Off the Court with Yelena Leuchanka

Dream center Yelena Leuchanka was recently featured in JEZEBEL Magazine's annual "Most Beautiful Atlantans" edition. But it wasn't always that easy for Leuchanka, who struggled with her height and build as a teenager. Find out in her own words, how Leuchanka found confidence through basketball and why she thinks it's important to define herself as more than just an athlete.

See more: Yelena's Photo Gallery

When did you become interested in modeling? Was it something you always wanted to pursue?
It definitely was not something I always wanted to pursue. I never thought about it until about 3-4 years ago. It actually happened in Russia when I played there. We were doing a photo shoot for a website, and after I finished the photographer asked me if I ever thought about modeling and asked me if I had ever done any professional photo shoots. When I said no, he said that I should give it a try. So afterwards, I arranged my first solo photo shoot. It took 8 hours, but I actually enjoyed it! At that moment I realized that modeling was something something I also want to pursue while playing basketball.

When did you start to become serious about your modeling? Was it a natural fit or did it take time to adjust to the fashion world?
After my first photo shoot in Russia, I saw the results and got good feedback. So for the first timer, it was pretty good lol. It was fun, even though the photo shoots take a long time. After that, I started to pay attention to the fashion world definitely more than I used to. I started to study pictures, poses and facial expressions. I feel like there is so much to learn. So I guess I would say it was natural fit.

How would you describe your personal style? Favorite stores? Any favorite places to shop in Atlanta?
I guess I don't have that one style that I go by. Sometimes it can be funky and edgy and sometimes it's more of a classic look. For me, it's about how I feel during that time and what I feel like wearing. I follow trends but I also like to put things together on my own and if I think it's ''hot'' I'm going to wear it no matter what! :-) Favorite stores? Hmmm... I travel so much and always in different parts of the world, so I like to find new boutiques and stores. But I also loveeeee bargains! In America, I absolutely love stores like T.J. Maxx, Ross, Filene's Basement, BCBG, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus ....I mean I can go on and on. Atlanta has a great shopping.... good malls and boutiques! Buckhead has great shopping, but I also shop in Atlantic Station. Atlantic Station had had one of my favorite boutiques TASTE, until it recently closed. So I guess I find something for myself a little bit of everywhere.

We've seen a few female athletes become models in recent years, most notably Lisa Leslie and Gabrielle Reece. Were they an inspiration to you and do you see yourself following in their footsteps?
I definitely followed both and have seen what they have done besides excelling at their sports. I think it amazing what they did not just for themselves but for other female athletes. So of course they were an inspiration to me. Growing up and seeing them doing it gave me the same confidence that I could do it too. And I just hope that will give more confidence for younger female athletes as well.

You were just recently featured in JEZEBEL Magazine's annual "Most Beautiful Atlantans" issue and were also featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this season. What's been the feedback, and is it important to you that people see you as more than just an athlete?
To be honest, I was really surprised to be featured in ''Most Beautiful Atlantans." But when I found out, I was extremely happy! So far I have been getting a lot of great feedback, so I guess that's a good thing! I think one of the main things has been that people see me more than just a basketball player. And to be honest that feels great. I am not doing this just for myself but also for other female athletes. In the WNBA there are so many beautiful women, who show that athletes also have a feminine and stylish side. It's just society sees it differently sometimes, so in a way I am trying to follow in the footsteps of Lisa Leslie and Gabrielle Reece to prove people wrong. We are more than just athletes!

You've talked about some of the struggles you had growing up to be comfortable in your own skin. What is the message you want to send to young girls?
When I was younger, I felt like I was always different and didn't fit in. I was never a skinny girl and was always taller than everybody around me. As a teenager, going to school every day was torture for me. I got laughed at, pointed out and teased. I didn't have a lot of friends at that age. So when basketball came around, I found my world where I felt like I fit in. The older I got, the more I realized that I am the way I am for a reason and I am going to use it to my advantage. I started to love myself. The message I want to send to the young girls is to love yourself for who you are no matter what. We are the way we are for a reason, and we are all beautiful in our own way. Once we start loving ourselves and feel beautiful inside, people will also recognize it.