Army civilian recalls days as a Soviet ping pong champ
July 25, 2011
TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pa. "Tobyhanna Army Depot is home to nearly 6,000 employees, each with their own story. Many of these journeys are undiscovered in the daily shuffle of the depot community. The faces they hide behind simply blend in with every other face in the crowd. But taking even a few minutes to sit down and get to know someone might just leave you speechless and eager to find out more. One depot employee’s story has brought her from the Soviet Union to the United States on an awe-inspiring journey that includes two college degrees, years of persistence and a lot of ping pong. Meet Yelena Helen Raykhel.
Yelena is committed to her job, just as any depot employee is. She works in the Communications Systems Directorate’s Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio Systems (SINCGARS) Branch as an electronics mechanic. Yelena loves her job repairing radio systems, a task she has performed for the past five years.
“I am a perfectionist by nature,” she said. “Doing my job at the depot, I do my best because I know Soldier’s lives depend on it.” She is a modest person who is proud of what she does, but hidden behind her quiet personality is a feat few people know about. Yelena is a former Soviet national ping pong champion.
Her skill was first noticed by her mother, who also happened to be her gym teacher. Starting when she was 9 years old, Yelena practiced every day after school for three hours. Traveling became a routine. Her talents took her to Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and all over the Soviet Union, competing in tournaments funded by a sports school she attended. She quickly became one of the nation’s best and, in 1976 at the age of 12, became the youngest to win the championship of the Soviet Union.
Yelena’s job at the depot lets her travel just as she did for competitions.
“She has been the lead technician on several missions in support of SINCGARS Communications Electronics Evaluation Repair Team (CEER-T) throughout the world,” said Christopher Frie, branch chief. These missions have included stops in Germany, Italy, Hawaii, Colorado and Texas. Through her travels, one thing has never changed.
“It always feels good to come home,” she said. Seeing the world with SINCGARS is a reminder of her childhood and a time when ping pong was her top priority.
In high school, Yelena also developed an interest in electronics. She continued to compete in ping pong until she was 20, realizing a professional career might not work out. Instead she pursued her other passion, receiving an Associate’s Degree in electronics. Shortly after Yelena found a job at a radio factory, her former ping pong coach retired and she went back to school to complete a Bachelor’s Degree in physical education to fill her mentor’s shoes. Then, after moving to the United States with her husband and his family, she went to Bloomfield College in New Jersey to learn English.
Adjusting to life in the United States was difficult for Yelena and her family. Her children, who just started elementary school, had to learn in an unfamiliar environment and a foreign language.
“The first few years were hard, especially for my kids,” she said. “I would spend hours every night with a dictionary to help translate their homework.”
Those same years were just as hard for Yelena to get used to. Even with her degrees in electronics and physical education as well as an improved English vocabulary, she could not find a job right away. With the help of her husband, Alexander, she landed a job at Lucent Technologies in Mount Olive, N.J. as an electronics technician, a position she kept for four and a half years. When the facility closed in 2002, Yelena was laid off and began searching for yet another job. Rather than continue looking where jobs were scarce, she searched herself for what she loved. This time, it wasn’t ping pong " Yelena loves to cut hair.
After eight months in cosmetology school and a year in the salon, she began to look for something with more stability. She could have resorted to ping pong, a skill she knew could rescue her, but instead she challenged herself to find another job in electronics.
“Persistence is one of Yelena’s best qualities,” said Alexander.
This persistence proved valuable in getting a job at the depot. Yelena was hired as a contractor by Defense Support Services in 2004. Two years later, she was again the victim of cutbacks. After attending college for nursing twice, a two and a half year application process and some serious soul-searching, she finally secured a position at the depot with SINCGARS, giving her the stability she worked so hard to achieve. Frie says her hard work has never gone unnoticed.
“Yelena is an asset to the SINCGARS Branch because she is highly motivated and driven in her support of the warfighter,” he said. “She is extremely active and eager to take on new assignments. She can be placed anywhere within the Communications Division with confidence that she will perform and contribute to the team.”
Alexander, who also works at the depot, notices her effort on a daily basis.
“Her devotion to work and family constantly make our relationship stronger,” he said. “She’s result-oriented and always completes what she begins, no matter what difficulties she has while working on it.”
Playing ping pong and repairing radios are as drastically different as anyone can imagine. For Yelena, they actually share a few similarities. She attributes her success with SINCGARS to her success with a paddle.
“I wouldn’t be who I am right now without ping pong,” she said. “It taught me how to interact with people, how to build character and how to be a team player at work and everywhere else.”
For now, ping pong is nothing more than a spare-time sport for Yelena.
She wishes she had more time to play but with her busy schedule of frequent overtime, traveling with SINCGARS, and caring for her children and grandchildren, lunchtime serves as her only chance to serve it up.
“I love what I’m doing but I always try to improve myself,” she said.
Who knows what’s next on her list of many talents, but for now she’s happy repairing radios, devoting time to her family and dominating the depot circuit.