Ukrainians swim under cloud of war

BUDAPEST • Racked by worry for family, anger at Russian colleagues and uncertainty about the future, Ukrainian swimmers are seeking success at the world championships in Budapest under the shadow of war.

Scattered around Europe since Russia's invasion in February, life for 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 on Tuesday.

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 added.

As training facilities in cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol have been decimated by bombing, the swimmers' foreign connections came to the rescue.

An offer by German Florian Wellbrock - who won silver in the 800m - to join him in Germany was accepted by Romanchuk after 10 days of deliberation.

"My mind was to go to the war and defend my home," said Romanchuk, who won silver in the 1,500m 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."

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 Hawaii, Monaco, and Germany, while his wife and three-year-old son now live in Austria.

Since the invasion, the 30-year-old has helped send aid to his home city of Dnipro and led calls for 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.

"When you have no home, you have no space to be safe and relax, it's been a tough season," he said.

Athletes from Russia and Belarus were suspended in March by world governing body Fina from participating in the Budapest meet.

Russia's double Olympic swimming champion Evgeny Rylov was also banned for nine months by Fina after attending a pro-invasion rally by President Vladimir Putin.

"Inside of me, I was ready to go and to kill him," Romanchuk said of Rylov. "But before he was a good friend. But everything changed."

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."

Govorov said he hopes the competition ban lasts at least while the war is going on, adding: "Russia must pay a price for what it's done."

For breaststroke swimmer Kamilla Isaeva, 16, who left Ukraine on March 20 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. You go training and your thoughts drift away, to family, to Ukraine, to war."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2022, with the headline Ukrainians swim under cloud of war. Subscribe