Ukrainian athletes find normalcy in Park City: Skiers train and live at Olympic Park
PARK CITY, Utah — On Feb. 20, flagbearer Olena Bilosiuk led a group of Ukrainian athletes at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. More than 40 athletes competed for the country at the Games, and freestyle skier Oleksandr Abramenko’s silver in men’s aerials was its only medal.
Four days later, their lives were changed forever when Russia launched an invasion of the country.
“First four days, I can’t eat because I couldn’t believe it was really happening,” Ukrainian coach Stanislav Kravchuk said in a recent interview at Utah Olympic Park. “All the missiles, tanks and everything, aircraft, bombings, that was a shock for us.”
Five months later, 18 Ukrainian freestyle skiers, 13 family members and four coaches, including Kravchuk, have taken up residence at the Utah Olympic Park. The initiative is part of a larger Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation project. Nine Ukrainian curlers and one coach have also been training at the Utah Olympic Oval and the Weber County Ice Sheet while living at the University of Utah. The freestyle skiing group arrived in June and is scheduled to stay until the end of August.
“For us, it’s hard for me to explain,” Kravchuk said. “It’s not that we are on a vacation, but it’s a different world. It’s a normal life here, what we did before Feb. 24. It’s not a vacation, but it’s kind of a rest. Not physically, (but) mentally, to be here.”
Ukrainian freestyle skiers trained Thursday morning on the water ramps at UOP, the same ones the U.S. team uses. From a distance, it looks like a normal offseason training session.
“This is a long time to train for us, so it’s a chance to do different programs, especially to learn new tricks,” Kravchuk said. “On the water, it’s safer than on the snow. We have water ramps here, trampoline training, gym — all we can imagine right now.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected winter sports athletes across the globe. International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) events that were set to be hosted in Russia, such as World Cups, were canceled. But athletes from Ukraine also missed out on competing due to the war, so that makes the coming season even more important. Athletes receive more FIS points for higher finishes and are ranked by how many points they have in FIS points lists.
“Our athletes will compete, and they will earn FIS points, which is really important for us,” Kravchuk said. “Because since the war started, we missed all the international competitions. So, we have to compete because we need the points to be on the list.”
By coaching at the UOP, Kravchuk has been distracted from what has been happening in his home country. Skiing has always been a part of his life, and now he can just focus on that.
“It’s my job, it’s my life,” Kravchuk said. “I enjoy water-ramp jumping, trampoline jumping. Everything is perfect.”
Among the Ukrainian skiers staying at the UOP is freeskier Kateryna Kotsar. She was getting ready to compete in the slopestyle national championships in the western part of the country when the war broke out. Kotsar is from Kyiv but stayed in the west as a precaution.
Instead of competing or training, she was volunteering to help wherever she could.
“I cannot go to war like soldiers because I’m (a) girl, and I can’t do it,” she said. “I cannot understand how to do it like the professional soldiers can do it. But I can help with humanitarian aid and documents for soldiers.”
It took some time for her to adjust to normalcy again. Initially, the sound of planes flying overhead made her uncomfortable. She had to remind herself that her life in the U.S. was safe.
Her training in Park City also has other purposes. She knows what it would mean to her fellow Ukrainians back home to see athletes representing their country at the international level and succeed. While she may not be a soldier, this is her way of continuing to give back to her nation.
“Ukrainians are very proud of other Ukrainians,” she said. “We feel we can make some better (morale) of Ukrainians.”
Kotsar wants to return home and hopes the war will end soon. While her life is now safe from Russian missiles and tanks, she wants others to know the fight isn’t over.
“Do not forget that, in Ukraine, there is still war,” she said.
Those who are interested in donating to the Ukrainian Olympic and Paralympic Solidarity Fund can visit utahcf.org/give/ukrainian-olympic-and-paralympic-solidarity-fund.
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