By Anna Kournikova

I have lived the majority of my life as a professional athlete, giving up the carefree moments of childhood for hours and hours of practice and travel from one country to another almost every week. While I have been fortunate enough to travel around the world making a living playing tennis, it wasn’t until my involvement with the USO that I truly understood the meanings of sacrifice, teamwork, and dedication.

I do a lot of work with children’s organizations, talking to kids about the importance of staying healthy and active. I first got involved with the USO so I could travel to the various bases to visit the children and families of our service members and spread the message of being fit. My first trip was to Guam over Halloween of 2008. Meeting kids who have grown up with a similar experience to my childhood was really powerful. These kids, at such a young age and without realizing it, are sacrificing for our country. What was so amazing to see was the support and unity of the parents and kids as they move around and adapt to different locations and ways of life. After I spoke at the various schools, we did photos with the kids, answered questions, and handed out small gifts from K-Swiss. Speaking with the kids, they had a sense of maturity and a view of the world that still impresses me. They were so proud of their parents and didn’t take for granted the lessons and experiences learned by living abroad. I hoped they would walk away having learned something from my visit, but more important is what I learned from them. Visiting with them, some as young as five or six, with such patriotic mindsets, reminds me why it was important to keep volunteering with the USO.

My second tour with the USO was to Turkey and Germany. Much like my first tour, I spent the majority of my time with families speaking at schools.

On that tour, I had my first introduction to the harsh reality of the times we live in when we visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. While at the ICU, I witnessed a young man being brought in straight from Afghanistan with wounds received from an IED blast. Words cannot describe the feelings that came over me watching the medical staff tend to him. I immediately thought about his family, and about the call they would soon be receiving. Although no other details were given to us, I could not help but wonder who this dark-haired man was, and if he was going to be okay. In that moment I realized how much he sacrificed for our country. I still wonder about him to this day and if he is alright.

Photo credit Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Courtney Witt

Anna Kournikova signs autographs Oct. 29 at a booth in the base exchange at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

My most recent trip was down range as part of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s annual holiday tour. This trip was my first tour to a combat zone. I really didn’t know what to expect being in theater during the holidays, but I was truly amazed by the morale of all the people we visited. I was able to sit down with some of our service men and women and really talk with them and hear their stories—how long they had been there, how much time they had left, where they were from, about their families, and how they were dealing with being away from home during the holidays. Everyone had such a great attitude, and although they were missing home and their families, they knew they were there to do a job. Under the circumstances they couldn’t have been in better spirits.

On each trip I have taken with the USO, I have been so inspired by how positive everybody is despite the reality of their jobs during these uncertain times. Everybody is working together toward a common goal, and with extreme care and dedication in everything they do. Having been a professional athlete, I relate to that, yet my experiences and goals were so inconsequential in comparison to what they are fighting for every day. I was out on the court fighting for a title and a ranking and they are literally fighting for their lives and the lives of every American. I am so grateful for the opportunity to give back to our military for their service and sacrifice.

I can truly say I am proud to be an American.

–Anna Kournikova, a former top-ranked tennis champion, promotes children’s health issues and sportsmanship around the world.