Athletics team in paradise: Ukrainians in Chula Vista train for Worlds, Nation

Passing under their nation’s flag, Ukrainian athletes were cheered on Thursday as they walked on a red carpet in the courtyard of the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.

Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas showed head coach Oleksiy Serdyuchenko a bag of purple and gold “Chula Vista Champions” pins that she later handed out.

Serdyuchenko thanked her.

“You’re a very cool people, a very cool nation,” said the 25ft former long jumper, towering over Salas.

Brian Melekian, president of the city-owned former Olympic training facility, told a dinnertime crowd of nearly 200 that being able to compete amidst their hardship is “nothing less than ‘a miracle”.

A post-match party? Not enough.

It was a tribute to a team still a week away from the world athletics championships in Eugene, Oregon.

With funding from world governing body World Athletics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Point Loma Nazarene University and local corporate sponsors, 22 Ukrainian athletes arrived last week to train at the Chula Vista Center and s adapt to the time change.

They united from Italy, Finland, Germany, Poland, Spain and other exile bases.

Among them: Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Yaroslava Maguchih.

Already a decorated high jumper at 20, she shot to fame in March for taking a three-day, 1,250-mile road trip from Ukraine to jump at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. She won.

She now trains in Nuremberg, Germany, with cobbler Puma who also helps her trainer, mother and sister settle there.

She explained her determination in Belgrade: “I have to compete. I have to show determination for my country.

Santee’s Tracy Sundlun, former manager of the US Olympic team, showed her Ukrainian colors. Photo by Ken Stone

In Eugene, his qualifying round is July 16 and his final two days later. But Maguchih made it clear she wouldn’t be there if Russian Olympic champion Maria Lasitskene – winner of the last three world titles – was allowed onto the apron at the University of Oregon’s hallowed Hayward Field.

“This terrorist state, Russia,” she said. “If they are going to compete, I will not compete.”

Russia and Belarus were banned following the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Speaking to reporters before the team gulped down Kyiv chicken and other delicacies (courtesy Pushkin Restaurant), Maguchih described his country’s pain.

“We were enjoying our lives, and now people are sitting in basements, they hear bombs. It’s so terrible,” she said. “I hope to come back after my outdoor season. Come back to Ukraine.

Anna Ryzhikova, a finalist in the 400m hurdles at last summer’s Games, said: “Some athletes have parents who went to the army to protect our country, and each of us is worried 24 hours a day for life. from his family. and friends.”

She added: “We can gain strength here mentally and feel like family. We will always remember the time we spent here.”

Mayor Mary Salas leaves the training center with red carpet and flag still up. Photo by Ken Stone

Head Coach Serdyuchenko stood on a modest stage and made a bold statement.

“We believe that the forces of light will win the fight against darkness, and our [final] victory will come very soon and there will be… peace in Ukraine again,” he said.

“Ukraine will be much stronger than ever. Thank you Chula Vista. Thanks, State of California. Thank you, United States of America.

Derek Torgerson of Olympic broadcast partner NBC7, handled emcee duties.

He noted that the Olympics are about greatness, citing Jesse Owens and Michael Phelps. But he also hailed the lesser lights to “show the spirit of camaraderie and pride”.

“International competition creates national pride,” he said as American and Ukrainian flags flew from poles behind him. “It’s a shining example of what we have in these Ukrainian athletes.”

Former triple jump world record holder Willie Banks of Carlsbad posed with Ukrainian triple jumper Maryna Beh-Romanchuk. Photo by Ken Stone

Said Melekian, CEO of the academy: “There are things in this life that transcend sport, that are bigger than any competition, and that define who we are as human beings. … It was once said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good does nothing.

He hailed the “found brotherhood” of Americans and Ukrainians. “The world is watching you. And know that you are changing the world for the good in your own way. »

Joe Watkins of Point Loma Trust said: “Our hearts are broken with you. Our hearts are with you…. We hope you will feel and experience our hospitality…so that you can inspire others in your home country.

And Mayor Salas said, “Our community is your community. As we say in Spanish, mi casa es su casa. My home is your home.”

She read a city proclamation and explained how the buttons she would hand out would signify champion citizens.

“We feel like every ordinary citizen of Ukraine is doing extraordinary things – which we haven’t had to deal with here in the United States of America,” Salas said. “God bless America. But also God bless the people of Ukraine.

Arrangements to accommodate the Ukrainians, including a dozen coaches and support team members, “happened very, very quickly – probably less than a month ago,” said vice-president Spencer Jamison. – president of the commercial development of the center.

The team is therefore transported from a hotel approximately 10 minutes away.

He attributes strong ties to the USOPC.

A member of the Ukrainian delegation shows the Chula Vista proclamation. Photo by Ken Stone

“We came across a car service meeting them at [San Diego International] baggage claim, on the stairs, at all times of the day and night,” he said. “Everyone was really happy to do it.”

But the Ukrainian contingent does not stay in the dormitories of the center. The accommodations on site had long been reserved for the summer.

“We provide the facilities and services so they don’t have to think about anything else,” Jamison said. “Anyway, we’re doing our best to make it happen.”

High jumper Maguchih has fond memories of a previous trip to America – for the Prefontaine Classic at the end of May on the site of the world meeting – and of the kindness of an American coach.

She recalled a loving gesture from the father of Vashti Cunningham, America’s top high jump threat.

Randall Cunningham, the former NFL quarterback and coach of Vashti, “give me a present when I come to Eugene for the Diamond League,” Maguchih said with a smile. “He gave me lipstick…and American food.

The Times of San Diego will cover the world Outside Athletics Oregon Championships.

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