Athletics News

An alternative battlefield: how Ukraine’s athletes are fighting for freedom

An alternative battlefield: how Ukraine’s athletes are fighting for freedom

Bombed-out training facilities, daily curfews and nightly blackouts have become norm for Ukrainian athletes, writes Almi Nerurkar, as they continue to chase their sporting dreams

Yaroslava Yastreb is a 24-year-old Ukrainian middle-distance athlete from Kherson in the south of the country. Her home city was captured by the Russian military on day two of the invasion in February last year and, a few days after the occupation, she joined the millions of other Ukrainians trying to escape.

“When war broke out, I was in Kyiv for my studies,” Yastreb says. “Within four days, I found a way to go abroad. The roads through western Ukraine were difficult, but when I crossed the border into Poland, there were free trains and lots of help for Ukrainians who had been forced to flee.”

Her family, who were still in Kherson, spent over three weeks in a basement, hiding from the constant bombing and the Russian army in their city. “My mum and brother eventually went to stay with friends in the western part of Ukraine. Then I organised a bus for them to travel abroad. My uncles and my grandmother are still in Kherson and it is hard for us. They do not want to change homes. But it is still dangerous for them and it is difficult to contact them.”

But Yastreb feels fortunate when she thinks about her new situation in Friedrichshafen, a city on the shore of Lake Constance in southern Germany. “Germany is the best country for Ukrainian people,” she says. “The government pay for my apartment and I have language classes every day.”

She has also gained a new perspective on training with her new coach Norman Feiler, who is based in Munich. “My coach in Ukraine was very old and coached us in the Soviet Union style system,” she says. “Training was very hard, a big stress on the body. I went for five years without my period and I was very skinny.

“I had to keep my weight under 50kg, I was skin and bones… and maybe a little muscle,” she laughs. “My coach in Munich does it as a hobby. There is less pressure for results. Now I can run because I love it, not because I must and because it’s my job”.

The last year has been a year full of adaptations for Yastreb. “A year ago I was able to win every race very easily,” she says. “But this summer it was hard and it has been hard for me to understand that I don’t have the same level as before. Now I manage my training with my health and in the future I want to return to Ukraine and compete in the…

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