“Are you driving to the coast?”
We had not given the idea any thought, but there at the window of our car stood Egor Agafanov, a very friendly Russian I have photographed many times and Laura works alongside at KU.
“I know you guys love to explore. I would love to see the ocean.”
We could sense Agafonov was almost begging over his need to see the ocean. There was such enthusiasm in his desire, we immediately decided that later that afternoon would be a perfect time. Soon we were off with young video photographer, Robert Smith, making our trip a foursome.
Agafonov arrived from Russia to throw the hammer for the KU track and field team in 2004. He won numerous Big 12 and NCAA championships while excelling in the classroom. He entered the KU Athletics’ Hall of Fame in the fall of 2012. Even when his English was very raw, the massive man’s friendly nature touched everyone he met. As a freshman, Agafonov began taking in what his new home and the people there offered.
Agafonov returned from Russia with his family to pursue his master’s degree in the spring of 2013 and to work in the Student-Athlete Support Service area for track and field in an office just a few doors from Laura’s. She found him to be hard-working and always funny as her friendship with Agafonov grew. Ours was a friendship of mutual respect. I admired his tenacity in the ring, and he admired me for the photographs I made of him. Despite some early language barriers, his openness meshed well with mine as we both said exactly what was on our minds about anything.
We were all in Eugene, Oregon, the track and field capital of the world, for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The day before the events began allowed us to enjoy one of our best adventures and learning experiences in some time. Along with Robert Smith, a student video photographer for the athletic department’s Rock Chalk Video, we headed west out of Eugene for Florence.
What we did not expect was the density of forest between Eugene and the coast. At the first sight of the heavy woods, Egor seemed transported back to his Russian homeland.
“This is just like where I grew up in Russia. See how the woods are so dark,” he would ask. “I love walking in woods like that. I am never scared. It is so quiet and peaceful. I feel as comfortable there as anywhere.”
His dialogue on life in Russia rarely ceased, and if it did, a question from one of us quickly kept him going. We all remained enthralled. Besides his detailed camping stories, Egor gave us a long discourse on the benefits of regular sauna usage. A staple of Russian culture, Egor explained how on camping trips deep into the Russian woods, fires heated a pile of stones. Scraping away the charred wood, a large tent covered the stones allowing all the campers to benefit from the traveling sauna’s heat.
“Even the tiniest capillaries in your fingers and toes benefit from the flow of blood,” he explained.
Such tales of Russian life was the best part of our road trip education. He pointed out that life under the Communist regime was far different from what the United States portrayed. For the Agafonov’s, “oppression” was not part of their daily life.
“We had a nice home, and savings,” he said. “We led a good life. I had a car and a girlfriend. I was very happy. We did not fear the Americans. They were not our enemy. We worried about the Germans.”
It was after the fall of the Soviet Union that life changed dramatically. While Americans celebrated the great victory of democracy over Communism and the end of the Cold War, the Agafonov’s found their savings gone and their Russian lives beginning anew with nothing.
“The 90’s were not good years,” Egor bluntly stated.
A movie theatre provided Egor with an escape. He could watch American films, movies from Italy, Russian movies and many more. His long hikes in the woods on camping trips heightened his natural desire to travel and see new and different ways of life. The KU track and field team allowed Egor an opportunity to grow as a thrower, but also to grow from the journey.
He recalled leaving the Armory in New York City after his competition in the New Balance Collegiate Invitational. Instead of taking the subway back to the team hotel with his teammates, he and another teammate began to walk and explore the great city.
“We were gone for hours,” he detailed. “Here we were walking down the streets of Harlem in our matching KU warmup suits looking like two ‘wild and crazy guys.'”
Laura asked Egor what his most lasting impression of American life was upon arriving on the KU campus.
“How fat the girls were. My first day on campus, I couldn’t believe the women were so fat,” he told us. “I called my friends in Russia and told them Americans movies were bullshit.”
What was not “BS” was our time on the Oregon coast. Even with the winds howling and the temperatures in the low 60’s, nothing could squelch our fun. We climbed the massive sand dunes that lined the coast to find the ocean rolling with a restlessness that clearly stirred Egor’s soul. He raced to the beach and ran head long into the frigid water where he frolicked with child-like glee. We all joined him, staying as long as our bodies could stand the frigid water.
After exploring the deserted dunes and beach, we hiked again up and over the dunes and back to the “beast,” our monstrously large Chevy Suburban rental vehicle. In Eugene, where “green” is always the color of the day right down to their recycling efforts, scornful looks greeted us as we pulled up to gas stations to pump copious amounts of fuel into the belly of the beast. I wanted to plead with all the Prius owners in their quietly efficient hybrids not to judge us.
With the influx of so many track teams and athletes, cars big enough to hold all of our gear and that of the video photographer and the media relations contact were at a premium, no matter how early one reserved a car. At least we got our ride immediately compared to the hour wait for the rest of the team’s vehicles.
This was the largest vehicle I ever have driven. It was luxed out to the max with so many buttons, features and warning signals we never found time to learn all their functions. Getting up to speed in the heavy monster meant the gears down-shifted endlessly whenever you pressed hard on the pedal.
Nevertheless, there was one feature that proved to be a source of great fun as we loaded ourselves back into our Chevy at the beach – 4×4. I could not resist. There were bounding sand roads designed for ATV vehicles, and on this one evening, a huge Suburban. Since most of these luxury vehicles never leave the pavement, I was pleasantly surprised we managed to roar our way up and over lumpy paths with such ease that Laura, in a shocking pronouncement, actually cried “enough.”
Everyone took endless photos posing in and on the vehicle as it sat perched high on a dune before turning around for a thrill ride back down. If only I had remembered to turn off the traction control for some sand-spewing spins.
Our journey filled Egor with many questions about life in Oregon. As he looks for a new job, the dark woods seem to be calling him. Wherever he goes, we will miss him. Yet, it would not surprise us to see Egor in Oregon next spring ready for another adventure and to share in another Russian history lesson.