Maria Sharapova is a tennis superstar and one of the world's highest paid athletes. And while her tennis career has allowed her to travel the globe, there's one place she's yet to go - the Chernobyl area. But that's about to change.
Sharapova's mother, Yelena, was pregnant with her only child when the plant in Ukraine exploded and spewed radioactive clouds over the western Soviet Union and northern Europe.Not to forget her roots, Sharapova has planned a return trip to her family's native land. She plans to visit Chernobyl next year as a United Nations goodwill ambassador. As somber as the trip might be, it should also be one to look forward to. Sharapova's grandparents still live in the Gomel area, which was one of the areas most affected by the disaster.
"A lot of families were moving, but not a lot of them could because they didn't really know where to go," Sharapova told The Associated Press. "My mom's dad happened to be working in Siberia, so that's why we had a sense of direction."
Sharapova's father, Yuri, and her mother fled the city of Gomel in Belarus -- about 80 miles north of Chernobyl -- shortly before she was born in Nyagan, Siberia, exactly a year and a week after the explosion.
Goodwill ambassadors try to draw attention to the plight of some of the world's poorest spots. Sharapova, who has earned more than $9 million in career prize money, has a two-year contract with the UNDP that pays her a symbolic salary of $1 a year. Goodwill ambassadors pay their own way on trips.Sharapova is just 20 years old, but it's clear that she hasn't allowed her success to get to her head. Her visit will do a lot of good, and will be sure to please all of the children she'll come into contact with, not to mention all the area men as well.
"They wanted me to work with them because they felt like people in those areas didn't really feel like they had a chance to survive," Sharapova said. "They wanted me to help raise the awareness that by building schools, hospitals, cleaning the air that there is pride and a side they can head towards instead of thinking all those negative things."