Ukraine’s track and field team escapes the horrors of war at the Chula Vista training center

By Mark Zeigler, The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Viktor Bryzhin and Olga Vladykina won Olympic gold medals for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Bryzhin was in the 4 × 100 meter relay. Vladykina won the 400m individual and claimed the baton in the 4×400’s anchor leg around the same time as American legend Florence Griffith-Joyner, then pulled away from her with one of the fastest relay legs ever recorded (47.7 seconds). away. help set a new world record.

They came from what was then Voroshilovgrad, a city of 400,000 people named after a Soviet military commander. After the fall of the wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it reverted to its original name of Luhansk in the extreme east of Ukraine along the Russian border.

They married and had two daughters who also compete in athletics. Like all children in the region, Anastasiia Bryzhina and her older sister grew up speaking Russian before studying Ukrainian and English in high school. But Anastasiia wants to make her loyalty clear without a shadow of a doubt.

“Even then, I never felt like I was a part of Russia,” said Bryzhina, a quarter-mile runner, on a balmy evening last week at the Chula Vista Elite Athletic Training Center, where the Ukraine track and field team was based ahead of the upcoming World Athletics Championships, which will open in Eugene, Oregon on Friday. “I’m really proud to be from this region. Some of the Russian cities and people think it belongs to Russia because it is close to the border. But it’s the first thing I have to prove that I’m an athlete from this region and represent Ukraine, and nobody can say otherwise.

“The second thing I want to prove is that Ukrainians are strong and competitive and they can fight.”

You could hear the anger in her voice, see the sadness in her eyes, feel the resentment and resilience in her mannerisms.

All Ukrainian athletes and coaches have harrowing tales of the Russian invasion, which began in March and has been steadily moving east. War does not discriminate.

There are brothers, fathers, friends who joined the military to fight against the Russian army, brothers, fathers, friends who died. Cities were bombed. buildings burned. houses destroyed. displaced families. life torn.

World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, launched a Ukraine fund in April to help athletes train for the World Championships in Eugene and next month’s U20 Championships in Colombia. It has distributed more than $200,000, moving them first to training camps across Europe and then to Chula Vista two weeks ago. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee participated, as did the CVEATC.

The tranquility of the training center, with its sun-drenched facilities overlooking a tranquil reservoir, seems a world away from the charred buildings of Mariupol and Kharkiv. But the air raid sirens, the crawling into underground bomb shelters, the tanks rumbling through the streets, the strained nerves, the palpable fear are never far away with modern technology.

Oleksii Serdiuchenko, the team‘s head coach, wakes up before sunrise every morning to make up for the 10-hour time difference and to call his mother, who is stuck in Sumy, another city on the Russian border.

“It’s not staffed,” Serdyuchenko said, “but there are bombings every day.”

Athletes take a break from training, grab their phones, and start scrolling news feeds. They will see photos of a building in their hometown now in ruins, or another city under Russian occupation, or worse, another death. Or they hear nothing because of power outages or fallen Wi-Fi towers.

“Mentally it’s really tough,” said 400m hurdler Anna Ryzhkova, “because I’m worried 24 hours a day about my family, about my friends who are in Ukraine now and they might not be safe. Every minute there is a chance that something will happen. We constantly check our phones. It’s hard to concentrate.

“When I (first) went abroad to train, I couldn’t train. It was too hard. I didn’t have the strength to do it. I did it step by step. It took a long time. I’m fine now. I found out. It’s hard, but I have no choice or ability to change anything. I’m more motivated now. I’m not doing this for myself. It’s about showing how brave our people are, how strong they are.”

Nobody could have a bigger distraction than Bryzhina. The area where they originally lived in Luhansk was occupied in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists took control of the area, causing them to move to a large house in the forest in a Ukrainian part of the city.

A week ago, Ukraine’s military withdrew and Russia announced that it had gained “full control” of the entire Luhansk region. Her parents have left, and a neighbor recently sent a video of Russian soldiers living in their house. prepare food in their kitchen. sleeping in their beds. Clearing out the cupboards.

“I choked and cried,” Bryzhina said. “It’s really difficult because you work your whole life and build your house for your family, and some strangers you didn’t invite come to your house. I think these guys really do come from the poorest parts of Russia. They took everything like wild animals. They took ordinary things into the house, even plates and dishes. Thank God they didn’t destroy it, but they stole everything – TV, microwave, everything.”

Since she speaks Russian, Bryzhina knows athletes from Russia and Belarus (which supported the invasion). In the first days and weeks of the war, she texted them photos of the destruction in Ukraine and asked for their reaction.

“They said, ‘Why are you sending me this? Maybe you’re lying,’” Bryzhina said, noting that Russian news media downplayed the scale of the conflict. “Then they started posting photos from the Russian championship and I was really surprised. You compete when people from your country (invaded Ukraine) and forced me to sit in bomb shelters in fear. They reply that I am a liar and that we believe in and support our government.”

“I don’t want to be friends with such disgusting people.”

Ukraine’s best hopes for a gold medal in Eugene rest on the slim shoulders of Yaroslava Mahuchikh, a 20-year-old high jumper from Dnipro who finished second at the 2019 World Championships and was a bronze medalist at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Mahuchikh left her family behind and fled Dnipro in March to embark on a three-day, 1,200-mile journey through Moldova and Romania to Belgrade, Serbia for the World Indoor Championships – “Hundreds of phone calls, many changes of direction, explosions, fires and air raid sirens .” She won there and is particularly favored in Eugene with reigning world and Olympic champion Mariya Lasitskene as part of a world athletics ban for Russian athletes.

Does she wish Lasitskene would compete?

“Honestly, no,” said Mahuchikh, whose outdoor personal best is 6 feet, 8¼ inches. “Russia is a terrorist state with its invasion of Ukraine. You must understand that it is not possible. If they compete, I will not compete.”

Since then she has not been to Ukraine and spent the spring in Nuremberg, Germany. Then Chula Vista. Then Eugene. Then she hopes to return to Ukraine, where she is so popular that she is regularly stopped for photos on the street.

Serdiuchenko gazed out over the expanse of the 155-acre training center in Chula Vista, overlooking Mexico and Mount Otay. It was quiet. No bombs whistling from the sky, no sirens wailing, no tanks roaring.

“It’s a completely different feeling to be here while we have the problem in Ukraine,” Serdiuchenko said. “But I must confess (while staying here, staying in comfort and safety, I want to return as soon as possible to be with my family, with my friends, with my people in Ukraine.

“It’s a great experience to see the world and the American people, but we don’t want to stay here too long. We came here to do our job. We will do our work and then go home.”

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