November 28, 2022

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Exiled Ukrainian athletes chase dreams in Albania and fret about home

Exiled Ukrainian athletes chase dreams in Albania and fret about home

The Russian invasion may have shattered their lives and forced them to flee to Albania, but eight young Ukrainian track and field athletes are continuing to chase their sporting dreams.

As the four teenage girls and four boys try to honour their homeland with sporting success, they are inevitably worrying about their loved ones back in Ukraine.

“This war changed our lives but did not destroy our dreams,” said Mariya Larina.

The 17-year-old shot putter, who has already represented Ukraine at international competitions, is aiming to compete at the world junior championships in August in Colombia.

She made a name for herself at the Under-20 European Championships in 2021 in Estonia, and the same year won silver at the Balkan Under-18 championships in Serbia.

The young athletes, mostly from Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, left their homes with heavy hearts when training became impossible.

“It is very difficult to train in Ukraine now,” Larina said.

The eight, accompanied by two coaches, left Ukraine in late March, the month after Russia launched its invasion in February.

They reached Albania via Poland and their journey financed by the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. Their hotel in the city of Elbasan is paid for by the local authorities.

Glued to the news

As the young Ukrainians warm up at the Elbasan stadium, songs by Dr. Dre, Dua Lipa and Ukrainian band Dzidzio blare out from small portable speakers.

Larina, whose mother and grandmother have stayed at home, is glued to the news even at the stadium.

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“The situation in the whole Donetsk region is difficult. Their lives are in danger,” she whispers.

A few days ago she saw that a shell had fallen near her house.

Larina said that when she talked to her mother by phone, her mother was “very scared and I didn’t stop crying”.

She said she was grateful to Albania for a warm welcome but she stressed that “our heart is at home”.

Other young Ukrainian athletes found shelter in Bulgaria, Italy, Turkey and elsewhere.

But “many could not leave Ukraine and we are worried for their fate”, said Pavlo Zadorozhniy, one of the two trainers accompanying the group.

Pole vaulter Valentyn Loboda is outside Ukraine for the first time and is still in shock.

“My life has changed. I’m in Albania and my family is in Ukraine,” said the 17-year-old.

“I didn’t think that my first time abroad would be like this.”

He trains hard but his thoughts and emotions are elsewhere.

“It is very dangerous in Ukraine. This war kills people.”

Loboda speaks to his family every day trying to reassure and calm them.

“I’m already a man,” he said. “I have to swallow my tears and remain calm.”

At home, Loboda’s results were not at elite level but now he is determined to vault as high as possible to make his mother proud of him.

Sadness and anguish

Although the young athletes are far from the war that started with Russia’s invasion in late February, it “affects their state of mind” said Zadorozhniy.

“They all follow what is happening in Ukraine, they are in contact with their families. The situation is difficult and they are very worried.”

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One of the girls learned recently that her father was wounded in Volnovakha, a town north of Mariupol.

The sadness and anguish spread to the entire group.

“But we are not discouraged and we will continue to fight strongly to give the best of ourselves,” Larina says.

“The war has changed my life but didn’t change my dream to win in Colombia to prove that Ukraine is a strong country.”

Zadorozhniy echoes the feeling among the youngsters.

“They all decided to live their dreams to be winners and in this way honour the flag of their country.”