‘We cried when we crossed the border’: young Ukrainian vaulters take part in first international competition

  • Five young vaulters from Ukraine were given the chance to “forget about the war” at least for short periods as they trained for their first international competition.

    Polina Shovkova, 14, sisters Katya, 14, and Jenya, 11, Panasenko, Sonia Shulga, 14, and 15-year-old Marta Lopaienko became the first team to represent Ukraine in international vaulting, in a one-star competition in Kaposvár, Hungary, from 20 to 22 May.

    The team left their home Poltova and are training in Bratislava, Slovakia, where they have been welcomed by local vaulters and supported by the FEI’s 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’.”

    The team is now preparing for an international vaulting competition in Slovakia next month, which they hope will be less traumatic than the route to their first event.

    “We knew we would have to leave Poltava about a week before we had to go,” said Marta. “We were on the road for three days. It was a very long journey, because of the traffic jams everywhere. It usually takes us one day to drive to the Slovak border.

    “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 mothers, also travelled to Slovakia, but other members of their families have stayed in Ukraine.

    Katya and Jenya’s mother said: “When you first come from war, you think that it would have been better to stay at home because your mind cannot feel safe.

    “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 take part in online lessons at their new local school every morning, then train at a riding school.

    “It is good to see that the girls are training really hard,” said Slovak equestrian federation secretary general Zuzana Bačiak Masaryková.

    “The community here in the Bratislava area have 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.”

    The vaulters and their mothers hope they can return to Poltava after the competition, but also aim to continue their training.

    “We are not sure if vaulting is our sport in the long term,” Marta said. “But in 2023, our aim is to take part in the Vaulting World Championship and we’re going to train hard for this.”

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