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22 Sep 2022

War and sport: The story of Ukrainian weightlifters and their coach

The war in the neighboring country affected all areas of life there – including sportsmen and sportswomen. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the national weightlifting team had to leave its permanent training base in Kharkiv. Sportswomen currently live in the town of Veľké Berezné in the Uzhhorod district of the Transcarpathian region. Currently, the team continues to prepare for weightlifting competitions, including international ones. We spoke to the coach and members of the Ukrainian national team and asked how the war affected their lives, why they found themselves in the Transcarpathian region, and how they are preparing for the upcoming competitions.    
Weightlifters from the national Ukrainian team
Iryna Dekha is 26 years old and an award-winning weightlifting champion. She comes from Kharkiv, where the weightlifting team was based and where she also lived. After the start of the war, they received an offer from the village of Veľké Berezné to move there as a team. They provided them not only accommodation, but also space for training. They were warmly welcomed in the village. They also have good conditions for training there, also thanks to the fact that Slovakia provided them with two sets of dumbbells and sports uniforms, for which they are very grateful.  
“It is very important for us to continue playing sports at a professional level, because this is how we show that Ukraine is alive, that our flag on the pedestals and the anthem represent the country on the world stage. Our goal is to convey the message that Ukraine is a separate independent strong state,”
Iryna said. They are currently preparing for the Olympic Games, which is an extremely important stage for the entire team. “We have already managed to build almost the same regime here as we had in Kharkiv. We are sincerely grateful to the local coaches who gave us such an opportunity to share the training ground, although many local weightlifters also train here,” Iryna added.

You always feel more comfortable when you are at home

20-year-old Alina Zakharchenko is an international weightlifting champion, and like Iryna, she also comes from Kharkiv. Although their training facilities are much smaller than in Kharkiv, they have successfully managed to establish a system, regime and discipline of training. According to Alina, the premises are comfortable, warm and cozy. However, the war affected the course of their training – for example, during alarms, they have to go to the shelter and then return to the gym again. This in turn leads to an increase in training time, because they have to warm up and stretch again after resting the muscles.  
Behind success lies a lot of hard work
“Sometimes I realize that I feel a little more cramped or tense than in training in Kharkiv, after all, when you are at home, you always feel more comfortable. My thoughts are still with the family that stayed there, so it’s obviously difficult emotionally. But I’m grateful to have a place where I can train, where I can be safe, where I can travel to competitions. I don’t know how it would have turned out if I didn’t have this opportunity,” Alina said. The kind and sensitive people of Veľké Berezné and the scenery enchanted her so much that she will hardly want to leave there.  

The girls experienced enormous pressure after arriving in the West

“No matter how quiet and peaceful it is here, every athlete has family, parents, brothers and sisters who have stayed in the east of the country, so of course it creates psychological pressure on the girls,” Valerii Nikulin, head coach of the Department of Kharkiv Regional College of Physical Culture and Sports and the Women’s National Weightlifting Team of Ukraine, said. His charges spent ten days in an air raid shelter in Kharkiv before reaching the western Ukrainian village. Valerii admitted that when they got to the Transcarpathian region, he had the impression that the girls had not been training for ten days, but at least two months. The war caused the girls to feel a lot of stress, to be inattentive and uncoordinated. It took some time for all of them, including the trainer, to recover from the shock and return to their usual regimen of training and nutrition. “As a coach, I have a double responsibility at the moment, because in addition to the training component, I also take care of the safety of the girls under my care,” Valerii said.  
Coach Valerii Nikulin
They got to Velky Berezny through girls who come from there and are part of the national team of Ukraine based in Kharkiv. Their parents called Valerii and offered him to move with his family to the west of the country. He succeeded in this together with his wards.

The war did not threaten sporting achievements

When asked what sport means to him, he replied that it is his job.”Regardless of what’s going on around, the job has to be done. Of course, we cannot not react to the war, we follow the news, we react, but someone has to defend, someone has to help people, and we glorify Ukraine on the world stage,” Valerii said. During the war, they already performed at three international competitions, and according to the coach, it is very pleasant when the national anthem of Ukraine is played abroad in honor of the girls.  
“Now the world supports us more than ever,” said coach Valerii.
In May-June of this year, they won the European team championship in Albania. In August, their twelve girls aged 15-17 won 14 medals at the European Championship for boys and girls in Poland, and two young athletes became European champions.Despite the difficult circumstances, they are trying to keep the bar high so that the world talks about Ukraine and does not forget the horrors that are happening there.Against the backdrop of the war, however, they also experience pleasant moments, such as during the first competitive foreign trip to Greece. At the meeting, the whole hall welcomed the Ukrainian representation with thunderous applause. One of the girls was even invited to participate in the filming of a documentary about weightlifting.  

Support for Ukraine knows no bounds

Valerii said that together they feel support abroad and at home. They are also supported by the international and European weightlifting federation, as well as by us at People in Need. We provided Valeriia and the female athletes with equipment, uniforms and vitamins. Even the village of Veľké Berezné and local residents are not behind in their help. “We are trying to do as much as possible for the local weightlifting center while we are here in Velky Berezny, so that we leave something useful and beautiful, so that people have at least some pleasant memories after the war,” Valerii added.  
Coach Valerii, Dzhupyna Yurii, director of the children’s sports school and our colleague Maryna
In May 2022, People in Need in the Zakarpattia region of Ukraine launched a sub-grant scheme aimed at providing rapid funding for projects aimed at meeting immediate needs and supporting internally displaced persons and other people suffering as a result of the war in Ukraine. Therefore, the women’s national weightlifting team of Ukraine turned to our organization with a request for humanitarian aid for temporarily relocated sportsmen and women. They needed dumbbells, uniforms and sports food.