Inside a gym in San Diego’s Alliant University, Ukraine's national gymnastics team trains for a championship that goes beyond sports.
“It means much more now because we want to show the entire world that Ukrainians are strong,” said Arina Zemlyanko, a 17-year-old athlete with Ukraine’s Aesthetic Group Gymnastics National Team.
The nine athletes, now safely settled in San Diego, have been through a harrowing journey.
“They’re all different,” said Iryna Gutnik, the team's coach. “Some kids are having a much harder time being away from parents and some kids are doing better with that. [It] also depends on how much stress they received in Ukraine while the war was happening.”
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The team and Gutnik were all rescued with the help of Elena Baltovick, a San Diegan involved with the Aesthetic Group Gymnastics Federation.
“By looking at the news and keep talking to their coach I realized I had to get them out,” said Baltovick.
Baltovick set up an online fundraiser which raised enough funds to help fly the team out of Ukraine and into the U.S.
“It makes me feel that I [can] make a difference in their lives and that is good enough for me,” said Baltovick. “That they’re safe and no one is going to kill them or rape them.”
The athletes' ages range from 13 to 20. Their fathers and mothers are still fighting back in Ukraine.
“They’re still there and the bombs are still happening, shooting is still going on so it’s still very nerve-wracking and scary,” said Zemlyanko.
But despite the distance, and the unknowns the girls are finding peace in a familiar place: gymnastics.
“It's helping me have a distraction from what is going on at home,” said Yelyzaveta Bulavina, a 14-year-old athlete with Ukraine’s Aesthetic Group Gymnastics National Team.
For two weeks now the girls have been training in San Diego for upcoming world competitions.
“We are very blessed to have them training [here,]” said Baltovick. “That they can represent Ukraine when they compete and show that Ukraine is strong and will win this thing.”
They remain strong as they train to show the world what Ukraine is made of.