Photos by L.G. Patterson
For most of us, high school and college were times of fun and friends, exploration and excitement, monumental moments and massive mistakes.
While the same may be said for Dylan Frazier, Begim Tokhirjonova and Ariel Schachtman, these three young Columbians have also filled their formative years with dedication. Whether it’s spending time practicing on the pickleball courts, hunched over a chess board or working at an easel, all three have seemingly found their calling — and before the age of 25.
From High School Sports to Professional Athlete
Dylan Frazier has always played sports. Growing up in Columbia, he dabbled in football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
But then he found pickleball. Often described as a cross between tennis, badminton and pingpong, pickleball was invented in the 1960s and has become the fastest growing sport in the world.
For Frazier, it’s been life changing.
The 19-year-old University of Missouri sophomore has now been playing pickleball for five years and is in his first year as a professional athlete. As of this fall, Frazier was ranked No. 12 in the World Pickleball Rankings for men’s doubles and No. 9 in the rankings for men’s singles.
Frazier’s interest in pickleball was ignited quickly after playing for the first time on a family trip to Florida.
“It was easy to learn, for one, and easy to play and compete,” Frazier says about what attracted him to the sport. “The pace of the game is quicker relative to other sports, too.”
That was a big part of it too, Frazier says, as he described playing baseball and sometimes having to wait quite a while before being able to “get involved in the action.” Another part of the appeal? The diverse age range of the players.
“I liked the fact that you can compete against players of all ages more so than other sports,” Frazier says.
As he began to play more and more, Frazier says he never really thought he would get to the professional level. It wasn’t until this past year that it started to become something he thought was possible — and then it happened.
“I never thought that I’d be playing against all those people that I had watched on YouTube,” Frazier says.
But he’s still a 19-year-old college student, meaning he has to balance his class load with his professional responsibilities. Frazier says that simply means staying on top of his schoolwork, especially during tournament weeks, when he focuses on schoolwork from Monday through Wednesday. Depending on what he needs to get done, Frazier says he’ll take his computer to tournaments in order to complete more work. But overall, he says it’s pretty manageable.
“As long as I stay focused,” he says.
With pickleball still being fairly new, it’s not yet a sport that people can really make a living doing, unlike professional football and baseball. And while Frazier hopes that perhaps some day it will be big enough that he can consider making a living playing pickleball, for now it’s just for fun.
“It’s just mostly fun for me and just trying to get better and improve my tournament results,” Frazier says. “Recently, I actually just got my first gold medal at a pro tournament … That was a big moment for me.”
Chess has always been a big part of life for Gulrukhbegim Tokhirjonova.
The University of Missouri junior and Uzbekistan native, who typically goes by the shortened Begim, learned to play at a very young age, as her father loves chess and both of her older sisters were professional players. When the two older sisters would attend tournaments with their father, Tokhirjonova says her older brother would take her to watch.
“My siblings are my biggest inspiration,” Tokhirjonova says.
It was through working with her sisters that Tokhirjonova started winning championships. Then, when she was about 13 or 14, and her sisters had stopped playing professionally, “My dad and everyone just switched to me,” and Tokhirjonova began her professional career.
“My life was dedicated to chess,” she says.
At 16, she earned the title of woman grandmaster, the highest women’s chess title that can be achieved. But she says she is still aiming for the full grandmaster title, which is the highest overall level any player can achieve in chess. After earning the WGM title, Tokhirjonova began to get scholarship offers from all over the world. And in 2019, she came to the United States after Mizzou offered her a chess scholarship. Now, she typically practices 10 to 12 hours per week on top of schoolwork. (The MU chess scholarship requires recipients to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher.)
Being a full-time student and competing can be tough to balance. In October, Tokhirjonova spent three weeks participating in the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship in St. Louis, where she ultimately took second place in the field of 12 elite female chess players. During those three weeks, she was entirely focused on chess.
Then she returned to Columbia, where she had mountains of work to catch up on, including a midterm she knew nothing about.
But playing chess has taught Tokhirjonova to be an independent and analytical thinker who can catch up quickly, she says. It’s one of the reasons she advocates chess for young women around the world, especially in areas where girls are not taught to be independent.
“It’s very important to teach girls as much as possible to play chess because they learn how to be independent, how to make decisions and just be themselves,” Tokhirjonova says.
While winning is something she obviously aims for and enjoys (a lot), Tokhirjonova says it’s more about simply playing a good game of chess with someone who challenges her.
“I love overcoming other minds,” Tokhirjonova says. “When I play a good game, I always enjoy it … Playing just gives me a lot of happiness.”
Some of Ariel Schachtman’s earliest memories are of drawing on the kitchen floor while her mother cooked.
While Schachtman says it feels cliche to say that she’s always been an artist, it’s definitely the truth for this 18-year-old Hickman High School senior. She was always drawing or doodling, as many young children do, but she kept drawing around the time other children started finding different hobbies, and she kept getting better.
“It stuck with me,” Schachtman says. “I think it worked as a bit of an escape and a bit of an outlet. And then I did that enough where I could translate that to other things. And now I’m at a place where I think I’ve fallen into something that I really love to do. And I want to be able to stick with that.”
As she explores different techniques and methods, Schachtman says she finds new styles all the time, which makes it somewhat difficult to characterize her art in any one way.
“I’m not always wanting to be caught up with a style,” she says.
But, as was recently pointed out to her by someone reviewing her portfolio in Kansas City, Schachtman has a particular way of putting down paint on a canvas. She describes how she places “little blotches of color” and blends it out to make something seem more realistic.
Schachtman says she knows that making a career out of her art will be difficult, but as she puts more and more thought into her future, she’s become more certain that she has to try.
“I’ve got about 1,000 people telling me, ‘you can’t make a career out of this, it’s really hard, you’re going into an uncertain field,’ but I think I love it enough to stick through with that,” Schachtman says.
Growing up in Columbia has allowed Schachtman to really take advantage of the area’s thriving art community, learning different methods and getting to take part in various art shows.
“It’s a wonderful community,” Schachtman says. “And even in Hickman, I’m surrounded by artists and creatives all the time. It’s really cool.”
Yet, she says, she is ready to explore the world outside of mid-Missouri and is looking into art and liberal arts colleges elsewhere. But she’ll always be grateful to the local art community that has taught her so much.
“I’m really privileged in that sense to have a supportive family network and to have a lot of creative friends and have all the outreach opportunities that I have,” Schachtman says. “Thanks to Columbia … It’s a wonderful little town.”