Student protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, the result of which led to clashes between police and protesters. The Ukrainian government is split over whether or not to yield power back to President Viktor Yanukovych after a series of violence-ridden elections last month.
The “scholarships for ukrainian students” is a scholarship that covers the cost of tuition, books, and room and board. The scholarship is available to all Ukrainian students who study in Ukraine or abroad.
Yuliia Zhytelna’s phone call jolted her father awake. Sacramento, where the redshirt freshman tennis player from Cal State Northridge had just played a match, and her home Ukraine are separated by 10 hours.
She hoped he might refute allegations on social media that Russian missiles had attacked an airport in her city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. He was unaware, but she heard heavy breathing when her father phoned back a short time later.
“It’s war, Yuliia.”
Zhytelna had participated in a doubles match earlier in the day with her Russian partner, Ekaterina Repina. They were now both striving to make sense of something that was beyond their comprehension.
Sasha Pisareva, a tennis player from Oklahoma, was in a similar fear. Her mother’s hometown, Kharkiv, was one of the first to be bombarded, and Pisareva was unable to contact her right away. Finally, her mother dialed her number from her mobile phone, a costly call that differed from how they normally interacted.
She informed her daughter, “I’m OK.” “They began to blast us. Right now, I’m collecting my belongings.”
Pisareva’s first inclination was to ask inquiries, but she didn’t have time. Pisareva won her singles match against a player from Central Florida less than 24 hours later, with her thoughts still absorbed with what was going down in her home country.
The overwhelming emotion among six Ukrainian NCAA players interviewed by ESPN in the weeks after the Russian invasion started on Feb. 24 has been one of hopelessness. They’ve tried to compartmentalize the horrors of war while going about their regular lives in America.
Few people can relate to them, so this small community has looked for ways to lean on one another. As of 2019-20, the most recent academic year for which the NCAA has data, there were 107 NCAA Division I and II student-athletes who listed Ukraine as their hometown, 47 of whom were women’s tennis players.
They are, however, fearful for their family and friends, and apprehensive about what will be left for them when they return home.
“Whenever I contact [my parents], there are a lot of loud noises coming from the bombs and missiles — and it sounds like cries,” said Kyiv-born Washington State rower Kate Maistrenko. “It’s just insane. It has the sense of a movie, but it isn’t.”
Student-athletes from Ukraine have said that raising awareness in the United States is critical. Oklahoma Atheltics photo
MAISTRENKO was born into a family of Olympic rowers. Her father, Anatolil, was a member of the Soviet Union’s Unified Team in Barcelona in 1992, and her mother, Valentyna, was a member of the Soviet Union’s Unified Team in Munich in 1972. Maistrenko’s parents ran a rowing training program in Kyiv, but immediately after the bombings began, her family moved to their rural estate approximately 10 kilometers outside of Kyiv.
It was a fortunate choice. Maistrenko got mobile phone film from a former classmate and neighbor within days, revealing that the apartment complex she had grown up in had been destroyed by a Russian missile.
Maistrenko remarked, “I don’t know why they would bring a bomb to the apartment complex.” “It’s simply that it’s a really family-oriented place. Nothing could be more dangerous than a military installation. There are just calm citizens in their homes.”
Her parents had planned to convert their enormous country estate into a hotel, but the project never got off the ground. It was turned into a safe haven for individuals seeking sanctuary for a few weeks after the invasion started, as much as that was feasible given the circumstances. More than 100 individuals, according to Maistrenko, resided in the basement: children who had lost their parents, displaced families, and others they knew who had nowhere else to go.
However, as the conflict progressed, her family realized that the home was no longer secure since it was located in a missile-prone location. They escaped to Ternopil, almost 500 kilometers distant in Western Ukraine, on March 16. It was a challenging journey. Bombs had been dropped on highways. They spent the night in their automobile. They were without mobile service for three days, and Maistrenko was unable to contact them. Her two brothers, both fighting for Ukraine, sent her with updates.
Maistrenko, who lives in Pullman, Washington, some 5,000 miles away, said she has attempted to keep a feeling of normality among 5:30 a.m. exercises, lessons, and afternoon rehearsals. She remained a member of the Pac-12’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, representing WSU. Sleep is difficult to come by when you add stress to those obligations.
Despite the fact that Maistrenko has received support on university, she says she hasn’t met anybody who can completely understand what she’s going through since there aren’t any other Ukrainians on campus. Her encounters have been diverse.
“So many individuals have contacted out to me, asking, ‘How can we assist you?’ ‘Are you all right?’” Maistrenko stated his opinion. “‘No, I’m not,’ I say. Friends of mine have passed away. I have no idea where they are buried or if they are really buried.’”
In the midst of 5:30 a.m. exercises, courses, and afternoon rehearsals, Kate Maistrenko said she has attempted to preserve some feeling of normality. Washington State Athletics/Washington State University
Maistrenko assisted a new Russian student on campus only weeks before the invasion started. When the bombing started, Maistrenko was taken aback by a text message from one of the students: “Don’t worry, daughter. Putin will rescue you.”
Maistrenko’s answer was lengthy, but the point was clear: “If you open your eyes, you can see what’s going on.”
She never received a response.
Prior to going on campus in Northridge, Zhytelna was concerned about having a Russian teammate because of the prospect of an encounter like Maistrenko’s.
“When I first got here, I was worried about what she was thinking because of [Russian] propaganda [against Ukrainians] and things like that,” Zhytelna said. “This was something I was quite worried about.”
Instead, Repina, a fifth-year senior, and Zhytelna became quick friends and doubles partners. Zhytelna relayed accounts from friends and relatives about what was going on in Ukraine as missiles continued to be launched at her city.
“You don’t worry about countries when you start becoming friends,” Zhytelna remarked of their friendship.
She’s received help from a variety of sources. Zhytelna has four siblings, and her family stayed in Kyiv for two weeks before seeking sanctuary with her parents. Magdalena Hedrzak, Zhytelna’s Polish CSUN colleague, stepped in to help. She informed her parents about Zhytelna’s family’s suffering, and they provided them with a completely furnished apartment in Poland. Her father was able to find work in the United States to replace the firm he had abandoned in Ukraine.
“I’m thankful as well,” Zhytelna remarked, “since now my family is in a secure environment.” “But the fact that they left everything behind is still heartbreaking. Everything can be found at our home. Nobody knows when you’re going to return.”
Maistrenko said she has been supported on school, but she hasn’t met someone who can completely understand what she’s going through in person. Courtesy Athletics at Washington State University
GETTING AN AMERICAN COLLEGE EDUCATION is a major lure for virtually all foreign college athletes, but adjusting to a new country and culture may be difficult.
For the first time, Anastasiia Ustiuzhanina would be separated from her twin sister, Kateryna, for an extended length of time when she enrolled at Tulsa for the spring semester. They’re both international rowers and the daughters of an Olympic bronze medallist in the sport. Kateryna has decided to stay in Ukraine. Anastasiia imagined she’d be able to see her family and come home from Oklahoma in the summer to row for the national team. The invasion then started.
Kateryna had traveled for training in Turkey with the Ukrainian national rowing squad just before the blasts. Tetiana Ustiuzhanina, their mother, who participated in the 1992 Olympics for the Unified Team and finished fifth, has stayed in Ukraine, unwilling to leave her homeland.
Despite the fact that Anastasiia has been able to communicate with both of them on a regular basis, the first night was the most difficult. Her mother, who could hear explosions from her house, took their pet to a bomb shelter. She has now taken refuge in a tiny village around 100 kilometers outside of Kyiv. Kateryna, on the other hand, has no intention of leaving Turkey.
“I also don’t know when all of my family will be able to see one other in one spot, which makes me weep,” Anastasiia added.
Many NCAA players from Ukraine have depended on one another. Approximately 30 people are active members of a WhatsApp group conversation where they share information and keep in touch.
In the WhatsApp group, Miami tennis star Diana Khodan, who is from Western Ukraine and has been spared the worst of the violence, shared information about her area to aid others escaping. Several Ukrainian student-athletes felt a feeling of responsibility to help in any way they can.
Maistrenko had been saving for a vehicle, but instead gave the money to the war effort. On the CSUN campus, Zhytelna arranged a vigil. In Tulsa, Ustiuzhanina joined a rally. They believe that raising awareness in the United States is critical.
Sports have provided a welcome break from the commotion for some sportsmen. The No. 3 rated Oklahoma women’s tennis team is having one of its finest seasons in school history. The school staged a match in favor of Ukraine on March 6. Pisareva and her colleagues sported Ukrainian flag patches.
Oklahoma women’s tennis held a match in support of Ukraine on March 6. Oklahoma Athletics (Courtesy)
Pisareva added, “I believe [tennis] is a really excellent diversion.” “When it all began, all I cared about was playing for my country. Tennis is my passion, and it allows me to focus on anything other than what is going on in my life.”
Pisareva was born in the United States, the daughter of two globally renowned Ukrainian ballet dancers, when her father, Vadym Pisayev, was dancing in “The Nutcracker” in Philadelphia. However, she grew up in Donestk, a large city in Eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatist rebels have long battled the Ukrainian government. Her family was torn apart when the Donbas War broke out in 2014.
Pisareva went to live with a family in Kyiv, while her sister and mother, Inna Dorofeeva, traveled to Kharkiv to study dance. Her father chose to stay in Donetsk.
Pisareva’s mother boarded a train to Poland in her haste to evacuate Kharkiv as the invasion started. Pisareva’s sister is a student at the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, and she transferred there from there.
“My mother is just there to be with my sister,” Pisareva said.
Pisareva is concerned that Russia’s drive to digitally isolate itself may make it harder to contact with her mother and sister, but she has so far been able to remain in touch via WhatsApp and another messaging app, Viber.
The two nations have extensive cultural links. Siblings or family members often reside on both sides of the border.
Anastasia Slivina, a USC rower, was born to Ukrainian parents in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her family moved to Kyiv to be closer to relatives after she spent the first 11 years of her childhood in Russia.
Slivina said, “I absolutely feel like I am Ukrainian, not Russian.” “On the inside, exactly like my spirit is.”
However, she has a large number of Russian acquaintances, and this dynamic has complicated an already difficult position.
“We’re not Russians in terms of culture, but we’re still so, so close,” Slivina remarked. “It’s difficult to accept that these two nations are at odds right now. And although the majority of Russians I spoke with recognize that what their government is doing is wrong, some do not, and it is terrible for me to admit that.”
Slivina skipped practice and class for over a week after the invasion started. She mentioned she cried a lot throughout that period. It was difficult to engage in basic human connection. She was assisted through it by a sports psychologist from USC.
“I’ve been really sensitive to things that I wouldn’t normally be sensitive to,” she said. “One of my coaches just said something entirely normal to me, and I sobbed because my mental state is wrong.”
Tennis, according to Sasha Pisareva, is a nice diversion that allows her to “not focus about what’s going on.” Courtesy Athletics of Oklahoma
AFTER THE SHOCK wore off, they began to be concerned about the future — for their nation, their families, and the student-athletes themselves.
“Right now, I have no idea what will be there tomorrow in my nation and in my hometown,” Ustiuzhanina added.
Maistrenko, on the other hand, aspired to be like her Olympian parents. She wanted to return home after graduating from WSU this spring and continue rowing, with an eye on the 2024 Olympics.
She is now unsure of when or how she will be able to return to Ukraine. The rowing camp where her parents used to train has been demolished. She is currently in the United States on an F1 visa and intends to seek for an Optional Practical Training visa, which would enable her to remain for an additional three years. She’s considering relocating to Seattle to work and further her education.
“I’m going to start my life again,” she said.
Zhytelna, a journalism and urban planning student, was searching for summer internships at home and planned a trip with her sister. Those plans have fallen through. She had been unclear where she would live this summer for many weeks until a lady in Southern California gave her a place after a journalism professor informed her of her predicament.
“Her parents had to evacuate Poland because of the Holocaust,” Zhytelna said of her benefactor’s parents. “They were forced to flee.”
In that sense, Zhytelna thought they may be kindred souls.
The element of the uncertainty has made it tough for these student-athletes to develop a regimen that will last. The conditions of their families might alter in an instant. The majority of foreign students’ visa status restricts their options for earning money.
However, with no end in sight to the battle, they all recognize the truth of the situation: they have no option but to continue.
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