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Drada a better person, coach for earning U.S. citizenship

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WTEN 09_10 UK_LSU 21.jpgCarlos Drada didn't realize the significance of the date, but it was fitting that the day he became an official citizen of the United States was just a day before the nine-year anniversary that nearly prevented him from staying in the country.

Nine years ago, Drada, now the head coach of the Kentucky women's tennis program, was fresh off a decorated collegiate career at UK and out in the business world as a financial adviser at the prestigious financial firm Merrill Lynch in New York City.

Since emigrating from Colombia at age 11 and earning a scholarship to go to a budding tennis academy in Florida when he was 14, Drada realized the United States was where he wanted to live for the rest of his life.

Drada went to college at UK and blossomed into the 2000 NCAA Singles Championship runner-up under head coach Dennis Emery, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, temporarily derailed Drada's immediate dreams to become a citizen of the U.S.

"September 11, I remember the lawyer telling me with the kind of curriculum and regimen you have you should have no problem," Drada said. "For some reason, I had a feeling that something was going to get complicated."

Drada's premonition was right. Soon thereafter, national policies and laws were enacted that directly affected immigration, and Drada's visa to permanently work in the U.S. was denied. 
For the next several years, Drada fought the paperwork battle to try to stay in the U.S. On two different occasions, it looked as if Drada might never end up at UK as a tennis coach or even stay in the country.

"I was falling through the cracks," Drada said.

At one point, Drada was forced to go back to Colombia for an interview to get a temporary work visa. Just years earlier, Drada's sister left the country in a similar fashion and was denied re-entry without being given a fair reason for denial. When Drada left, he worried he would not be able to return to the country.

"Not only am I not going to have a way to stay in the country, now I'm probably going to be indefinitely away from the country," Drada said.

Drada returned to Colombia and remembers about 100 applicants applying for the work visa permits. Somehow, Drada said he was the only person that received a visa.

The re-entry back into the States gave Drada a little peace of mind, but he only had a small window to stay permanently.

To obtain a green card, which grants immigrants residence in the U.S. for up to 10 years and is one of the final barriers in becoming an official U.S. citizen, Drada thought his best chance would be to return to the same tennis academy in Florida where he trained as a teenager back in the 1990s.

Drada was offered a chance to work with Maria Sharapova, now a tennis superstar and three-time Grand Slam winner. It seemed like a no-brainer to move to Florida.

"I had everything packed in my car ready to go," Drada said.

And then he got a call from then-UK women's tennis head coach Mark Guilbeau asking if he would be interested in accepting an assistant coaching job at his alma mater. Though Drada never considered coaching in the collegiate ranks, the chance was too good to pass up.

"I always tell my dad and myself that I ended up becoming what I needed to become," Drada said. "You always have goals and you try to excel at whatever you do ... but I'm excited about where I am and what I can do. I love what I do. I told my assistant the other day, I love coming to work every day. Every day I'm thinking, 'Gosh, I'm working at the university I got to train.' I couldn't wrap my mind around coaching anywhere else."

Fast forward to 2010, and Drada is now in his fifth year as head coach of the Kentucky women's tennis program. Drada eventually received his green card five years ago and became an official citizen of the United States Friday, the day before Sept. 11, nine years since he was denied a visa.

In a ceremony inside a courtroom in Ashland, Ky., Drada, along with approximately 50 people from 27 different countries, listened as the judge explained the importance of becoming an American.

"A lot of kids nowadays don't understand how special it is to be a part of this country," Drada said. "That's why so many people outside of this country are trying to come in. Everybody has the right to a future. ... A lot of countries around the world, if you were born in a certain spot or if you have a certain last name, you don't have a lot of opportunity. Furthermore, you don't have many of the freedoms that Americans see as a right, and I believe those are great privileges passed down from our predecessors. Here, you have the hope that if you work hard that things will get better not only for you but your family."

Calling it one of the biggest moments in his life, alongside the first time he came to the U.S. and making it to the finals of the NCAA Singles Championships in 2000, Drada said he could hardly compose himself.

"I didn't realize what an amazing feeling it was going to be," Drada said. "As an athlete, you're trained to hold your emotions and be really centered under pressure, but I couldn't contain so many emotions as I was so excited. It was one of the highlights of my life."

From the time Drada entered the country at 11 and struggled with a completely new language, to his brief stint at the top of the business world at Merrill Lynch, to battling to stay in the country, finding a head coaching job at Kentucky and now his citizenship, it's been a long road for Drada.

"It's not an easy process," Drada said. "It took a lot of work. I'm grateful. This road helped me remember that when you follow a path which is sometimes harsh and painful, it allows to appreciate that you stuck to the process and you came out a better stronger person at the end.

The fifth-year head coach said he had a "30-second temptation" when he was denied in 2001 to "do it the wrong way." Drada knew people getting married just to obtain a green card, but Drada said his "dream was to always follow the right steps." 

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Drada said. "I knew I would find a way. Even if I had to get out, I would have found a way. ... My family had always taught us that if you start with the right seeds, you will yield the right fruit. It is that simple."

Drada is hoping to use his battle for citizenship as a model for his team this year. After struggling through an uncharacteristically down year a season ago, the program's first losing season since 1997, Drada has rebuilt a very differet roster. The only returnees are seniors Megan Broderick, Lauren Meier, Nicole Scates, and junior Elle Coldiron.

Success might not happen immediately this year, but Drada said the keys are dreaming and taking the first step. He said he would have never learned that without his new appreciation of becoming a United States citizen.

"I'm not at all happy where we are, but the beautiful thing is I know there's hope and I am certain of where we are going," Drada said. "As long as you're working hard and there's a structure, things will be better."

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