Ukrainian vaulters beat the odds to compete at top level

The Ukrainian vaulting team in training in Bernolákovo, Slovakia.
The Ukrainian vaulting team in training in Bernolákovo, Slovakia. ©  FEI/Richard Juilliart

Five young equestrian vaulters had to dig deep to train to make it to their first international competition, and as the first team from Ukraine to compete in the discipline they have had to overcome more than most.

It is only a few months since the girls fled their hometown of Poltova to escape the war that has upturned the lives of millions of Ukrainians.

Polina Shovkova (14), sisters Katya (14) and Jenya (11) Panasenko, Sonia Shulga (14) and Marta Lopaienko (15) became the first team to represent Ukraine in international vaulting when they competed in the one-star competition in Kaposvár Hungary, last weekend.

They are living and training in Bernolákovo, a suburb of Bratislava in Slovakia, where they have been welcomed by members of the local vaulting community and supported financially by the FEI Solidarity Fund.

“We didn’t have competitions in Ukraine because we are the first vaulting team,” Marta said.

“We didn’t feel too comfortable with the horses here in Slovakia at first because they are bigger and have a different rhythm to our horses at home. But now we know the character of each horse.

“We were a bit worried about taking part in our first international competition and it was important for us. But as Katya, our trainer from Ukraine always says: You have to do this performance just for you.”

French coach Anthony Bro-Petit has been training the team in Bernolákovo.
French coach Anthony Bro-Petit has been training the team in Bernolákovo. © FEI/Richard Juilliart

Joining the team on their journey is Anthony Bro-Petit, a former international competitor for France, who has played a key role in developing the sporting infrastructure for vaulting in Ukraine before the war.

“Preparing young athletes for a competition or a Championship is always tough because even when they are motivated, the mental focus is very hard to maintain. The war has added an extra layer of mental difficulty for these girls. It’s not easy to fully concentrate on your training when you know your family is not safe,” said Bro-Petit, 29.

“We would have been able to prepare more if there was no war. But the team did really well in their first international competition and now we know which aspects we need to focus on more during our training.”

They now have their sights set on the international competition in Samorin in Slovakia in June. The road ahead will be easier to navigate than the one they took in March this year.

“We knew that we would have to leave Poltava about a week before we had to go,” Marta said. “We first thought that we were going to France, but two days before we left we were told that we were going to Slovakia.”

Ukrainian vaulter Marta Lopaienko training in Bernolákovo, Slovakia.
Ukrainian vaulter Marta Lopaienko training in Bernolákovo, Slovakia. ©  FEI/Richard Juilliart

Because of traffic jams, the normally day-long drive to the Slovakian border took three days.

“The first night we didn’t stop and we kept going. But the second night we stopped near the Carpathian Mountains, and we stayed in a flat with just two rooms. There were 15 of us, and me and the girls slept on one sofa, and the others slept on the floor. Then the third day we crossed the border very quickly,” Marta said.

“We were not frightened but we were really sad and tired. And when we crossed the border we all started to cry.”

The girls’ trainer Kateryna (Katya) Andreiva and her 18-month son David, as well as three of their mothers, accompanied the vaulters to Slovakia, while other members of their families stayed in Ukraine.

It is a situation that has caused Katya’s and Jenya’s mother Ekateryna a great deal of anguish. “When you first come from war, you think that it would have been better to stay at home because your mind cannot feel safe,” Ekateryna said.

“It’s harder to be in a safe country because you feel at fault for leaving your family. My mother is in the Kharkiv region and I know that she’s sitting in a bomb shelter while I’m here in Slovakia. But we are mums and everything we do, we do for our children. You don’t think about yourself. You just think about your children.”

The vaulters have settled into a routine at the local school which is currently housing the group from Poltava, as well as 40 refugees from other parts of Ukraine. The girls begin each weekday morning by joining online lessons with their school in Poltova, which leaves them the rest of the day to train at the local riding school, and at the school gym that has a mechanical horse and barrels.

Slovak Equestrian Federation Secretary-General Zuzana Bačiak Masaryková said the young vaulter were training hard.

“The community here in the Bratislava area has been extremely generous to the team. The owner of the shop that sells vaulting shoes, has given the girls free pairs and other people have provided us with everything they require.

“My aim is to give these girls all that they need to train, so that they can forget about the war, at least for a few hours each day.”

They are hoping they can return home to Poltava after the competition in Samorin, with the aim of competing in the 2023 Vaulting World Championship.

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