Nataliia Prologaieva, wearing three gold and one silver medal as shiny necklaces, embraced her two sons in Boryspil International Airport under the glare of cameras. The swimmer, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident, returned home from the London Paralympics on Sept. 11 as a champion.
“I’m very happy she has won all of these medals,” said Dima, Prologaieva’s 11-year-old son, stroking his mom’s hair and hugging her while his younger brother whisked away tears. “I know it was hard work.”
Prologaieva, who became the most decorated sportswoman of all Ukrainian Paralympians this year, said she was proud of the national team that turned in the country’s best-ever performance in Paralympic games, winning 84 medals — 32 golden, 24 silver and 28 bronze.
“We all were counting these medals and cheering for each other,” Prologaieva said. “Of course we would like to get a higher place in the ranking, but I hope we’ll do it next time.”
Ukraine’s Paralympians came in fourth in the team ranking, behind China, Russia and Great Britain. The nation took notice. The returning athletes were hailed at home as heroes with a military guard, orchestra and a shower of flowers from happy relatives, friends and supporters at the airport’s runway.
“Participation in the Olympic games and bringing a medal home is the dream of every sportsman,” said Maksym Veraksa, another swimming Paralympics champion, who won three golden and one bronze medal in London. The blond, handsome Veraksa is nearly blind.
His manager, Vasyl Keke, said Veraksa could have achieved even better results if his eye disease hadn’t progressed. “We all worried about his severe headaches caused by the progressive loss of vision. It was very hard to get each medal for him,” Keke said.
Veraksa and Prologaieva started their sports career as regular athletes, but then disabilities forced change.
Ukraine’s Paralympians have shown spectacular improvement since taking the 44th spot at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympics. They finished fourth in the 2008 Beijing Games. In London, the team of 155 athletes improved upon the China games, getting one third more medals than in Beijing.
Sports journalist Kostiantyn Dovgan said the field of competitors is not as large for disabled people and also said that Ukraine has better developed Paralympics traditions than most nations. “And of course, they are just wonderful,” he added.
Psychologist Olena Bohatyriova believes that people with disabilities often are more determined about overcoming physical limitations. “Such people most likely won’t think of sport as a way to win some medals, but rather they consider it as a way to feel normal,” Bohatyriova said.
Paralympians said a new sports center constructed for them in Crimea helped. Attitude also matters. “Perhaps we train more and have more zeal,” said Andrii Kryvchun, who participated in rowing in London. “We already know what we are able to reach, and so attempt to attain more.”
Kryvchun sat in his wheelchair with a chocolate sweet in the form of a golden medal hanging from his neck. Kryvchun didn’t win any medals this time, but he hopes for one at the next Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Kryvchun came to rowing five years after a spinal trauma. “I don’t want to just sit at home. I want to fulfill my potential,” he said.
Outside of sports, many disabled people have a hard time finding their place in Ukraine, which plans to bid for the 2022 winter Olympics. While Ukraine might have up to 2.7 million people with various types of disabilities, they remain almost unseen on the streets in a nation that lacks accommodations for people with special needs.
For Paralympians in wheelchairs, the trip from London to Kyiv was a trip back to a place of constant struggle with high street curbs and steep ramps. “It would be good if the state took this problem into account, so that we aren’t ashamed anymore when welcoming foreign guests in wheelchairs visit,” Kryvchun said.
Valeriy Sushkevych, head of the National Sports Committee for the Disabled, said neglect is high. “The disabled are discriminated here in social adaptation as well as in chances for education and job,” said Sushkevych, who is himself confined to a wheelchair.
A lawmaker in the Verkhovna Rada, Shushkevych said Ukraine has adopted useful laws but hasn’t been able to finance their implementation.
“We stood for fair play in London,” Sushkevych said. “I would really like to see a fair and respectful attitude of society and state towards my Paralympians and all of the other disabled people here.”