As the Russian invasion continues to escalate, Ukrainian athletes are showing the world they can persevere even with uncertainty at home.
Ukraine has swept the podium twice at the Beijing Paralympics, earning several medals for their country. Iryna Bui led the charge, winning gold in the women’s middle distance standing event in cross-country skiing. Her teammates Oleksandra Kononova and Liudmyla Liashenko clinched silver and bronze.
“This medal is really special and unique for me because now we have a very difficult emotional pressure,” Kononova told CNN.
Five of Ukraine’s male athletes also earned the top five spots in the middle distance vision impaired race with Vitalii Lukianenko, Anatolii Kovalevskyi and Dmytro Suiarko claiming medals for their event. Lukianenko is now the most decorated biathlete of all time with 14 Paralympic medals; eight of them are gold.
Right now, Ukraine has the third highest medal count of all the competing nations including six gold, nine silver, and five bronze for a total of 20.
But their victories are bittersweet.
Normally the Paralympics, which are popular in Ukraine, are a time of celebration and community. This time, Ukrainian athletes are competing when the only thing on their minds is home. Where their families are. Where their children are. Where their people are.
“I ask the athletes in the morning, ‘Did you sleep?’ I ask another, ‘Did you sleep?’ They say, ‘No, no.’ They have dull, sad faces. The mood is very difficult. We are all thinking of home.” Valerii Sushkevych, the president of Ukraine’s Paralympic committee told The New York Times.
Sushkevych said it’s a “small miracle” they were able to successfully transport all the athletes to China during the invasion. Now, thousands of miles from home, the athletes are facing the challenges of trying to compete while constantly worrying about the safety of the people they love.
Veteran athlete, Juliia Batenkova-Bauman told the Times she has barely slept and the only sleep she does get is plagued with nightmares. When she’s not occupied, Batenkova-Bauman makes it a priority to check in with her family.
“When I can talk to them, I can hear the shooting and sounds of bombings,” she said to the Times through an interpreter, “and they can see the rockets from their window. It’s killing me from inside.”
Other athletes even pulled out of their events altogether.
Anastasiia Laletina withdrew from the biathlon middle distance sitting after finding out her father, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, had been captured, imprisoned and beaten by Russian troops.
“She was very upset and couldn’t take part in the race,” team spokesperson Nataliia Harach told NPR.
Liashenko also did not compete in her cross country event after her home Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was attacked by the Russians.
Even though the fight at home is taking its toll on the athletes physically and emotionally, they have chosen to use the Paralympics as their own battle ground.
“We would like to dedicate our results and our medals to each and every Ukrainian and all the soldiers in the Ukrainian army who protect us. With our performance we represent the whole country and this is our battle, here,” Bui said according to Japan’s Kyodo News.
For Bui and all the competing Ukrainians, each completed event is an act of courage and each medal won is a victory for Ukraine.