Ukrainian athletics team escape horrors of war at Chula Vista training center

By Mark Zeigler, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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

They came from what was then called 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 far east of Ukraine along the Russian border.

They got married and had two daughters who also practice athletics. Like all children in the region, Anastasiia Bryzhina and her older sister grew up speaking Russian before learning Ukrainian and English in high school. But Anastasiia, without a shadow of a doubt, wants to clarify her allegiances.

“Even then, I never felt like I was part of Russia,” quarter-mile Bryzhina said on a balmy evening last week at the Chula Vista Elite Athletic Training Center, where the Ukrainian team athletics is based before the next. World Athletics Championships which open Friday in Eugene, Oregon. “I’m really proud to be from this region. Some Russian towns and people think it’s part of Russia because it’s near the border. But this is the first thing I have to prove, that I am an athlete from this region and that I represent Ukraine, and no one can say otherwise.

“The second thing I want to prove is that the Ukrainian people are strong, they can compete and they can fight.”

You could hear the anger in his voice, see the sorrow in his eyes, feel the resentment and resilience in his ways.

All Ukrainian athletes and coaches have harrowing stories about the Russian invasion that began in March and gradually moved east. War does not discriminate.

There are brothers, fathers, friends who joined the army to fight the Russian army, brothers, fathers, friends who died. Cities have been bombed. Burned buildings. Houses destroyed. Displaced families. Torn lives.

World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, launched a Ukrainian fund in April to help athletes train for the world championships in Eugene and the under-20 championships in Colombia next month. He’s doled out more than $200,000, relocating them first to training camps across Europe and then to Chula Vista two weeks ago. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee contributed, as did CVEATC.

The serenity 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 sirens of air raids, the rush for underground bomb shelters, tanks rumbling through the streets, nerves raw, fear palpable are never far away with modern technology.

Oleksii Serdiuchenko, the team’s head coach, wakes up every morning before dawn to account for the 10 a.m. jet lag and to phone his mother stuck in Sumy, another town abutting the Russian border.

“It’s not busy,” Serdiuchenko said, “but every day there are bomb attacks.”

Athletes take a break from their workouts, grab their phones and start scrolling through news feeds. They will see pictures of a building in their hometown that is now a pile of rubble or learn that another town is under Russian occupation or, worse, another death. Or they won’t hear a thing because of power outages or broken Wi-Fi towers.

“It’s really tough mentally,” said 400-meter runner Anna Ryzhkova, “because 24 hours a day I worry about my family, about my friends, who are in Ukraine now and might not be safe. Every minute there’s a chance something will happen. We’re always checking our phones. It’s hard to concentrate.

“When I (for the first time) went abroad to train, I couldn’t train. It was too hard. I didn’t have the strength to do that. I did it step by step. It took time. Now I’m fine. I understood it. It’s hard, but I have no choice or possibility to change anything. I’m more motivated now. I don’t do this for me. It’s about showing how brave our people are, how strong they are.

No one could have a bigger distraction than Bryzhina. The area where they originally lived in Lugansk fell under occupation in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists took over the area, so they moved to a Ukrainian part of town, to a large house in the wood.

A week ago, the Ukrainian army withdrew and Russia announced that it had established “full control” of the entire Lugansk region. Her parents are gone and a neighbor sent a video the other day of Russian soldiers living in their house. Make food in their kitchen. Sleep in their bed. Empty the cupboards.

“I was choking and crying,” Bryzhina said. “It’s really difficult because you work all your life and build your house for your family, and strangers you haven’t invited come to your house. I think these guys really come from the poorer regions of Russia. They took everything, like wild beasts. They took ordinary things from the house, even plates and dishes. Thank God they didn’t destroy it, but they stole everything: TV, microwave, everything.

Because she speaks Russian, Bryzhina knows athletes from Russia and Belarus (which supported the invasion). In the early days and weeks of the war, she sent them pictures of the destruction in Ukraine and asked for their reaction.

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

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

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

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

Does she want Lasitskene to compete?

“Honestly, no,” said Mahuchikh, whose personal best outside is 6-foot-8¼. “Russia is a terrorist state with its invasion of Ukraine. They must understand that this is not possible. If they compete, I will not compete.

She has not returned to Ukraine since, spending the spring in Nuremberg, Germany. Next, Chula Vista. Next, Eugene. Then, she hopes, a return to Ukraine, where she is so popular that she is regularly stopped in the street for photos.

Serdiuchenko looked across the expanse of the 155-acre training center in Chula Vista, with views of Mexico and Otay Mountain. It was quiet. No bombs whistling from the sky, no sirens wailing, no tanks rumbling.

“It’s quite a different feeling to be here when we have the problem in Ukraine,” Serdiuchenko said. “But I have to confess (while staying here, staying comfortably, safely, I want to go back as soon as possible to be with my family, to be with my friends, to be with my people in Ukraine.

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

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