August 19, 2021

Ukraine’s Paralympians pose a powerful presence

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sport.gov.ua

Ukraine’s Paralympic Team as it was honored in Kyiv by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before the team departed for Tokyo.

The 2020 Summer Paralympics are scheduled to take place in Tokyo on August 24 through September 5. This will be Ukraine’s seventh consecutive appearance at the Summer Paralympics since 1996. Ukraine will be competing in the following 10 sports: archery, athletics, badminton, cycling, goalball, rowing, shooting, swimming, table tennis and taekwondo. Forty athletes will be competing in swimming, 25 in athletics, nine in rowing, eight in table tennis, seven in shooting, three in taekwondo, two in archery and one in badminton. There will be at least three playing goalball and two cyclists. (The Kyiv Post has reported that Ukraine is sending 143 athletes to compete in 15 sports.)

After the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, many asked the question of how does a country fighting a war, in deep economic and political crisis, with a history of Soviet-era discrimination and abuse of people with disabilities, produce a world-class team of Paralympic athletes? This is exactly what Ukraine has accomplished, capturing third place in Rio de Janeiro, behind only China and Great Britain, ahead of the United States, Australia and Germany.

The Paralympics debuted in Rome in 1960, but Ukraine has only been competing in the Games since 1996 in Atlanta, where they placed 44th out of 60 national teams. The Ukrainian Paralympic team rose from 44th in Atlanta to third in Rio in a mere 20 years, coming home from Brazil with 117 total medals (41 gold, 37 silver, 39 bronze), 22 new world records and 32 Paralympic records. (For comparison, in Rio the “regular” Ukrainian Olympic team captured only 11 medals, taking 31st place.)

Factors that contribute to success at the Paralympics include a robust economy, established leadership, focused funding and a strong societal commitment to fair and reasonable accessibility for the disabled. Ukraine’s economy is not strong or stable when compared to China, Great Britain, the U.S. or Australia. Ukraine’s success is due in large part to their strong leadership, in their case a person who designed and powerfully drove a national program that focused on the development of young people with disabilities.

Ukraine is reaping the rewards of foundations established by Valeriy Sushkevych, founder and president of the Paralympic Committee of Ukraine, who helped develop a physical education and sports program for young people with disabilities. The Dnipro native uses a wheelchair after having survived childhood polio. He was trained as an engineer who “found himself” in sports. He became a champion swimmer and founded a sports club where disabled athletes could train. In 1998 he became the first person with a disability to be elected to Ukraine’s parliament. He later served as commissioner for the rights of disabled people in Ukraine, acting as a direct advisor to the president of Ukraine on disability issues.

A second key component of Ukraine’s Paralympic leap has been the long-time existence of Invasport, a state-based network of athletic programs and facilities throughout the country, a system which Mr. Sushkevych helped build. This system of programs boasts an array of sports federations – for the blind, the deaf and for athletes with mobility disabilities. In amateur sports, many people with disabilities enjoy valuable, sometimes life-saving opportunities for rehabilitation, exercise and socializing, with a select few going on to more elite forms of sport, including Paralympics.

Through his efforts, Mr. Shushkevych has brought attention to disability issues via the Paralympics. The Paralympic athletes have been utilized as examples to draw society’s attention, and then continue the fight in different ways. The ultimate goal is to show that people with disabilities can be full-fledged citizens of Ukraine. It is hoped that Ukraine’s continued Paralympic success is leveraged to produce more respect, more recognition and more equal rights for the many millions of people living with disabilities in Ukraine today.

Below is a quick biographical peek at four returning Ukrainian Paralympians destined for the medal podium in Tokyo.

Getting to know: Oksana Boturchuk, athletics
Born: September 12, 1984, Nikopol, Ukraine. She took up running track at age nine through her mother who was involved in the sport. One of her hobbies is psychology – the most influential people in her life are her husband Sergiy Balaban and coach Kostyantyn Rurak. Her hero/idol is American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner. Her personal motto is “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” She has been awarded the Ukrainian Order for Merits in recognition of her achievements at the Paralympic Games in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In three Paralympics she has won one gold, five silver and one bronze medal while competing in 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter sprints. Her vision impairment is the result of a car accident in 1997. In 2020, a film titled “Pulse,” based on her biography, was released. The movie’s slogan is “Live. Dream. Come on,” the idea being that there is always a positive side to everything. Boturchuk has worked as a physical education teacher and has a daughter (Sofia) and a son (Mikhail).

Getting to know: Vasyl Kovalchuk, shooting
Born: April 18, 1973, Cherkasy, Ukraine. He began shooting as a sport in 2008 after trying Para-athletics, table tennis, swimming and football. Fishing is his most special hobby. The most influential person in his career is Mr. Sushkevych (President of the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine). His idols are American boxers Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali and wrestler Ivan Poddubny. His personal motto is “Nothing is impossible.” He has been awarded the Order of Merits in recognition of his achievements at the Paralympic Games in 2012 and 2016. Kovalchuk has played Para-football at the international level. His wife, Olha Kovalchuk, won a silver medal in shooting at the 2016 Rio Games. Kovalchuk’s impairment occurred in 1984 when he lost his right arm after being attacked by a bear at a zoo while on a school trip with classmates.

Getting to know: Yelyzaveta Mereshko, swimming
Born: July 8, 1992, Kherson, Ukraine. She started swimming in 2003 (at age 11) at a youth sports school in her hometown of Kherson. Her mother took her swimming to a pool near their house in an effort to improve her health. She was invited to take part in youth tournaments and became “infected with the desire to compete.” Liza (nickname) enjoys embroidery as a hobby and has studied computer engineering. She won four gold medals and one bronze at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Her idol/hero in life is Ukrainian Olympic gold medalist Yana Klochkova. Her personal motto is “the recipe of success is five percent talent and 95 percent hard work.” In 2018 Mereshko was named one of the six best Ukrainian athletes at the Sports Constellation annual award ceremony by the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine. She was named 2016 Female Para-Swimmer of the Year in Swimswam.com’s Swammy Awards. Mereshko’s impairment is a malformation of her spinal cord.

Getting to know: Maksym Krypak, swimming
Born: May 23, 1995, Kharkiv, Ukraine. He began training as a swimmer at the age of six in Kharkiv, competing with able-bodied athletes until his impairment deteriorated, when he switched to Para-swimming. Doctors advised his parents to enroll him in swimming lessons for health reasons and for sport. He won five gold medals and three silvers at the 2016 Paralympic Games. The most influential people in his career are his father and his coach. His hero/idol is American swimmer Michael Phelps. His sporting philosophy is “If you have a dream, you need to fully invest in it, and then everything will work out.” He has received the Order of Merits of Ukraine, won the Strong Spirit prize at the 2016 Heroes of the Sports Year awards in Ukraine and Honored Master of Sport in Ukraine. Krypak was born with disorders of the musculoskeletal system. His goal is to improve on his achievements at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

Tokyo tidbit: Ukrainian Para-rower Roman Polianskyi was selected as one of the Paralympic athletes to watch at Tokyo 2020 by Olympics.com. He is referred to as having taken the world by storm when he clinched gold in the men’s sculls in his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016, beating favorite Erik Horrie from Australia. He went on to win gold and silver medals at the World Championships in 2018 and silver in 2017. Roman was initially a Para-canoer, but switched when canoeing was not an event in Rio. He suffers from a condition known as hereditary spastic paraplegia. His goal in Tokyo is gold!

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com.