‘It feels like a movie but it’s not’: How Ukrainian student-athletes in the U.S. are processing the Russia-Ukraine war

  • Covers the Pac-12.
  • Joined ESPN in 2014.
  • Attended Washington State University.

Yuliia Zhytelna woke her dad up with the phone call. Ten hours separate Sacramento, where the redshirt freshman tennis player at Cal State Northridge had just finished a match, and her native Ukraine.

She was hoping he could debunk reports she had seen on social media of Russian missiles hitting the airport near her hometown of Kyiv, the capital. He wasn’t aware, but when her father called back a short time later, she heard heavy breathing.

“Yuliia, it’s war.”

Earlier in the day, Zhytelna had competed in a doubles match with her partner, Ekaterina Repina, who is Russian. Now they were both trying to make sense of something outside their grasp.

Oklahoma tennis player Sasha Pisareva was in a similar state of panic. The city where her mom was living, Kharkiv, was among those that were first bombed and Pisareva couldn’t immediately reach her. Finally, her mom called her on her cell phone — an expensive call that was different from how they usually communicated.

“I’m OK,” she told her daughter. “They started bombing us. I’m gathering my things right now.”

Pisareva’s instinct was to ask questions, but there wasn’t time for that. Less than 24 hours later, with her mind still occupied with what was happening in her home country, Pisareva took the court in her singles match against a player from Central Florida and won.

In the weeks since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, the resounding feeling among six Ukrainian NCAA athletes interviewed by ESPN has been one of helplessness. They have attempted to compartmentalize the horrors of war while carrying on their daily lives in the United States.

Few around them can relate, so this small community — as of 2019-20, the most recent academic year for which the NCAA has data, there were 107 NCAA Division I and II student-athletes who listed their hometown in Ukraine, 47 of which were women’s tennis players — has looked for ways to lean on each other.

But they remain scared for their families and friends, naturally, and unsure of what will be left for them to return back home.

“Whenever I call [my parents], there’s a lot of loud noises you can hear from the bombs and missiles — and just like screams,” said Washington State rower Kate Maistrenko, who is from Kyiv. “It’s just crazy. It feels like it’s a movie, but it’s not.”

MAISTRENKO IS THE daughter of Olympic rowers. Her father, Anatolil, competed for the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and her mother, Valentyna, was a member of the Unified Team in Barcelona in 1992. They run a rowing training camp in Kyiv, where Maistrenko grew up, but shortly after the bombing started, her family fled to their country house about 10 kilometers miles outside Kyiv.

It was a fortuitous decision. Within days, Maistrenko received cell phone footage from a former classmate and neighbor: the apartment building she had grown up in had been hit by a Russian missile and destroyed.

“I don’t know why they would send a bomb to the apartment complex,” Maistrenko said. “It’s just very family-oriented. There is nothing that could be of danger like a military base. It’s just peaceful civilians in their apartments.”

Her parents originally had hoped to turn their large country house into a hotel, but the project never launched. For a couple weeks after the invasion began, it was transformed into somewhat of a safe haven for those seeking shelter — as much as that was possible given the circumstances. Maistrenko estimated more than 100 people lived in the basement — kids who lost their parents, displaced families, others they know with nowhere else to go.

But as the war raged on, her family determined the house was no longer safe, as it was in an area targeted by missiles. On March 16, they fled for Ternopil, roughly 500 kilometers away in Western Ukraine. The drive was difficult. Roads had been bombed. They slept in their car. For three days, they didn’t have cell service and Maistrenko was unable to reach them. She relied on updates from her two brothers, both of whom are fighting for Ukraine.

Over 5,000 miles away in Pullman, Washington, Maistrenko said she has tried to maintain some sense of normalcy amid 5:30 a.m. workouts, classes and afternoon practices. She remained a representative for WSU on the Pac-12’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Adding worry on top of those responsibilities, sleep remains hard to come by.

Though Maistrenko said she has felt supported on campus, she’s not with anyone in person who can truly relate to what she’s dealing with, as there are no other born-and-raised Ukrainians around. Her interactions have varied.

“So many people reached out to me and they’re like, ‘How can we help you? Are you OK?'” Maistrenko said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. I have friends who’ve died. I don’t know if they are even buried or where they are.'”

Just weeks before the invasion began, Maistrenko helped a new Russian student get situated on campus. Then, when the bombing began, Maistrenko was shocked by a text message that student sent her: “Don’t worry, girl. Putin will save you.”

Maistrenko sent a long response, but the message was simple: “If you open your eyes, you can see what’s happening.”

She never heard back.

The possibility of an interaction like the one Maistrenko experienced is why Zhytelna was uneasy about having a Russian teammate prior to arriving on campus in Northridge.

“I was concerned about what she’s thinking when I came here because [Russian] propaganda [about Ukrainians], and stuff like this,” Zhytelna said. “I was really concerned about this.”

Instead, Zhytelna and Repina, a fifth-year senior, became fast friends — and doubles partners. As missiles continued to be fired on Zhytelna’s hometown, she shared stories from friends and family about what was happening in Ukraine.

“When you start being friends, you don’t think about the nationalities,” Zhytelna said of their relationship.

She’s found support in other places, too. Zhytelna has four siblings and her family remained in Kyiv for two weeks before her parents sought refuge. That’s when Zhytelna’s Polish CSUN teammate, Magdalena Hedrzak, stepped in. She told her parents of Zhytelna’s family’s plight, and they set them up with an apartment in Poland, fully stocked with food. Her father was able to find a job to replace the business he left behind in Ukraine.

“I’m so grateful too, because now my family is in a safe place,” Zhytelna said. “But it’s still upsetting that they left everything behind. Everything is at our house. And no one knows when you will come back.”

RECEIVING AN AMERICAN university education is a primary draw for nearly all international college athletes, but adapting to a new country and culture can feel isolating.

When Anastasiia Ustiuzhanina enrolled at Tulsa for the spring semester, it meant she would be separated for an extended period from her twin sister, Kateryna, for the first time. They are both international-caliber rowers, the daughters of an Olympic rowing bronze medalist. Kateryna opted to remain in Ukraine. Anastasiia assumed she would get to return home from Oklahoma in the summer to row for the national team and see her family. Then the invasion began.

Kateryna had left with the Ukrainian national rowing team for training in Turkey shortly before the bombings. Their mother, Tetiana Ustiuzhanina, who competed and placed for the Unified Team in the 1992 Olympics, has remained in Ukraine, reluctant to leave her home country.

Though Anastasiia has been able to talk with both of them daily, the first night was the hardest. Her mother could hear explosions from her home and left for a bomb shelter with their cat. She has since fled to a small town 100 kilometers from Kyiv. Kateryna, meanwhile, has no plans to leave Turkey.

“I also don’t know when all my family can see each other together in one place, and it makes me cry sometimes,” Anastasiia said.

Many Ukrainian NCAA athletes have leaned on each other. Roughly 30 are part of an active WhatsApp group chat, sharing information and staying connected.

In the WhatsApp group, Miami tennis player Diana Khodan, who is from Western Ukraine which has so far been less impacted, passed along information about her region intended to help those fleeing. Multiple Ukrainian student-athletes expressed a sense of obligation to try to offer assistance however they can.

Maistrenko had been saving money to buy a car, but donated those funds to the war effort. Zhytelna organized a vigil on the CSUN campus. Ustiuzhanina attended a rally in Tulsa. Creating more awareness in the United States, they say, is important.

For some athletes, sports have served as a welcome respite from the chaos. The Oklahoma women’s tennis team is amid perhaps the best season in school history, ranked No. 3 in the country. On March 6, the school hosted a match in support of Ukraine. Pisareva and her teammates wore patches of the Ukrainian flag.

“I think [tennis] is a very good distraction,” Pisareva said. “When all of this started, I was just focusing on playing for my country. Tennis is my passion and it helps me to not think about what’s going on.”

Pisareva, the daughter of two internationally famous Ukrainian ballet dancers, was born in the United States while her father, Vadym Pisayev, was performing in “The Nutcracker” in Philadelphia. But she was raised in Donestk, a major city in Eastern Ukraine where Russian-backed separatist forces have long fought the Ukrainian government. When the Donbas War broke out in 2014, her family was forced apart.

Pisareva moved in with a family in Kyiv, while her sister and mother, Inna Dorofeeva, relocated to Kharkiv, where her sister pursued ballet. Her father remained in Donetsk.

In her rush to flee Kharkiv when the invasion began, Pisareva’s mother took a train to Poland. From there she moved to Belarus and, eventually, Moscow, where Pisareva’s sister is studying at the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

“My mom is simply there because she wanted to be with my sister,” Pisareva said.

Pisareva has some concern that it could become difficult to communicate with her mother and sister, given Russia’s attempt to isolate itself digitally, but has so far been able to stay in touch using WhatsApp and another messaging platform, Viber.

The cultural ties between the countries are strong. It’s common for siblings or family members to live on both sides of the border.

USC rower Anastasia Slivina was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Ukrainian parents. She spent the first 11 years of her life in Russia before her family relocated to Kyiv to be closer to family.

“I definitely feel like I am Ukrainian, not Russian,” Slivina said. “Inside, just like by the way my spirit is.”

But she also has a lot of Russian friends and that dynamic has made an already challenging situation even more complex.

“We’re different culturally from Russians, but we’re still just so, so similar,” Slivina said. “It’s very hard to acknowledge that these two countries are in war right now. And most of the Russians that I talked to, they understand that it’s wrong what their government is doing, but some don’t understand and it’s really painful for me to acknowledge that.”

For nearly a week after the invasion began, Slivina stopped attending practice and class. She said she spent much of that time in tears. Basic human interaction was arduous. A USC sports psychologist helped her through it.

“I’ve been very sensitive to things that I wouldn’t be sensitive to otherwise,” she said. “Recently, one of my coaches said some completely normal things to me and I cried because my mental state is off.”

AFTER THE INITIAL shock subsided, concern about the future set in — for their country, for their families, for the student-athletes themselves.

“Now I don’t know what will be there tomorrow in my country and in my city where I grew up,” Ustiuzhanina said.

Maistrenko, meanwhile, wanted to follow a similar path as her Olympian parents. After graduating from WSU this spring, she planned to return home and continue rowing with an eye on the 2024 Olympics.

Now she’s not sure when she will be able to return to Ukraine or what it will look like. Her parents’ rowing camp has been destroyed. She’s in the United States on an F1 visa and plans to apply for an Optional Practical Training visa, which would allow her to extend her stay in the country for another three years. She’s thinking about moving to Seattle to work and continue training.

“I’m going to start my life from scratch,” she said.

Zhytelna, who is studying journalism and urban planning, was looking for summer internships at home, and she had plans to travel with her sister. Those arrangements are off. For several weeks, she was unsure where she would live this summer until a woman in Southern California offered her a room after a journalism professor shared her situation.

“Her parents had to flee from the Holocaust in Poland,” Zhytelna said of her benefactor. “They became refugees.”

Zhytelna suggested they might be kindred spirits in that way.

As these student-athletes have tried to find some kind of sustainable routine, the element of the unknown makes it difficult. Their families’ circumstances can change in an instant. Most international students’ visa status limits how they can generate income.

But with no end to the war in sight, they all acknowledge the reality of the situation: They have no choice but to carry on.

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