By Nick Hope
When Russian troops began their invasion in the early hours of 24 February 2022 the lives of Ukrainian citizens – including their athletes – changed forever.
Mykhailo Romanchuk – one of the nation’s most decorated Olympians – admits he was left traumatised by what he witnessed unfold, much like many of his countrymen and women.
He faced an “extremely difficult” and almost unique dilemma though, because unlike most men of his age, ‘elite athlete’ status granted the swimmer permission to leave the country and seek safety overseas.
The then 25-year-old was offered refuge by his great rival – and friend – double Olympic champion Florian Wellbrock at his training base in Magdeburg, Germany.
Romanchukwas grateful, but initially reluctant to accept, despite knowing it could be a potentially life-saving offer.
“It was quite a hard decision because I had a lot of thoughts in my mind and one was that maybe it would be better to go to the army to defend the country,” he tells European Aquatics.
“After a long discussion with my wife and my family we decided that okay, I’m not a warrior (like the soldiers in the field), but I am a warrior in the pool.
“This is where I can say ‘yes, I’m Ukrainian and even in a harsh situation we Ukrainians are still able to compete at a high level’ and that is why I moved to Germany.”
At this point nearly two weeks had passed since the war had begun and the Ukraine Romanchuk knew was already near unrecognisable from the land in which he grew up.
Over the following months around six million Ukrainian citizens fled the country and a further eight million are believed to have been displaced within the nation since February 2022.
Tears after Ukrainian triumphs
Despite the “heartbreak” he experienced after leaving family behind and knowing his father would be fighting Russian forces after being called up by the Ukrainian army, the swimmer was determined to ‘fight’ for his nation in the only way he knew how.
Less than three months later he secured an astounding brace of bronze medals at the 2022 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest; the first an 800m success in the pool, before adding another third-place finish in the 5km open water event.
“No-one can really explain the feelings we have on the podium given what Ukrainians are all going through,” the two-time Olympic medallist admits.
“People around us know how hard it is for us to get these medals and it’s an unbelievable feeling to be doing it for our country, but it’s also about the army.
“They’re doing what they are without all of the weapons and still fighting one of the biggest armies in the world, so we’re incredibly proud of our country.”
For this reason, Romanchuk was also “crying like a baby” when he watched his Ukrainian wife, long jumper Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk, claim World silver this summer.
Seeking ‘home comforts’ – despite ongoing bomb threats
His own global aquatic championships in Japan in July did not bring the same level of success of previous years, with the swimmer 11th in the 5km, followed by sixth (800m) and seventh (1500m) in the pool.
Homesickness, Romanchuk admits, was beginning to have a major impact on his mental health and despite the “obvious dangers” he made the decision to return to Ukraine early in August.
“Mentally it was hard for me to be outside of Ukraine,” says the five-time European champion.
“I had not been there in one and a half years; I missed my parents and my home.
“Now, being able to wake up and go to see my parents, lie on the grass in the backyard with the dog and enjoy time with my wife is so beautiful.”
Sirens during swimming and missiles in the pool
He knows the dangers are far from over though and receives almost daily reminders when training at his base in Dnipro, the Ukrainian national swimming centre.
Barely two weeks after returning to the city he reported on social media the venue had been struck by a Russian “night missile” during a “drone attack.”
It was a very real reminder of the threat he and others continue to face not only in the region, but across the country.
“It’s really hard and really dangerous to be in Ukraine right now and there’s no ‘safe place’ really,” he tells European Aquatics.
“When there is an air alarm (siren) you have to quickly get out of the water and go to the bunker or the shelter, so it’s really difficult to get consistent training or practice in.”
Romanchuk and several other swimmers donated money to help repair the pool after the missile damage, but renovation work is slow and while still useable, the cold weather is making training in the Olympic facility challenging.
Despite that, the swimmer remains in Ukraine as he is adamant his presence will send a message to other athletes from his homeland.
“The young people need to recover Ukraine,” he tells European Aquatics.
“I know my father is back home and out of the army now, but the stories he tells us about the fighting is terrible.
“That’s why I came back to Ukraine, to show the other Ukrainian athletes, to show the other young Ukrainian guys who moved to the other countries, that Ukraine need us now.”
‘Ukrainian athletes fight for peace’
Romanchuk now aims to take his personal ‘fight’ into Otopeni 2023 and unleash the ‘swimming warrior’ on the European Short Course Championships.
“My training hasn’t always been easy, with disruptions, but I’m mentally prepared,” he states.
“I know that Romania has done a lot of things for Ukrainians so I hope to see a lot of Ukrainians over there and they will understand that athletes are not just fighting for themselves anymore.
“We are fighting for the nation, for all the guys standing on the front line of the war and not only for peace in Ukraine, but for the whole of Europe.”
You will be able to follow all of the latest news and videos from Otopeni 2023 via the European Aquatics website and social media channels, with LIVE STREAMS available via All Aquatics.