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How Ukrainian Paralympians overcame fear and worry

BEIJING — With heavy hearts and unimaginable trepidation, the athletes of Ukraine’s national Paralympic team arrived in China two weeks ago, seeking to win medals and bring attention to the plight of their country through their exploits sportsmen.

They did both.

Isolated from their loved ones, many of whom sheltered in basements and garages under the bombardment of Russian weapons, Ukrainian athletes became the central theme of a quadrennial event based in part on their perseverance.

Ukraine won 28 medals, including 10 gold, in the first eight days of the event (the second most of any nation), and their courage and determination in the face of daunting emotional and physical circumstances aroused widespread sympathy and respect.

“We can’t even imagine what they’re going through,” said Jake Adicoff, an American cross-country skier who was one of the few to win gold against Ukrainian skiers. “We support them all.”

Even before the opening of the Games, Ukraine was at the center of the event, as the International Paralympic Committee banned all Russian athletes following their government’s invasion of Ukraine. The Belarusian delegation was also banned for that nation’s support of the invasion.

During a press conference the following day, Valerii Sushkevych, chairman of the Ukrainian Paralympic delegation, thanked the IPC and informed the world that Ukrainian athletes would remain in China to serve their country by participating in the Games, as difficult as that. could have been.

“Our soldiers are fighting in Ukraine,” he said. noted. “We, the Paralympic team, have our battles in Beijing. He added that if the team chose not to come to Beijing to compete, it would be like a “surrender”.

Ukraine has a proud history of success at the Paralympic Games, particularly at the Winter Games, where it dominated the only two sports it competed in – biathlon and cross-country skiing.

During the day, the athletes ran and trained. At night, they spent time on their phones, communicating with loved ones under attack in Ukraine. Most of the athletes said they couldn’t sleep due to worry and fear, and when they showed up for the race, the mental strain was visible on their faces and in their subdued demeanor.

Yet on the first day of competition, the Ukrainians set the tone by winning three gold medals in biathlon and seven medals overall, including a sweep of the men’s sprint for the visually impaired. They barely celebrated.

Medal ceremonies became both dark and uplifting moments, as athletes and observers alike were overwhelmed with emotion and awe. It was hard to imagine what skiers like silver medalist Oksana Shyshkova were thinking when they received their medals under Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag, or how they managed to focus on the race .

“We all have families there,” Shyshkova said. “We just don’t know what to do. We are really scared.

Some coped with difficult circumstances by focusing on success, like Vitalii Lukianenko, who hails from Kharkiv, a recently attacked city. As he prepared to compete, his family took refuge underground and he spent days without sleep due to worry, according to Sushkevych, the chairman of the delegation.

Sushkevych said Lukianenko was so physically and emotionally exhausted that Sushkevych didn’t think he should compete.

But Lukianenko took to the starting line swearing to feel no pain, and he won gold.

“If you know the situation,” Sushkevych said, “it was a miracle.”

For others, fear and sleepless nights wreaked havoc on the snowy racetracks, and their times were slower than normal. Yuliia Batenkova-Bauman, whose husband and daughter were still in Kiev, spoke to many journalists from various countries, telling her story again and again through tears, in the hope that it could generate international support for Ukraine. She spoke of nightmares and said the constant worry was “killing her”.

“I can’t show my best results here because I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “I always think of my family.”

At the start of the first week, Sushkevych, who uses a wheelchair, made sure to draw attention to the plight of disabled people stuck in buildings in Ukraine. “People in wheelchairs cannot run away from bombs,” he said. “Blind people cannot run away from bombs.”

During the second week, as Ukrainian athletes continued to rack up medals, they held an unusual peace vigil in the athletes’ village and held up a banner calling for peace.

Two days earlier, Anastasiia Laletina had been forced to withdraw from her biathlon event. The Ukrainian Paralympic Committee announced that the 19-year-old’s father, a Ukrainian army soldier, had been captured by Russian troops.

But on Friday, she returned to competition, with the support of her teammates.

“We are emotionally and physically exhausted because of this situation,” said Shyshkova, who won two gold medals and a silver. “But we are here to represent our country, to glorify our country, to tell the world that Ukraine exists and that we exist.”

nytimes Eur

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