Liliya Samsonova is an 83-year-old Ukrainian master climber, skier, sports manager and coach who has spent over sixty years teaching the country’s youth to be national and international champion climbers.

She continues her labor of love in Kharkiv despite intensive attacks following Russia’s full-scale invasion targeting Ukraine’s second city with fierce intensity.

Russian armed forces heavily shelled the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv for the first six months of the full-scale war trying to capture the city. A vast majority of its citizens fled for safer grounds. In September 2022, the Ukrainian military succeeded in repelling the occupying Russian forces and people started to return to their homes. Liliya Samsonova was one of them.

She’s the director of Kharkiv’s Piaty Khatky Sports Complex, a dozen miles from the Russian border. For the past sixty years, she has played a major role in training and developing Ukrainian national and world champion climbers.

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January 2023 saw Samsonova return from her temporary evacuation in the city of Dnipro and resume her climbing coaching of Ukrainian children.

During the past winter season, Russian forces’ heavy non-stop shelling tried to plunge Ukraine into permanent blackout conditions. Once the central heating pipes burst in the sports complex, Samsonova directed training sessions in freezing temperatures in a small bouldering room on the building’s fourth floor.

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Samsonova described the sports complex as “in desperate condition. It’s 30 percent damaged and 70 percent survived. The roof is leaking, windows are missing.” Volunteers assisted her in boarding up the windows with panels.

Samsonova got into the habit of turning on electric heaters every morning so the temporary training room would be warm enough for afternoon training sessions. The temperature got to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (about 15 degrees Celsius). Despite the small confines of the room and bouldering wall, the coach and her fifty trainees work out three times weekly.

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While the sports complex was abandoned for some six months it was ransacked with most of the climbing equipment in the facility missing in action. Gone were computers, a music recorder for competitions, heaters, and a television used for learning techniques.

Even worse is the lack of climbing shoes and harnesses. Specifically in desperate need of children’s climbing shoes, there are no funds for their purchase. The city of Kharkiv allocated $250 in support of Samsonova’s training sessions to allow her to buy a rope and some carabiners.

The attendees train in running shoes which unfortunately doesn’t permit the learning of proper technique. Climbing shoes are an essential requirement, especially for children, who will need to re-learn how to climb with the proper footwear. Samsonova claims it’s more difficult to re-learn than learn from scratch.

Despite the equipment difficulties, the sessions are quite beneficial for the children, engaging them in a fun sporting activity and providing them with a sense of normalcy in their war-torn city and fearful environment.

Samsonova’s coaching is seeing results with her dedicated youngsters. After less than three months of training post-evacuation, Mykyta Abramkin placed 4th and 6th in rounds of the European Youth Cup and won a silver medal in Ukraine’s Youth Speed Championships. Another of her athletes, Leonid Osadchyi, was inspired to train abroad and to compete internationally for Ukraine’s national team. Samsonova coaches him remotely.

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Osadchyi described his coach as “a really great person who loves her job. As a coach, she understands that a lot of people won’t continue climbing as a professional career, but always tries to teach children to be good humans, first of all.”

Samsonova is not out to profit from the business, so all training fees pay for the club’s expenses. Those who can’t afford the fees or climbing gear are helped out personally by the venerable coach who wants to make it possible for children to follow their dreams.

Now and then the group climbs outdoors on local crags like the ones in Chykelivka, a former granite quarry which was a three-day excursion with older children and their parents. Future climbs at bigger areas like Bookie and Dovbush Rocks are potentially on the horizon.

As her youngest participants profit from this physical and mental distraction from the ongoing war, other former students are actively engaged in defending Ukraine. As a Multiple World Champion in Speed, Maksym Osipov is one example of an ex-protégé serving in the Ukrainian military, one of the first to volunteer following Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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Renowned Ukrainian mountaineer Alexander Zakolodniy, a world champion, coach and climbing wall owner lost his life in close combat duty in Soledar outside of Bakhmut at age thirty-five. He trained with Samsonova and was heavily involved in the liberation of his home region of Kharkiv in September 2022 for which he received the Order of Courage and Hero of Ukraine medals.

Samsonova herself is no stranger to war. Growing up in Belarus as a child when it was part of the USSR, her family lived in Minsk, which was one of the first cities destroyed by the Nazi Germans’ Luftwaffe as part of Operation Barbarossa. Her mother took Samsonova and her older sister and fled to Saratov Oblast in Russia.

Born in 1939, Samsonova does not remember World War II, but does recall the Soviet famine of 1947 when her family had nothing to eat.

Her deep-rooted passion for climbing and helping others sustains her despite her advancing age and surgery in December 2022. She continues to stay active and takes care of her health.

When asked how she manages to cope with everything, she’s not quite sure. She does know when she comes to her sports complex she can forget about the external world and can cope with anything and everything.

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(Based on reporting by UKC.)

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