A member of the Uzbekistan Women’s National Tennis Team at 16 years old now has a name plaque in the Oklahoma Christian University Athletic Hall of Fame.
Natalya Nikitina-Helvey started playing tennis when she was nine years old, because she said it was meant to be after she stopped swimming.
“First, I was a swimmer since I was seven years old,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “A couple of swimming pools that I went to starting getting remodeling and reconstruction work done, so my mom said we couldn’t go to my pool because it was too far away. Tennis was a new sport in my country, so I was like, ‘Well, that one looks like fun,’ so I got into it. I was always a pretty athletic kid, and I just kind of started moving up and moved to junior level then junior national team. Next, I qualified for the women’s national team. I played professionally for a couple of years. I was number one in my country, so tennis was always a very serious part of my life.”
While playing in Uzbekistan, Nikitina-Helvey became the first woman in her country to be ranked in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association. To obtain such honors, she said she maintained a regimented lifestyle, because she was playing professionally and she wanted to be the best.
“As far as playing on the National Team, I used to practice every day except Sunday, twice-a-day, early in the morning and late after school, about seven hours a day,” said Nikitina-Helvey.
In 1999, when she was 21 years old, Nikitina-Helvey said she heard rumors of universities in the U.S. offering scholarships to play tennis and attend school at no cost. After thinking it was “too good to be true,” she traveled to Florida to play in several tournaments. Through a company which connected international players to American universities, Nikitina-Helvey found Oklahoma Christian.
“They gave Kris Miller, my coach at Oklahoma Christian, my tape and information, so he emailed me and we talked,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “After I tried to pass all my exams, I ended up at Oklahoma Christian. I got a full scholarship to come and play there, so I drove from New York to Oklahoma. I remember pulling up in the evening and it was just cool. The school looked beautiful.”
While playing tennis at Oklahoma Christian, Nikitina-Helvey earned the title of NAIA All-American three times in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Also in 2002, she received an Intercollegiate Tennis Association All-America pick.
According to Nikitina-Helvey, she played her best tennis in the fall of 2002. During that year, she became the Intercollegiate Tennis Association doubles champion and finished fourth at nationals.
“Mostly, I was proud of how consistently good we were as a team, because we would always finish top five,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “Obviously, I would always set my own personal goals—like be All-American, finish top 10, try to be top 10 in the nation—but it’s not just an individual sport. You can’t just do it by yourself. It takes everybody’s effort.”
After a successful fall season her senior year, Nikitina-Helvey was declared ineligible to compete in NAIA collegiate competition, because she previously received money to play professionally in Uzbekistan.
“It was a shock to be honest with you,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “I was a senior. I was playing my best tennis. I just had a great fall and I was so hopeful for my last year there. We tried to appeal. There was nothing we could do. It was really tough, so I was just kind of a student assistant for the team, which made it even more painful.”
After graduating from Oklahoma Christian in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management, Nikitina-Helvey made the decision to remain in the U.S. and pursue a career in coaching.
In 2005, her former coach at Oklahoma Christian, Chris Young, took the tennis head coach position at Wichita State University and hired Nikitina-Helvey as an assistant coach. Young and Nikitina-Helvey worked together to transform the tennis program at Wichita State.
“When Chris and I got there, the team was in really bad shape,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “They were number nine out of nine, always getting beat. We were able to turn the program around in just two years. We won the conference and took the team to the nationals, which was the first time in history for Wichita State.”
Nikitina-Helvey established herself as a successful collegiate tennis coach after the rebuilding at Wichita State. Then, she returned to Edmond, OK and was hired as the head coach of the women’s tennis program at the University of Central Oklahoma. Again, she transformed the program at Central Oklahoma from “bad shape” to success.
Over her eight years at Central Oklahoma, Nikitina-Helvey lead the Bronchos to five NCAA Division II tournament appearances.
She took a reprieve from coaching for three years to be with her family, husband and one son. Currently, she coaches and teaches at Burleson Centennial High School, while pursuing a doctoral degree in health and human performance from Oklahoma State University.
With her record-setting coaching achievements, Nikitina-Helvey said her coaching philosophy revolves around showing you care about the athletes as people first.
“You have to make it personal,” Nikitina-Helvey said. “It takes time to kind of stay on course with your philosophy so they know you’re not just competitive and want to be great and want to win, you’re also trying to develop them as human beings and you’re invested in them. I think some coaches just forget to be people as coaches. Be competitive and be tough but know when to be just a good human being and be there for them.”
Nikitina-Helvey, along with Steve Guymon and four other honorees, will be inducted into the Oklahoma Christian Athletic Hall of Fame Jan. 30. She becomes only the second women’s tennis player to be inducted.