Ukrainian athletes are dominating the Paralympics, despite the uncertainty at home
While Ukraine battles Russian forces at home, its Paralympic athletes are putting up a fight in Beijing. They've swept the podium not once but twice, racking up medals for their homeland despite their distractions and concerns.
Ukraine is second in the medal count behind China as of Tuesday morning ET, with six gold medals and 17 in total. Its athletes dominated the para biathlon events on Tuesday, with the men's and women's teams sweeping the middle distance vision impaired and standing categories, respectively.
Iryna Bui, Oleksandra Kononova and Liudmyla Liashenko won the top three medals in the women's middle distance standing. Later, Ukrainian men took the top five spots in the middle distance vision impaired race, with Vitalii Lukianenko, Anatolii Kovalevskyi and Dmytro Suiarko each making it to the podium.
Organizers say this makes 43-year-old Lukianenko the most successful male para biathlete of all time, having won 14 Paralympic medals — including eight gold — since 2002.
The athletes are using their bittersweet wins to draw attention to the tragedy unfolding at home.
"We would like to dedicate our results and medals to each and every Ukrainian and all the soldiers in the Ukrainian army who protect us," said Bui, according to Japan's Kyodo News. "With our performance, we represent the whole country, and this is our battle, here."
The athletes' hearts are with their families
Many have spoken to reporters about the dual challenge of competing in the Paralympics while worrying about their families at home.
"All my thoughts, my heart and my soul is with my family and with my child," Kononova told Al Jazeera. "Emotionally it's very difficult to focus and to concentrate on the race and the competition, so this is the most difficult Paralympic Games for me."
Some Ukrainian athletes have had to pull out of competitions because of the toll Russia's aggression has taken on their loved ones, Al Jazeera reports. (Paralympic organizers banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition after the invasion began.)
Liashenko pulled out of her cross-country race after her home in hard-hit Kharkiv was destroyed on Monday, according to team spokesperson Nataliia Harach.
And 19-year-old Anastasiia Laletina withdrew from her biathlon middle distance sitting race early Tuesday after learning that her father, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, was imprisoned and beaten by Russian forces.
"She was very upset and couldn't take part in the race," Harach said, adding that Laletina was resting and getting support from the team's doctor.
Ukraine has been a force at these Games
Tuesday's podium sweeps weren't the only notable Ukrainian victories of these Paralympics, which started last Friday and end on Sunday.
In fact, it was Ukrainian-born Oksana Masters who won Team USA's first gold medal, in the women's biathlon sitting sprint. It's her fifth career Paralympic gold medal and her 11th overall, including both Summer and Winter Games.
The biathlete and cross-country skier was born in Ukraine with birth defects attributed to the Chernobyl nuclear disaste, and was adopted by an American single mother after living in Ukrainian orphanages for nearly a decade. She has written in social media posts about identifying as both Ukrainian and American and about representing both countries on the podium.
"It has been difficult to find my passion and desire to compete at these Games amid the war my home country of Ukraine is enduring," she wrote in one. "I feel selfish, helpless, and guilty for being here. However, I have always been so proud to be Ukrainian, felt so much pride at the sight of the Ukrainian flag, and now more than ever, I am the proudest to say I am Ukrainian."
Masters says she is donating portions of her prize money to No Child Forgotten, an effort by Global Giving and Bright Kids Charity to support Ukrainian children with disabilities.
Ukrainian athletes took home even more biathlon medals on Tuesday: Grygorii Vovchynskyi won silver in the men's middle distance standing, while Taras Rad earned bronze in the men's middle distance sitting competition.
Rad told reporters through an interpreter that he plans to return to Ukraine after the Games and will volunteer to help the army if the war is still ongoing.
"I'm always thinking about my family and friends when I am staying at the hotel ... but right now, talking about them, I am shaking, I worry a lot about them," he said.
Getting the athletes to Beijing was 'a miracle' in the first place
Valerii Sushkevych, the president of Ukraine's Paralympic committee, said last week that the team's arrival in Beijing was "a miracle," saying some had narrowly escaped Russian bombs as they left the country.
Ukraine's Olympic and Paralympic teams have historically been strong, and Sushkevych told The New York Times this week that the event is typically a time of celebration and camaraderie for the athletes.
But that's not the case this time around, he said.
"I ask the athletes in the morning, 'Did you sleep?' I ask another, 'Did you sleep?' They say, 'No, no,' " he said. "They have dull, sad faces. The mood is very difficult. We are all thinking of home."
Sushkevych told The Times that he and his wife are now figuring out how to get everyone out of China when the Games end, saying they will likely move the 54-person delegation to an undetermined European country as a sort of staging ground — but many questions remain.
"For how long?" he said. "Days? Weeks? Do we stay in hotels, and how do we pay for that? We don't have the money. We don't have the answers yet."
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