Young Ukrainian athletes escape war and train in Albania
ELBASAN, Albania — After fleeing a war zone, a group of young Ukrainian track and field athletes have found safety in Albania. Their minds are still between the two countries.
“I miss my mother’s food and my grandmother’s advice,” said Maria Lariva, 17, who throws the shot put. “I miss my coach and the stadium, my city, my home, my country, everything.”
Lariva and seven other teenage athletes were evacuated from Bakhmut, a town in the Donetsk region that is part of Ukraine’s industrial heartland – where Russia has concentrated its fighting after its early failure to sweep the country and invade the capital .
Their families stayed behind.
“I speak with my family every day. Several times a day,” said Valentyn Loboda, 17, a pole vaulter who has been training in the long jump since the group arrived in Elbasan on March 31. “We talk about what is happening in Ukraine, how it is. in Albania.
The eight athletes train at Sport Club Elbasani with the help of the Albanian Olympic committee and the city itself, located about 45 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital Tirana.
Leaving home was difficult and the train ride was dangerous.
“(Everyone) lay down, closed doors and windows for about 30 minutes, fearing the planes would fly close enough,” Lariva said, describing the trip from Kramatorsk to Dubno.
The group then traveled to Lutsk before entering Poland and catching a flight to Albania.
Athletes compete in various sports in track and field. Some of them are aiming to reach the standards required to participate in the U20 World Athletics Championship in Cali, Colombia, in early August.
Lariva, posting a video sent by her mother showing a giant whole near her house created by a bomb, said she burst into tears when her mother did not answer phone calls.
“During the bombings there is no internet,” she said.
Pavlo Zadorozhiy, a 71-year-old coach, fears the experience could affect his athletes’ potential careers. But he said he was ‘more concerned about the people dying in my country, the children, and seeing horrific sights, broken homes every day’.
Artin Kovaci, the head of the Elbasani sports club, said the hosts try to accommodate “any request they have”, adding that a club official accompanies the athletes most of the day.
There was even a pleasant surprise when Albanian long jumper Izmir Smajlaj came to Elbasan to meet Loboda. Smajlaj won gold at the 2017 European Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia and is the country’s record holder in the event.
“We were Facebook friends,” Loboda said. “It was great that Izmir, the great athlete, came to meet me.”
Loboda said he hopes to have a successful sports career and one day return home to Ukraine to teach English.
“I want to go back because I miss my family,” Loboda said. “Albania is a good country, but we are Ukrainians. We want (to go home) to our home, to our parents.