Yang channels cultural values into court excellence in St. Paul

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April 10, 2015 05:18 PM
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTAFoundation.com
 
Koua Yang came to the United States as a young boy. But it did not become his home until age 15, when he discovered tennis.
 
Yang, his mother and two older sisters fled to the United States from Laos, directly west of war-torn Vietnam, and ultimately found roots in the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1980. But their journey out of Laos actually began four years earlier, with Koua as an infant and his father recently deceased, when the surviving Yangs were forced to spend more than three years in a work camp in Thailand.
 
Despite his young age, Yang recalled poignant memories of his time there.
 
“I never remembered it as being bad,” said Yang. “It was normal for me. I didn’t realize at first that I was in a cage. My first memory of tennis, actually, makes me think about the refugee camp. In Thailand, I would see kids outside the fence playing and I wanted to be them – that was the first time I internalized it and knew that the prison was denying me something.
 
“Then, coming to America and seeing tennis for the first time; it’s Minnesota, springtime and kids my age are inside the fences, hitting and having fun. I was the outsider, but so very badly wanted to be on the inside with them. I couldn’t speak English. I didn’t even know that the yellow balls flying around were tennis balls, but I knew it could make me happy.”
 
Yang finally found his way to the courts as a freshman in high school, where he was a three-sport standout at Como Park Senior High School (also playing soccer and wrestling). As a freshman and each year afterward, he earned a spots on the All-Conference Team.
 
“If you weren’t playing sports, you were in trouble,” said Yang, now 39. “My cousin got me interested, and tennis kept us both out of gang activity. He told me: ‘We’ve got do something different, keep ourselves busy.’ Twenty-five years later, it’s still a great passion.”
 
After graduating from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Yang has spent the last 15 years as a social studies teacher at Harding Senior High School in St. Paul, also serving as the school’s head coach for the boys’ and girls’ varsity tennis teams since 2007.
 
He also found a home with St. Paul Urban Tennis (SPUT), part of the USTA’s National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network. Approaching its 25th anniversary as an after-school program for underserved youth in St. Paul, SPUT has introduced tennis to more than 3,500 children and also improved their classroom performance through tutoring and mentorship.
 
Yang has been with SPUT as a helping hand since for more than 13 years, dating back to 2002. He’s a face the students can identify with as a member of Hmong culture, an Asian-American group with a population of more than 110,000 between Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin.
 
“Minnesota has an unusually large refugee population,” said Becky Cantellano, executive director of SPUT, “with one in five of our new immigrants arriving after fleeing persecution in their homeland. People of Asian descent make up the largest group, and more specifically Hmong, Karen and Kareni refugees.
 
“As you can imagine, refugees typically don't have a lot of discretionary funds to spend on extracurricular activities, so St. Paul Urban Tennis scholarships allow these kids access to a healthy activity that they wouldn't have otherwise.”
 
In Yang, Cantellano believes she has the perfect role model for the young men and women that find a home at SPUT.
 
“He listens to his students,” said Cantellano. “He understands that they might have obstacles to overcome, but he doesn't let that be an excuse for mediocrity.  He talks a lot about grit and perseverance, which is what all kids need, no matter their circumstances, if they want to succeed in life.  Koua's students fight for every point on the court and always show appreciation for what is given to them. They take nothing for granted.”
 
In fact, many of the students are just like Yang when he was a youngster – with grandparents, aunts, uncles or older siblings signing the necessary permission papers to play tennis, their parents busy trying to make ends meet. He remembers sharing his lunch every day with a hungry teenage Hmong boy, a freshman player, who lived with his older sister, a senior – their parents being migrant farmers. The same boy would graduate high school in 2014 and go on to serve as a SPUT instructor.
 
Another Hmong student, a girl, was the 16th of 20 siblings, and she eventually became the first of her family to attend college. She earned admission to Stanford University and then applied – and was hired – to work for NASA.
 
One of her references when applying? Coach Koua Yang.
 
“I think of me, that kid who got into the game late and was just hacking to start,” said Yang. “Raising awareness about all sports – tennis obviously there because it can be played by anyone at almost every age, but all sports – and the privilege to play is crucial. People come out of this program, apply what they learn to their adult lives and have become active, educated leaders. Sports like tennis can be vital to that journey.”
 
For Yang, life has never been more joyful – or active. On top of his tennis activities and his career, he’s currently attending graduate school.  He’s also a devoted husband and the father of a 2-year-old son.
 
“My mother gave me the best advice in that no one ever dies from working hard,” said Yang. “I’m grateful for that wisdom. There was always a person along the way that helped me. These kids, they know what it’s like to not have anything in the fridge or in the closet. They know suffering, but through that they work so hard on the tennis court and in life. And the rewards then come from doing the right thing.”
 

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