Ukraine twins smiling through bombs to go for Olympic gold

The sisters, who fled their hometown, are one of Ukraine's best hopes of a gold medal at the Paris Olympics


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Ukraine's Maryna Aleksiiva and Vladyslava Aleksiiva compete in the Women's Artistic Swimming duet technical final in Montpellier, southern France, on May 5, 2023. — AFP photos
Ukraine's Maryna Aleksiiva and Vladyslava Aleksiiva compete in the Women's Artistic Swimming duet technical final in Montpellier, southern France, on May 5, 2023. — AFP photos

Published: Wed 10 Jul 2024, 4:49 PM

As synchronised swimmers, Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva are used to having to smile no matter what.

The sisters are one of Ukraine's best hopes of a gold medal at the Paris Olympics after winning a bronze in artistic swimming at the Tokyo Games three years ago.

But the trials the 23-year-old twins have been put through -- forced to flee their homes, surviving shelling and sleeping in bomb shelters -- have tested even their sunny stoicism.

They have even had to jump out of the pool and "run to the basement in wet swimsuits" when the explosions got too close, Maryna said.

Russian tanks were stopped in the suburbs of their hometown Kharkiv during the war almost two years ago, with the sisters having to leave their sparkly costumes behind when they were evacuated.

Regular bombardments did not stop them returning to Kharkiv to prepare for the Games, even if the windows of their training pool were broken from the missile attacks on the border city.

"Everything has been bombed: our pool, where we started training, our school, our city centre," added Maryna.

The Ukrainian army eventually pushed the Russian troops back, but Kharkiv is still hugely vulnerable. Only 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the border, it has been subjected to almost daily bombing and shelling.

Things got even worse when the Russian army drove towards the city in a surprise offensive in May before being pushed back.

It is not exactly the ideal environment for elite swimmers to go for gold, especially when there is no generator to warm the water when the power fails, as has often happened with the country's electricity grid taking a pounding from the Russians.

AFP has been following the sisters on their turbulent path to Paris, an odyssey that has taken them from Kharkiv to Italy, France, Qatar, Poland, Spain, Japan and back.

"When the war started, we did not know what to do," said Vladyslava, the shyer of the two, who often lets her twin Maryna finish her sentences.

"But then we understood our main goal could be to show courage..."

"To show Ukraine is still alive," Maryna added. "We must show strength."

With the Russians threatening to take the city in the early days of the war, the sisters fled Kharkiv with the rest of Ukraine's artistic swimming team and trained in Italy for six months.

But they were determined to go back to Ukraine to be closer to their parents, training in Kyiv and "sleeping at night in the corridor of a bomb shelter" before returning to Kharkiv.

They only left their home city -- the heart of Ukraine's artistic swimming scene -- for short trips abroad to compete.

Even if it was more dangerous, "it's much better to be together, (even) without electricity and music to train," Vladyslava said during a break in the World Aquatics World Cup in France last year where they won the duet gold.

But even in those carefree moments when they joked about the joys of having electricity, the war was never far away.

When we caught up with the twins again last July at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, they struck an even more sombre note.

"It is hard to focus when your country is at war and you are away from family," Vladyslava admitted.

"We have friends who are sportsmen who died on the battlefield defending our country... It is an awful time for us."

Yet back relaxing on their sofa in Kharkiv on a rare day off in November, they did not turn a hair when the air raid siren sounded, even though Maryna's apartment is on the top floor and more exposed to shelling.

The sisters wore jeans and jumpers and light makeup in contrast to the heavy warpaint they put on for performances.

The sirens go off "five or six times every day" she said. "At night also. It's normal."

Lying on a table nearby was Maryna's bronze Olympic medal from Tokyo.

Every morning they read the news to see if it was safe to train, only going to the bomb shelter when it was really dangerous.

Eventually, however, they had to face reality.

"We realised we couldn't really prepare well in Kharkiv when it was being shelled five to 10 times a day," Maryna said.

So they moved to Kyiv for their final run-in in February, formally qualifying for the Paris Olympics, which start on July 26, the same month.

"We are afraid for our family who stayed in Kharkiv. There are more and more missiles and bombs -- weapons which have been banned -- and so much has been destroyed," Maryna added.

Not that life in Kyiv is a cakewalk.

"Sometimes it is like being in a horror film," said Vladyslava. "Often (during attacks and alerts) you have to leave your bed in the middle of the night and you don't know where you are running to."

"It's hard mentally and emotionally," the sisters said in unison. "It's OK physically, but mentally it's hard."

There have been good moments too though. The sisters were among athletes chosen to model Ukraine's Olympic outfits for Paris, and they also got to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"I was sure that they would be stars," said their childhood trainer, Maryna Krykunova, a tall, elegant woman in a tweed coat, who first came across them when they were eight years old.

Even then they were tall and supple and naturally in sync for duets, she said.

With girls who are not siblings, "we have to spend a lot of time making them similar", she said.

"With Maryna and Vlada, they are already twins so it's much better."

Unsurprisingly, twins and even triplets are not uncommon in artistic swimming.

But what used to be an advantage for the sisters may not be a help after a controversial change last year to the way artistic swimming is judged, which has shifted the emphasis from artistic effect to more technical elements.

It is yet another obstacle for the twins to overcome.

"Our coaches are unhappy with the change in the rules," Maryna said, which makes routines look "very unartistic and awkward".

"We must do everything possible so everything is perfect," said Vladyslava.

"This is the most important time in our lives," said Vladyslava, adding that they were having to prepare in "unequal conditions" compared to their rivals.

Russia, which has traditionally dominated the sport, will not be competing at the Olympics after its teams were banned over the invasion.

But individual Russian athletes who have not taken a strong pro-war stance will be able to compete as neutrals, the International Olympic Committee ruled.

Ukraine's foreign ministry condemned the decision, and the sisters have also spoken out, telling AFP in April that it was "maybe better to not allow a country that killed our sportsmen (to participate)."

But they have since softened their stance.

"We've been training every day for seven hours and we have a goal... to show the courage of our country to the whole world," said Vladyslava.

A medal in Paris would be the ultimate riposte to their Russian competitors who messaged them in the first days of the war telling them it was only a "safety operation".

"Don't worry, we will save you," they said.

"You're crazy," Maryna replied. "I invite you to Kharkiv and you will see how my home town is now... everything has been bombed."

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