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Laschenova, Lawyer Renew Immigration Quest
(18 votes, average 4.78 out of 5)

Coaching in the U.S. for the past 10 years, Olympic gold medalist Natalia Laschenova said she will continue her quest to earn a green card despite the recent denial letter from immigration officials. Laschenova poses with her husband, Roman, son Anthony and newborn daughter Liliana in February.

Coaching in the U.S. for the past 10 years, Olympic gold medalist Natalia Laschenova said she will continue her quest to earn a green card despite the denial letter she recently received from immigration officials.

"I am not going anywhere," Laschenova told IG.

In January, Laschenova's employer, Integrity Gymnastics in Plain City, Ohio, received a notice from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that her petition for an employment-based immigrant visa was denied, reopened and denied again.

Laschenova demonstrates a proper scale while coaching a young gymnast at Integrity Gymnastics in Ohio.

"For how many years we've been here and what we've done, it's so stressful right now," Laschenova said Saturday. "It's not right. Everyone knows it's not right."

Laschenova said she is hopeful that Gus Shihab, the immigration attorney who last week offered to handle her case pro bono, can succeed in appealing it. An Atlanta law firm handled Laschenova's original case.

"Basically, we're lucky at least once in these 10 years," Laschenova said of her new association with Shihab, of Shihab & Associates in Columbus, Ohio. "He started working very, very quickly."

A native of Latvia, Laschenova was one of the most popular and successful gymnasts of her time. She placed fifth all-around and first with her Soviet team at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, and second all-around and first with her team at the 1989 World Championships in Stuttgart.

Following Laschenova's competitive career, she served as coach and choreographer of the Belarusian women's team and Belarusian men's junior team preparing for the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. She and her husband, Roman Kravchenko, moved to the U.S. on Christmas Day 1999. Prior to moving to Ohio, Laschenova coached at Southern Tier Gymnastics Academy in New York and Camden Gymnastics in Georgia.

Several of Laschenova's gymnasts - including Sasha Tsikhanovich, her daughter from her previous marriage in Belarus - have earned full athletic scholarships to compete in the NCAA. The other gymnasts include Nicolle Ford (University of Utah), Michelle Stout (University of Arkansas), Victoria Aepli (Ohio State University), Lacey Swords (Bowling Green State University) and Aftyn Siemer (Ball State University). Laschenova said another of her gymnasts, high-school junior Megan Walker, plans to compete on scholarship at Auburn when she graduates high school.

Laschenova said the denial of her green card has also put Sasha's scholarship in jeopardy.

"That's the hardest part," Laschenova said. "I talked to the (Auburn) coaches and told them, 'Don't worry, we'll do everything we can.' Sasha needs to renew her student visa, but she'd have to go back to Belarus to renew it, and it's not guaranteed they'd let her come back. We are here 10 years. She did everything for the United States, and I did everything for the United States, and then what? She can lose her scholarship because someone made a mistake? It's totally not right."

Four members of the Level 10 team from Integrity Gymnastics announced their college decisions during a ceremony March 1, including (from left) Victoria Aepli (Ohio State), Lacey Swords (Bowling Green), Aftyn Siemer (Ball State) and Sasha Tsikhanovich (Auburn).

IG also spoke on Saturday with Shihab, who said he offered to help Laschenova last week after a reporter for WBNS-TV in Ohio contacted him while researching a news segment on her immigration plight. (Click here to view the segment.)

"I had known Natalia as a gold medalist, so when I read the letter of denial I was completely taken back and shocked and really upset," Shihab said. "In the course of 17 years I had processed cases with a lot fewer credentials than Natalia, and I got those approved. Natalia being denied invoked a feeling of anger and upset, and I told Natalia, 'I'd love to take your case.' And she accepted."

Shihab said he is continuing to research Laschenova's original case to determine why she was denied a green card.

Among the gymnastics authorities who provided letters in support of Laschenova's petition were International Gymnastics Federation Women's Technical Committee President Nellie Kim, U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, USA Gymnastics Vice President of Program Kathy Kelly, triple Olympic gold medalist Svetlana Boginskaya, USA Gymnastics Ohio State Administrative Chairwoman Nina Dent, and Yevgeny Marchenko, who coached Carly Patterson to the 2004 Olympic all-around title.

"Perhaps it was a situation where there were some procedural problems, meaning that the way the case was presented was perhaps not the best way possible," Shihab said. "The INS does not believe Natalia is an extraordinary coach. Their argument is that she may have been an extraordinary gymnast in the past, but she's not today, and they're not in agreement that she's an extraordinary coach today."

Shihab said Laschenova presented additional evidence of her outstanding coaching ability in more recent years to an appellate board, but that evidence was not taken into consideration since it was not part of her original case.

"You cannot fault the appeals office for not accepting additional evidence, because you couldn't review whether or not the agency made an error, when in fact the evidence trying to be introduced at a later point was not available," he said.

Laschenova performs on balance beam during a dual meet against in the U.S. in 1988, the same year she helped the Soviet team win gold at the Olympic Games in Seoul.
Shihab said he is considering options for handling the next phase Laschenova's case, one of which is to appeal her case in federal court.

"The legal arguments are very intricate and very narrow, but the bigger picture is what I'm hoping the judges will see," Shihab said. "Another possibility is to re-file the case altogether with the agency. I don't want to leave any door unopened."

Laschenova's plight has also attracted the attention of Reform Immigration for America, a national organization. Shihab said the organization has contacted him to assist in publicizing Laschenovaís case, and the organization is planning a press conference.

"The more noise we can make as a community, the more attention we're going to get from those that are in the decision-making position," Shihab said.

Laschenova and her husband, Roman Kravchenko, have had two children since they moved to the U.S. Their son, Anthony, was born Aug. 11, 2007. Their daughter, Liliana, was born Feb. 18, 2010.

Shihab said Laschenova has much more to offer if given permission to continue working in the U.S.

"Natalia was a gold medalist and as an extraordinary coach has added so much to all of us," he said. "She's been in the U.S. for 10 years and has been a law-abiding citizen. She's contributed tremendously. She's a rare commodity, according to a lot of gymnasts I've spoken with. I think it would be remiss to let such talent go back."

Laschenova said she is puzzled that she has been denied a green card, while other applicants have received them in less time.

"We know a lot of people from Russia and other countries, and they have gotten a green card very quickly," she said. "Why it stopped with me, I honestly don't know what I did, or what I did wrong."

Laschenova said she is determined to stay focused on her coaching work while she awaits the next step of her immigration process.

"I keep calm in front of the parents and kids, but when I'm home, it's totally different," she told IG. "Trust me, there was a lot of tears for about three weeks. I guess I need to go through it. I don't know how good or bad it could be."

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Comments (13)add comment

Martin Kracklauer/Chris Schmidt said:

So, coaching to the point of NCAA eligibility doesn't constitute "rising to the top" of her profession. How ridiculous. Not that these fixes will help in the short term -- but is Laschenova eligible for O-1 visa status? Or is that what she currently has? Can Shihab get an injunction so she and her family won't get deported until her case has been heard? Also, Latvia's eligible for participation in the DV route to the green card, maybe she should enter the pool...we sympathize with her and her family. Been there, done that, and eventually got the green card. Keep a stiff upper lip.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +5

Elizabeth Booth said:

Elizabeth Booth
Good Luck Natasha!
Not a person of extraordinary ability? Whoever is taking this decision should have been in Stuttgart 1989 when Natasha performed on the floor, beam, vault and bars. Those routines are forever etched on my brain - she was a leader in the greatest gymnastics team ever seen, at a time when gymnastics was truly artistic.
Good luck Natasha - you should be entitled to live on the moon if you so desire.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +6

Stella said:

U.S. doesn't deserve Natalia Laschenova
This is shocking. Whoever is handling her application needs to be FIRED. Natalia not a coach of extraordinary ability? She could be the NATIONAL TEAM COACH for pretty much country in the world.

Good luck to her family.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +5

Calítoe.:. said:

Best wishes from Spain
I cannot believe she is denied a green card after 10 years of coaching successful gymnasts in the USA. I wish this ends happily for her soon. She deserves the very best. A lot of other countries would fight for getting her services and having her as a resident.
March 09, 2010 | url
Votes: +1

NataliaJ said:

I don't agree that just because someone was good at a sport they should get to stay. That is a ridiculous rule to me.

If Natalia has been paying her taxes and following the rules then she is exactly the type of person who should be allowed to stay here. We however allow the President's Aunt to stay here on welfare and live in section 8 housing. That is what isn't right.

What I don't understand is why she doesn't have a green card right now. She should have prepared for this years ago.
March 09, 2010
Votes: -1

Stella said:

Laschenova has proven herself as a coach over and over. Many of the athletes she coached in Belarus have moved here and have green cards themselves. I think her case was mishandled from the beginning or someone screwed up. Maybe her first lawyer.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +4

Annika said:

She applied a long time ago. She just keeps getting rejected and keeps losing her appeals. That's why they are threatening her with deportation.

Two of her children are U.S. citizens.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +1

ILiketoFlip said:

Natalia will be deported to Belarus, not Latvia, because she has Belarusian citizenship and her husband is Belarusian. Pretty much wherever you were working and living at the time of the Soviet breakup is where you got your new passport.

Her lawyer should seek asylum for her because of Belarus' human rights abuses.
March 09, 2010
Votes: +2

Ron Waterman said:

She's in good hands now
I'm a business lawyer in central Ohio, and I've had Gus Shihab successfully help several clients and colleagues over the years. If anyone can sort this out, it's Gus.
March 10, 2010
Votes: +6

Leslie said:

Natalia IS extraordinary
There is absolutely no reason why Natalia can't get her green card or her citizenship. I tried to help her years ago in Georgia and was a support for her but she kept getting denied, over and over again. Natalia and her family are really going through a lot right now and it makes me sad, too, especially when I talk with her. I have 4 (yes, FOUR) daughters, 3 of which are gymnasts...and it was Natalia who gave them their wonderful foundation, and as a result are the better for it. We have been through several gyms, but NO coach has come close to Natalia's coaching and standards. She IS EXTRAORDINARY.
March 31, 2010
Votes: +4

shy m's said:

Australia will welcome you with open arms
It's a shame that there is so much unnecessary paperwork and politics for one person to be granted either fulltime residents or a citizen. America has many talented overseas ex- elite gymnast working as coaches so why is it so hard to be a citizen? 10 years in America and all of a sudden America says NO. Natalia if you ever require a fulltime resident or citizenship come to Australia...I'm sure Peggy Liddick would love to have you onboard. I'm sure the rest the gymnastics community here will welcome you with open arms.
April 09, 2010
Votes: +2

Steven George said:

Natalia Laschenova deserves better
I had the opportunity to meet Natalia Laschenova or "Miss Natalia" as our family remembers her when she briefly taught gymnastics at the Camden County Recreational Center in Kingsland, GA. My then not quite 2 year old daughter was doing perfect forward and backward rolls and laughing and loving every minute. I was impressed with her professionalism AND her gentleness then in teaching children not necesarily intended for future elite competition. I was astounded when I read the local newspaper profile posted in the gym. She has spent enough time here as a legal resident; she has followed every procedure; and she is an extraordinary coach (although this is relative). What more does she need to do?
April 16, 2010
Votes: +0

Robyn said:

Natalia is a Phenomenal Coach and will be deeply missed
My daughter recently had the priviledge of starting her gymnastics training with Coach Natalia. She absolutely adores her! We are devastated to have lost her. I hope and pray that she is able to get this sorted out quickly and be able to return to us soon. I feel terrible for her and her family, especially her little ones, for having to go through all this.

As an update, 4 (yes, FOUR) of the elite gymnasts she currently coaches (including her daughter, Sasha) just qualified to compete at Nationals. How is that not EXTRAORDINARY?!? The U.S. immigration officials are nuts not to grant her residency.
April 21, 2010
Votes: +2

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