From Russia with love

Instructor fills void in pool

Craig in the water

Natural swimmer:

Olga Craig bolts through the water doing what she loves most.

Photos by Shawn Havel

A wave of heat warms any who pass through the double doors of the Laramie County Community College swimming pool room into the hot, chlorine air, but skin is not the only thing warmed upon this entrance. The heart is, too.

LCCC's lifeguard and aquatic instructor, Olga Craig, greets swimmers with a radiant smile, vibrant personality and light Russian accent. Noting Craig's bubbly personality, the assistant coordinator of the P.E. Building, Sandy Brammeier, said: "I think of her, and I smile because she is always smiling." Craig is a woman whose life took a twist she never imagined, landing her right in Cheyenne.

Craig joined the LCCC faculty as an aquatic instructor and lifeguard nine years ago. Craig is an adjunct instructor who puts in the time of a full–time employee, Brammeier said. "I am always in the pool," Craig said and laughed.

Craig loves water

Taking this job filled a couple of voids she experienced after leaving her home in Volgograd, Russia, to marry an American man: the chance to swim and getting to work near water. Growing up in Volgograd, Craig had a river running through the city near her home.

Now in Cheyenne, she has the comfort of chlorine water in a swimming pool, but she could not be happier. "I like my job. I like my people. I like my students," Craig said cheerfully.

"The main thing that strikes me about her: She really cares about her students," Cindy Henning, LCCC PE coordinator, said.

Craig's caring, sweet nature is evident in her devotion to students.

One student–athlete, Amanda Lee, reminisced over past years when she and a teammate frequently visited the pool and found themselves with a great aerobic workout that proved sweating in a pool was possible.

"Smiling is a requirement in that pool," Lee said laughing. Just like Brammeier and Henning, Lee described Craig as a fun, loving and caring individual.

'She's a whale of an instructor'

Also commenting on Craig's involvement with students, Brammeier said: "She's a whale of an instructor. She cares about her students whether they're 18 or 80." Brammeier added that students' reviews of Craig as an instructor were full of positive feedback with students overcoming swimming fears, taking better strokes and becoming overall better swimmers thanks to her. Most who know her agree she is a great person with a big heart.

Born in Russia on June 1, 1962, Craig grew up with her brother and mother. Traveling was and still is a huge part of Craig's life. Her family would take trips all across Russia during every break. Craig spoke of her love for Moscow's beauty and its "sophisticated high culture."

Life at home was always interesting with her brother's love for animals, Craig said. There was always an abundance of them living in her house. With a wide grin on her face, Craig remembered one sports camp where her brother gave her a porcupine that came alive each night, running around with its noisy paws pitter-pattering across the floor.

Growing up in Russia

Growing up in Russia, Craig had the standard Russian education, which lasts from 6 to 15, involving going to classes Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to either 2 or 4 p.m. At the age of 6, Craig swam for the first time, not knowing swimming would lead to many athletic competitions and a lifelong hobby. During the school year, she went to swim practices before and after classes. Hours of studying in the library filled up any extra time she had.

"Everything is different," she added as she went on to detail the many differences in how Russian schooling is structured. At the "end" of primary and secondary school, so at about the age of 15, students who want to go on to higher education must complete two more years of secondary school. Once students have reached the end of their secondary education, they can either go on to a vocational school or an educational/technical institute based on exams they must take. At the university level, there is no such thing as a credit, Craig said. Russian universities typically take six years to complete and one class of about 25 students goes through every class each year together.

Craig attended a "Radio-Electronic/Technical Scientist Institute," the Kharkov Aviation Institute, in Ukraine where she studied engineering. At this institute she spent six years studying rigorous academics and then graduated with a job lined up at the institute. Throughout her time in the institute, Craig continued swimming competitively. Her team faced swimmers from around Russia and Ukraine. Craig mentioned that some of the swimmers she competed with went on to the Olympics.

Upon graduating, Craig worked at the Kharkov Aviation Institute four years and then in a computer factory for six years. Around the 1990s when Russia's economy was pretty bad, Craig started a job at an insurance company where she worked eight years until she quit and moved to America.

Along the way, in 1987 Craig had a sweet baby girl named Nataliya. All this time, Craig lived at home in Volgograd with her mother because in Russian culture families stay together in the same home throughout initial schooling and early working years. Craig adores her daughter who is now 25–years-old and will graduate from the University of Wyoming on May 5 with a degree in graphic design.

Proud of her daughter's accomplishments, Craig keeps a paper, telling of her daughter's award in logo design, pinned to the corkboard hanging on the pool room wall. At 17, Nataliya followed her mom to America when an unexpected relationship changed their lives.

Strange twists to get to Cheyenne

At this point, Craig's story took a twist as her life did about nine years ago. While working at the insurance company, Craig began communicating over the Internet with a man named Mike Craig from Cheyenne. They exchanged emails and letters for a few years, but as time went on their relationship grew and the distance became a barrier that neither was willing to leave up for long.

On March 20, 2003, Craig and daughter, Nataliya, moved to America. Ten days later, a scene one would imagine only in movies took place at a Chinese restaurant in Cheyenne. At the end of their meal, Craig cracked open a fortune cookie containing not a Chinese fortune, but rather a Russian one. The tiny slip of paper translated from the broken Russian it was written in read: "Will you marriage me?"

Overjoyed and scared, Craig spent the next couple of days crying and talking with her mother as she battled with the decision to stay permanently in America and marry the man she loved or to return to the safety of home. On her birthday, June 1, 2003, Craig answered yes.

"He is very good to me and Nataliya," Craig said smiling. More than once Craig mentioned her husband happily spoiling her and Nataliya. She spoke of the importance of finding the right person for herself and how she had with this funny, caring and loving man.

Craig and her husband love to travel and have been to nearly 30 different states. Retired now, Craig's husband occasionally attends some of her classes at LCCC. Life in America is still very different from her home, Craig said, but she loves it. After five years of living in America, Craig proudly received her citizenship.

Nine years since arriving in Cheyenne, Craig continues to warm the hearts of any visitors to the LCCC pool.

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Volgograd