have something in their body that’s not allowing them to live a normal life from the pollution.’’

Studies show that kids born near Chernobyl even today have a much greater likelihood of developing thyroid cancer. Of course, people don’t live in the immediate area anymore, where everything is dead or dying.

Roughly 350,000 people from the area were moved. Some estimates say that an area half the size of New Jersey is desolate

Sharapova describes it as “this big, huge area. It’s completely deserted. No one is around it. Everyone has completely fled.’’

She wants people to know that the problems there still exist. And now, with an eye, and her heart, on the past, she wonders what’s next for Japan.

“It opens your eyes,’’ she said. “(It) obviously puts a lot of perspective in your life.’’

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About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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