Scholar, coach, Christian, citizen OC tennis great embraces new home

Natalya Nikitina-Helvey (03) is one of the most decorated female student-athletes in OC history.

When she arrived on campus in 1999 from her native Uzbekistan, she became OC’s No. 1 tennis player in both singles and doubles, and went on to be a three-time NAIA All-American and two-time NAIA Scholar-Athlete.

She is now the head women’s tennis coach at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, and has raised the program to national prominence in her five years there. She now has a new bragging right; she became a naturalized American citizen in October.

“After arriving in Oklahoma 12 years ago, I am finally a proud owner of a U.S. passport,” Natalya said. “I have traveled to 20 countries, but I really feel like the United States is devoted to the values of equality, freedom, justice and compassion. I have always been amazed at how open and accepting American people are.”

When you consider that Natalya was born when her homeland was part of the communist USSR, and went through the lengthy process to become a citizen (numerous interviews with INS officials, medical screenings, paperwork and the citizen test), her love for her new country should remind us not to take our freedoms as U.S. citizens for granted.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss home. Her parents moved to Moscow after Natalya came to OC, and she tries to visit home each year.

“I am glad that I grew up in that part of the world and had many friends whose religion was Islam,” Natalya said. “I think it is important not to generalize and criticize people based on their religion. Most people around the world want the same things: peace and happiness and want their children to be safe, go to school and not to worry if they will have something to eat tomorrow.”

Natalya says her journey to Christianity began in 1997 when she traveled to Bethlehem and Israel as part of the Republic of Uzbekistan National Tennis Team.

“The professors at Oklahoma Christian really had a big impact on me. All of them were so nice from the first class I took. They took their time to explain some things that were hard for me to comprehend,” Natalya said. “I was so amazed how knowledgeable, accessible and helpful all faculty and staff were, from my coach Kris Miller, my adopted mother Peggy Stork, math professor Dena Perkins, and the professors in the School of Business Administration.”

After graduating from OC, Natalya pursued her goal of becoming a tennis coach, first at Wichita State University, then at Central Oklahoma. She has poured her expertise, passion and energy into the program, leading the Bronchos to three straight NCAA Division II national tournament appearances.

Natalya is married to James Helvey, the men’s and women’s tennis coach at Cameron University. Along with her son, Maksim, she has two stepsons, Hunter and Dylan.

“I tell my players all the time that the years they spend as student-athletes will be the best time of their lives, the friendships that we make will last forever,” she said. “It was such an amazing opportunity for me to come to the United States, Oklahoma and Oklahoma Christian, and I am so thankful to everybody at OC who made those four years of my life very interesting and special.”

By Dawn Shelton