Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine has caused great upheaval in many lives, but many Ukrainian athletes have managed to keep up their training and competition participation to varying degrees, hoping that amid the chaos their defiant spirit and achievements will inspire others.
Yaroslava Yastreb (middle distance), Daria Ozerianova (high jump), Erik Kostrytsya (sprint relay), and Stanislav Kovalenko (60 meter race) are four Ukrainian athletics team members chasing their sporting dreams while coping with bombed-out training facilities, daily curfew and nightly blackout conditions in their war-torn homeland.
Here is how each one of these athletes is fighting for freedom on their own battlefield.
Twenty-four-year-old Yastreb is from Kherson in the southern part of Ukraine. Her city was captured by Russian forces very soon after Russia’s February 2022 invasion and she joined many other Ukrainians fleeing for their lives. Yaroslava was studying in Kyiv at the time, and within four days of the full-scale invasion, she made it to Poland, a safe haven where she helped Ukrainians escaping the war.
Her family in Kherson spent more than three weeks in a basement trying to stay safe from the incessant Russian bombings. Her brother and mother eventually made it to safety in western Ukraine, before Yaroslava got them on a bus and out of the country. Her grandmother and uncles remain in Kherson, unwilling to move from their home, living in constant danger and difficult to contact.
Yastreb considers herself extremely lucky to have landed in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where Ukrainian refugees are treated extremely well. The German government is paying for her apartment, and she has daily language classes. Her new coach is based out of Munich and is much younger with a more modern training regimen than Yaroslava’s older coach who still practiced a very strict, Soviet Union style system of training which placed a strong emphasis on weight control. The new regimen is less stressful, more fun, making running more enjoyable.
The last year has seen Yastreb adapt to many changes in all aspects of her life, making it harder for her to win races, but giving her a better understanding of healthy training with the hope of returning to Ukraine in the future and competing in national championships as a more complete athlete.
Nineteen-year-old Daria Ozerianova is a junior high jump champion from the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv, which has endured repeated bombings by Russian forces – bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians even while still under Ukrainian control. She fled her home in March 2022, finding safety in Belgium where she got a job working at a restaurant.
When she got to Belgium, she joined an athletics club while temporarily staying with a host family. After several months she needed to find work to afford her own apartment. Today she manages to work out at a local gym after work, but it is far from a training program to maintain peak physical condition for competitions.
Ozerianova missed the entire 2021 season because of injury, and she realizes her pursuit of her athletic dreams is currently on hold. In her case, Russia’s war has ruined everything. She hopes to return to Ukraine and reach elite athlete status, but her life right now is full of uncertainty.
Twenty-three-year-old Erik Kostrytsya did not have to flee his home due to the full-scale Russian invasion. A bronze medalist two years ago as part of the Ukrainian sprint relay team at the European Under-23 Championships is still based in Kyiv. He describes life in the capital city as somewhat calm compared to the more destructive areas of combat in the eastern areas of Ukraine.
Originally from Lutsk, 100 miles north of Lviv in western Ukraine, he likes training in Kyiv because the city has an indoor track. Although still faced with some uncertainties, Kostrytsya is getting used to the power going out and alarms going off at all times of the day and night, even in the middle of training.
The first several weeks of the February 2022 invasion were the roughest. Everyone lived in total uncertainty of the future with some athletes deciding to enlist in the military, while others tried to escape in desperation. Well over two hundred Ukrainian athletes and coaches have lost their lives while in active service with Ukraine’s military.
One year later, things are a bit more stable with Ukrainians returning to their homes focused on defending their freedom by supporting the economy and acting as a territorial defense while enduring power outages and bomb sirens. Everyone is out to show the world that Ukrainians are strong, will survive and win the war no matter what.
The Ukrainian Athletics Federation reflects the same defiant spirit by utilizing its athletes’ achievements to inspire the Ukrainian people. Despite limited funding and an abnormal competition schedule, most of the Ukrainian athletes have managed to keep up their training.
Twenty-five-year-old Stanislav Kovalenko spent time in Slovakia and the United Kingdom doing his training. The Ukrainian indoor 60 meter champion and his national relay team spent three weeks working out at Cardiff Metropolitan University, one of some twenty offers of help from other national federations.
Kovalenko says that the athletes receive almost no salary and live from one day to the next. His savings are enough to get him through three or four months, and if he fails to produce any victories, he may be forced to join the army and help defend his country.
Kovalenko is experienced in dealing with adversity, having grown up as a troublemaker only interested in playing computer games before a teacher introduced him to athletics. He transformed himself from a lazy lad into becoming the fastest man in his country. Sports saved him back then and he is hoping it saves him a second time.
Russia’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine has had a tremendous impact on athletes regarding their training. Just like all Ukrainians have struggled to find ways of living with the uncertainties of not knowing how their lives may suddenly change, so have Ukrainian athletes. The athletes’ determination to maintain their training and to keep going in their sport is part of a greater desire and opportunity to demonstrate the true pride and resilience of the Ukrainian people.
Yastreb and Kovalenko readily admit how fortunate they have been as athletes versus other Ukrainian refugees, to receive support from the international athletics community while adapting to their new lives. Whether it be mentoring from a Munich coach or assistance from Cardiff Metropolitan University, connections in the sports world are invaluable.
In Ozerianova’s case, the opposite is true – some Ukrainian athletes have stalled without some generous support from federations, coaches and fellow athletes.
It all seems to reflect the broader reality.
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