Home and Away

Dayana Gechkova left Bulgaria six years ago, and found a home in basketball. Now a Canadian citizen, she reflects on the transcendance of her sport, and how it helped her through the toughest of times.

Dayana Gechkova

Photograph by Joseph Hammond

[T]here are few outlets in life that have the ability to bring people together instantly like the common goal of scoring more baskets than the opposing team does. In effect, an athlete’s relationship with the game he or she loves is defined more by whom they experience it with, rather than what the score is when the clock hits zero.

If you have doubts about any of that, just ask Dayana Gechkova what basketball meant when she and her father immigrated to Canada from Sofia, Bulgaria six years ago. Gechkova, one of the Ryerson Rams’ star players, left everything she’d ever known when she was only 16-years-old.

“Oh, I couldn’t imagine being over here and not playing basketball, it’s such a big part of my life and my routine. I know when I wake up I have practice that day,” said Gechokova.

“The team is like a second family, so it’s too big a part of my life to imagine not having it at all.”

Gechkova’s family decided to leave her home country of Bulgaria due to an unfriendly economy that saw her parents’ salary remain stagnant while the price of living increased dramatically. So in 2006, the fourth-year guard and her father packed their bags for Canada leaving her elder sister (who was finishing up her PHD) and her mother (who desired to stay home) behind.

In the last 24 hours she had in Bulgaria, Gechkova spent every breathing second with her best friend and her mother, not knowing when she might see them again.

“It was stressful. It was sad. I couldn’t really believe it,” Gechkova reflects. “I knew that I was going somewhere new but I didn’t realize what I was getting into: going to a new country where we only knew one family and I barely knew the language. But there was no turning back.”

The business management student recalls the dose of reality she received when they first set foot in Canada. With nothing more than six pieces of luggage, Gechkova and her father stepped into a barren apartment.

Despite having a family friend help them settle in Canada, initially she found the transition quite difficult. Her father was barely home, having to work often, leaving her responsible for household duties along with the challenge of immersing herself at her new high school, Don Mills Collegiate Institute.

Gechkova enrolled in an English as Second Language class, but within the first two weeks of school, she was told there would be a test on the first 20 pages of her civics and careers course textbook. “I told the teacher that it would take me weeks to translate because I didn’t know how to read,” recalls Gechkova.

“It was stressful but I was never shy about not knowing the language, I’d say after my first semester I was confident with my communication.”

One place where language wasn’t a barrier to her was the basketball court. In Bulgaria, Gechkova was a member of the country’s junior national team, and she played for local clubs Slavia and September; here, she had to make a name for herself all over again, which she did, very quickly.

In the first year of her high school career at Don Mills, Gechkova was named the team MVP, and by the end of it she had attracted the attention of the late, great Sandy Pothier, then the head coach of the Ryerson Rams women’s team.

She had other offers from universities around Ontario: York and Waterloo, and even a college in Cleveland recruited her. However, Gechkova wanted to stay local, and more importantly close to her father, thus Ryerson was the logical choice.

In her time as a Ram, Gechokova attributes the “best moment I’ve had in Canada” to when her teammates attended her citizenship ceremony last October.

Gechkova’s role on the team has steadily increased each year, culminating in a starting job this season. After Angela Tilk, the Rams starting centre, went down with a season-ending injury, Gechkova rose to the occasion and has taken over the role.

However, her time at Ryerson hasn’t been without tribulation.

In January, Gechkova took a brief sabbatical from the team due to her father receiving a potential cancer scare.
“My dad had a small surgery because they thought that he had cancer, it was very tough. I didn’t want to take time off but coach told me I could take as much time as I needed.”

True to her word, Gechkova only missed one game, a 70-47 triumph over the Royal Military College (RMC), before returning the next night to face Queen’s University.

“I think a player matures and gets to another level when they can play through tough times like that; and during that stretch I matured more as a player,” Gechkova believes. “And besides, I’d rather be on the court with my teammates rather than stay home, be stressed and alone.”

While in Bulgaria, her father came to every one of her home games, but, in the six years Gechkova’s been here, she can think of less than a handful of times he’s seen her play, because he often out working to support their family.

Gechkova has the support of her on-court family, which has helped her through many rough patches since immigrating, but it won’t be long until she is reunited with the family she left behind in Sofia. Gechkova’s mother had her visa approved earlier this year, and will be joining them in Canada by March 2013 at the latest.

“I’m so excited that my mom is coming, I’m considering staying a fifth year so she can watch me play.”

Until then the vice-captain of the Rams will focus on leading this inexperienced Rams squad to an OUA playoff berth. After dropping their first two regular season games at home in the Mattamy Athletic Center, the Rams are currently on a two game winning streak after upsetting nationally ranked Wilfred Laurier University on Saturday night.

In six years, Dayana Gechkova has moved to a new country, learned a new language, and created a new life for herself; one thing that hasn’t changed is the relationship between herself, her father and the game of basketball.