Then came 24 February 2022, the day when Russia invaded Ukraine, the world was turned upside down, and the Ukrainian athletes found themselves in the middle of surreal circumstances. When Anastasiya Merkushyna read the news, her initial reaction was to simply take her skis and disappear in her own thoughts. As the bitter reality started to sink in, rapidly and forcefully, she realised how much she liked skiing and simply being alive.
“I remember the days before the Winter Games Beijing 2022 and how nervous I was about qualifying. The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, that nervousness felt so distant and unimportant. I just felt how great it is to be able to train, ski, and live a normal life,” Merkushyna remembered the Olympic days and first instances of war as her team was preparing for the IBU Summer World Biathlon World Championships in Ruhpolding.
“Last season finished abruptly for us. We went straight from the Olympic feeling into the war and uncertainty. For the first two months, it was almost impossible to find any sound direction. Nobody knew what was going to happen, whether there will be a sport in Ukraine at all. Many athletes have lost their equipment, including rifles, so it was tough. But then step by step we started gathering a team and had our first training camp in Ukraine,” added Olena Bilosiuk, who anchored the Ukrainian relay team to the bronze medals at the IBU World Championships Antholz-Anterselva 2020 and Pokljuka 2021.
The Ukrainian women's team saw the IBU Summer World Championships like homework that needed to be completed. They were able to compare for the first time since the Winter Games 2022 with the others.
Merkushyna finished fifth in the Super Sprint in Ruhpolding, perhaps better than she would have expected after all the challenges she faced before the summer camps began. After the first training in Ukraine, the IBU helped with financing training camps outside Ukraine through its Solidarity Programme for the Ukrainian biathlon.
“The biggest challenge was getting the special permission to travel outside the country and then focus on the sport and not on the news at home," explained Bilosiuk.
"Gradually we were able to divert our minds on the sport as the coaches worked hard to keep our thoughts away from the war news,” said Merkushyna. “The biggest disadvantage was lack of training on the shooting range compared to other teams. For many weeks in the spring, I could only run in the athletic stadium. That was the only training I could do. Coaches had - and still have - a lot of work to get every athlete on the same level of preparation."
“Putting together first training after the Winter Games 2022 and after the war has started was really difficult. When we met in Sianky for the first training camp of the season at the beginning of June, all athletes were in emotional distress. At first, we did very basic training. Just to keep the athletes going. The Ukrainian biathlon was lucky that Slovenia invited many of our younger athletes and other staff to Pokljuka. That also took some burden off our shoulders,” explained women's coach Oleksandr Kravchenko.
The Ukrainian team had no particular goals for the summer world championships in Ruhpolding. They were planning to do more deeply-basic training in the months leading up to the start of the winter season.
“We will do a lot of basic things to build up athletes’ confidence. We don’t have that many athletes; even in the B team, there are not too many, so we need to take good care of them,” said Kravchenko.
“We all calmed down a bit during our days in Europe. We at least have a sense of normality. We have enough time until the season starts to get into competitive shape. Setting goals is tough, though. So many things are on our minds. Of course, everybody would like to compete for the podiums and medals but in current circumstances preserving biathlon in Ukraine is crucial,” was realistic Bilosiuk.
"Our biggest opportunity will be in the relay,” chipped in Merkushyna. “We have had a lot of success in the relay in the past, and we can do well again."
The Ukrainian team scored fifth place in the Super Sprint (Merkushyna), seventh in the Sprint (Darya Blashko), and ninth in the Gala Mass Start (again Blashko) in Ruhpolding. With the months of training still ahead of them, things get even better.
Photo: IBU/C. Manzoni