Ukrainian junior national team swimmers find refuge in Hungary

3 Apr

Kamilla Isaieva and Oleksandr Zheltiakov consider themselves very fortunate to have escaped the war in their homeland to continue to pursue the sport they love.

The two members of Ukraine's junior national swimming team are training at one of Hungary's top facilities, the Sportuszoda or Sports Aquatic Center, in the eastern city of Debrecen. The 16-year-olds are just two of the 37 Ukrainian junior national team swimmers who have made it to Hungary. 

Kamilla, who holds three junior national team titles, was able to escape from Dnipro, where she lived with her family, when she got a ride with the mother of a friend to Poland. "It was very scary," Kamilla told DW, "because you understand that Russians just shoot at whole families, they shoot at cars, they don't care if there are kids in there." Fortunately for her, the car she was in wasn't attacked, and she was on her way to a new life. 

So was Oleksandr – also from Dnipro – whose parents also drove him to the Polish border. Oleksandr has won three national team titles and was also a silver medalist at the European Junior Championships. Both swimmers' next destination was Hungary – a move that was made possible by a friendship between two men who first met at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Favor from an old friend

Sandor Wladar was a top swimmer for Hungary as that country was starting to assemble what would become its "golden" swimming team. Wladar lived up to his billing, winning gold in the 200-meter backstroke.

Ukrainian swimmer Sergei Fesenko of the Soviet Union's team was also a top talent and took gold in the 200-metre butterfly. The two quickly struck up a lasting friendship with Wladar now the president of the Hungarian Swimming Association and Fesenko one of the heads of the Ukrainian Swim Federation.

So, when the fighting broke out in Ukraine in February, Fesenko decided to ask Wladar for a big favor.

"I ask whether it would be possible for the Hungarians to take in and financially support Ukraine's elite junior swimmers and provide them with high-level training," was the WhatApp message Fesenko sent his friend. 

Wladar said it was a no-brainer and sensed immediately that the Hungarian Swim Association would get behind the idea. It then opened up the sports facilities in Debrecen and in the central Hungarian city of Kaposvar to Ukrainian youngsters aged between 10 and 17. Any male 18 and up would probably not be allowed to leave Ukraine because of conscription as a result of the Russian invasion.

Fesenko would decide which swimmers should be invited with the Hungarian Swim Association footing the bill – estimated to be between €32,000 - €40,000 ($35,111 - $43,889) a month. The Ukrainian swimmers are put up in 3-star hotels and receive full meals and full training. 

"I believe that there is no limit when it comes to this issue," Wladar told DW. However, the Hungarian Swim Association is not alone in the venture. According to Wladar, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pledged to pitch in financially and that funding is to apply to all sports associations in the country that are willing to help Ukrainian athletes. 

Originally, Wladar and the Hungarian Swim Association sought to keep the aid program low key. "We didn't want to aggrandize ourselves, " Wladar explained, "but when Ukrainian athletes started publicly thanking Hungary and the Hungarian Swimming Association as well as myself, then we thought it was time for us come out in the open with this news." While Wladar may well have saved lives, as Russian forces have been bombarding not just military but also civilian targets in Ukraine, he doesn't see himself as a hero.

"Dreadful, horrific news is coming out of Ukraine, so maybe we did save lives, but one thing is certain: we are ensuring the integrity of the sport of swimming, and we can cultivate our international sporting connections so that we can ensure the proper kind of conditions for Ukrainian swimmers and competitors," Wladar said. "It warms our hearts because man is born to help others."

Hearts back in Ukraine

Yet, the painful reality for the swimmers now in Hungary is that they are still very torn. "I'm swimming, I'm safe, I have food, I have a roof over my head, and I understand that I don't have to feel guilty," said Kamilla. "But sometimes the feeling comes to me, and I try everything I can to help Ukraine... When I hear from my family it makes me calmer about everything."

However, not all calls home have as calming an effect. "Once when I was speaking with my family, two rockets sailed over their house and hit the airport," Oleksandr said. "They blew it up and now we don't have an airport."

Wladar knows that all is not well for the swimmers – but at least they're safe. "You could see horror, fatigue and insecurity in their eyes," said Wladar recalling their arrival in Debrecen. "But after a few days they saw that they had arrived in a good place. They were welcomed with open arms and we're providing the kind of care that has calmed them down. Obviously, the word has gotten back to Ukraine, and we'll be taking in even more athletes soon."


Author Arpad Szoczi

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