Racked by worry for family, anger at Russian colleagues, and uncertainty about the future, Ukrainian swimmers are seeking world championship success in Budapest under the shadow of war. Scattered around Europe since Russia’s invasion in February, life for top swimmers like Mykhailo Romanchuk whose father is “fighting on the eastern front” has been upended. “Every morning he sends me (a message) that he is OK,” said Romanchuk, 25, after winning a bronze medal in the 800m freestyle onTuesday.
The father and son refuse to talk by phone to avoid revealing Ukrainian army locations to the Russians.
“I’m not even sure he could see the final” Romanchuk told AFP.
As swimming facilities in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol have been decimated by bombing, swimmers’ foreign connections came to the rescue.
An offer by German swimmer Florian Wellbrock – who won silver in the 800m ahead of the Ukrainian – to join him in Germany for training was accepted by Romanchuk after ten days of deliberation.
“My mind was to go to the war and defend my home,” said Romanchuk, who won silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 800m at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
“But with my family we decided I cannot do anything with a gun, and that I should continue to do what I do best, to swim fast,” he said.
Other Ukrainian swimmers have found refuge in Italy, Lithuania, Hungary and elsewhere.
Andrii Govorov, 50m butterfly world record holder, has roved around training locations including in Hawaii, Monaco, and Germany, while his wife and three-year-old son now live in Austria.
“They escaped first to Poland two days before the first Russian rocket landed,” Govorov told AFP poolside in Budapest. Since the invasion the 30-year-old has helped send aid to his home city of Dnipro and led calls for competition bans against Russian swimmers.
“Our minds weren’t focused on preparation at all,” said Govorov, a Russian-speaker born in the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Earlier in the week he missed out on his first 50m butterfly final since 2009.
“Even last year after nine months off with Covid, I could still perform well in the European championships,” he said wryly.
“When you have no home, you have no space to be safe and relax, it’s been a tough season,” he added.
‘Ready to kill him’
Athletes from Russia and Belarus were suspended in March by world governing body FINA from participating in the Budapest meet due to the invasion.
Russia’s double Olympic swimming champion Evgeny Rylov was also banned for nine months by FINA after attending a pro-invasion rally hosted by President Vladimir Putin.
Rylov was one of several athletes to attend the rally who wore the pro-war symbol of the letter ‘Z’ on their clothing.
“Inside of me, I was ready to go and to kill him,” Romanchuk said of Rylov.
“But before he was a good friend. Before. But everything changed,” he said.
Govorov said he reached out to elite Russian athletes early in the war but they blocked him on social media channels.
“Not a single high-profile Russian athlete publicly protested the war, or used their voice, the most important tool of soft power that they have,” he said.
“They are citizens too, and have a responsibility, if they are silent it means they support their government,” he said.
Govorov said he hopes the competition ban lasts at least while the war is going on.
“Russia must pay a price for what it’s done, I’m not sure that there will be any acceptance in the future for them,” he said.
For breaststroke swimmer Kamilla Isaeva, 16, who left Ukraine on March 20 after receiving an offer with some teammates to train in Hungary, leaving her family has been especially tough.
“Away from them I kept myself going by saying it’s just for a few weeks, like at a normal training camp,” said Isaeva, the only female member of the 10-strong-squad. “But I’ve been living out of a suitcase for months now,” she told AFP.
“You go training and your thoughts drift away, to family, to Ukraine, to war,” she added.
Her team, also preparing for the European Junior championships next month, holds a minutes silence every day to honour war victims.
“We don’t know what the future holds for us, maybe our head coach will find us somewhere else to go in Hungary, maybe some other country,” she said.
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