With family worries, anger at Russian teammates and uncertainty about the future, Ukrainian swimmers are hoping to win the World Championships in Budapest in the shadow of the war. Scattered across Europe since the Russian invasion in February, the lives of leading swimmers such as Mikhail Romanchik, whose father was “fighting on the Eastern Front”, have been affected. “Every morning he sends me (a message) that he is OK,” said the 25-year-old Romanic after winning a bronze medal in the 800m freestyle on Tuesday.
The father and son refused to talk on the phone so that the Russians could not reveal the location of the Ukrainian army.
“I’m not sure he can watch the final,” Romanchuk told AFP.
As swimming facilities in cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol have been bombed, foreign contacts of swimmers have been saved.
After ten days of deliberation, Romanchic accepted an offer from German swimmer Florin Welbrook – who had won a silver medal 800 meters ahead of Ukraine – to join him for training in Germany.
“My mind was to go to war and defend my home,” said Romanchak, who won a silver and bronze medals in the 1500m and 800m at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
“But we decided with my family that I could do nothing with the gun, and that I should continue to do what I do best, swimming fast,” he said.
Other Ukrainian swimmers have sought refuge in Italy, Lithuania, Hungary and elsewhere.
Andrei Govrov, the 50-meter butterfly world record holder, has toured training venues in Hawaii, Monaco and Germany, while his wife and three-year-old son now live in Austria.
“They fled to Poland two days before the first Russian rocket landed,” Govrov told AFP’s Pool Side in Budapest. Since the attack, the 30-year-old has helped send aid to his hometown of Dnipro and has led calls for a ban on competition against Russian swimmers.
“Our minds were not focused on preparation at all,” said Govrov, a Russian-speaker born in 2014 on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia.
Earlier this week, he missed out on his first 50m butterfly final since 2009.
“Even after a nine-month vacation with Coved last year, I could still do well at the European Championships,” he said sternly.
“When you don’t have a home, you have no place to stay and rest, it’s been a difficult time,” he added.
‘Ready to kill him’
Athletes from Russia and Belarus were barred from attending the Budapest meet by the international governing body FINA in March due to the attack.
Russia’s Double Olympic swimming champion Eugene Rylov was also banned by FINA for nine months after attending a pro-aggression rally hosted by President Vladimir Putin.
Reloff was one of several participants in the rally who wore the pro-Z symbol on his uniform.
“Inside me, I was ready to go and kill him,” Romanchik said of Rylov.
“But before he was a good friend. First. But everything changed,” he said.
Govrov said he reached out to elite Russian athletes at the start of the war but blocked them on social media channels.
“Not a single high-profile Russian athlete has publicly protested against the war, or used his voice, which is the most important tool of soft power he has,” he said.
“They are also citizens, and they have a responsibility. If they are silent, it means they support their government,” he said.
Govrov said he hopes the ban will last at least as long as the war continues.
“Russia will have to pay the price for what it has done. I do not believe there will be any acceptance for them in the future,” he said.
Minutes of silence
Breaststroke swimmer Camilla Issiva, 16, who left Ukraine on March 20 after receiving an offer of training with some colleagues in Hungary, found it extremely difficult to leave her family.
“I kept away from them, saying it was only for a few weeks, like in a normal training camp,” said Isiva, the only female member of the 10-man squad. “But I’ve been out of the suitcase for months now,” he told AFP.
“You get trained and your thoughts go to family, to Ukraine, to war,” he added.
Her team, also preparing for next month’s European Junior Championships, observes a minute of silence each day in honor of the war victims.
“We don’t know what the future holds for us. Maybe our head coaches will find us somewhere to go to Hungary, maybe in another country,” he said.
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