August 16, 2014

COURAGE ON CAMPUS: Illness sidelined Columbia College tennis player, who returned with vigor

Two years ago, life was a promising international journey.

Two years ago, life was a promising international journey.

Sofija Zarev left her home in Nish, Serbia, moved to Columbia and began settling in as a Columbia College business student and tennis player.

One year ago, life was an exhausting recovery.

Zarev was isolated in a sterile Serbian hospital room, reclaiming her body and strength after a life-saving bone marrow transplant to treat a life-threatening blood disease, having nearly forgotten what it felt like to have the energy to walk, let alone run on a tennis court.

Now, she is busy.

Back in Columbia since January, the 25-year-old is preparing for a high-energy semester of six classes, tennis practices, an internship, work on campus and graduation in December. (Whew.)

She was an elite junior tennis player in Serbia – she started at the age of 5 – who dreamed of playing at an American college. The dream had just materialized in the fall of 2012 when, after a couple months of practicing with her new teammates at Columbia College, Zarev began feeling tired and sick.

“It was tough to imagine because I was playing tennis all my life. I am a sports person, and I was healthy,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think. ... It was kind of scary.”

A diagnosis of aplastic anemia, meaning her bone marrow was not making enough new blood cells, and a subsequent bone marrow transplant from her older brother sidelined Zarev from tennis and school and her American life for a year.

She spent all of 2013 being treated in Serbia before returning to Columbia in January 2014. The kindness and support she received from her teammates and coaches surprised her, Zarev said. They were critical to her recovery and her return to playing form.

“The girls are really amazing because they helped me a lot, not just for tennis, but for everything – classes or notes or everything. I didn’t expect it,” Zarev said. “Even when I didn’t feel well or didn’t have a lot of energy, I just pushed myself to be better. ... It was really challenging.”

Despite more than a year’s separation from the sport she loves – her longest absence from tennis since she began playing – Zarev worked her way back for a successful spring season. She’ll now turn her talents to leadership, as she assists the team’s preparation for next spring’s season, after she graduates.

“People are really nice,” she said. “Everybody wants to help, and I kind of became like that, to help everybody.”

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