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Ukraine skeleton racer working to give children hope

Thomas Klein
February 22, 2023

Vladyslav Heraskevych is one of the best skeleton racers in the world. But Russia's invasion of his native Ukraine has completely changed his life, presenting him with new challenges – as it has for so many others.

Vladyslav Heraskevych riding on a skeleton sled
Vladyslav Heraskevych's helment is designed to reminds people of the plight of his homelandImage: Eibner/Memmler/picture alliance

Vladyslav Heraskevych focuses his mind on the ice track in Sigulda, Latvia. His gaze is fixed as he sways tensely from one leg to the other. His father and coach Mychajlo stands next to him, speaking words of encouragement to him just before the first run of the last race of the World Cup season. Then Heraskevych takes another deep breath and puts on his helmet, which has the word "Ukraine" emblazoned in large letters on the side. 

With war raging in his homeland for the past year, it has been no ordinary season for the athlete, who was born in Kyiv in 1999.

"Compared to last year, it's been very hard," Heraskevych tells DW. "I'm just exhausted. It's very hard to focus on competing when there's war in your homeland and people you know are fighting – and dying on the frontlines." 

'We're still here' 

To loud cheers from his father, the 24-year-old gets off to a good start. Heraskevych enters the first curves of the track just a few tenths of a second behind the leaders. Unlike many of his male friends, the skeleton racer has an exemption permit, which allows him to leave Ukraine to compete for his country. 

"It's a platform where we can talk about Ukraine," he says. "We can show that Ukraine still exists, that we are still here."

Vladyslav Heraskevych finds it tougher than usual to keep his mind on his sportImage: EXPA/AP/picture alliance

This, Heraskevych says, is what motivates him. 

The skeleton racer navigates the tight curves of the Latvian course at more than 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour), but in the penultimate curve he drifts off the ideal line and ends up only 16th in the first run. 

"In the summer you usually prepare for the season. You work on your equipment and train a lot," Heraskevych says. "But this time I traveled all over Ukraine for my foundation." 

When he did find time to train with his father, their sessions were often interrupted by air alerts. 

"We'd have to go into the bunker and wait. Then we'd go back to the training hall and warm up," he says. 

But his practice sessions would often be interrupted by the air raid sirens more than once, forcing him and his father back into the bunker. 

"It drives you crazy when you hear the sound of the missiles. You can only hope then that one doesn't hit your home," he says. 

Vladyslav Heraskevych used the Beijing Games to warn of Vladimir Putin's intentionsImage: picture-alliance/AP

Heraskevych pauses for a moment and takes another deep breath. He clearly finds it difficult to talk about the situation in Ukraine. 

"The war has changed me, of course. I'm a different person now," says the athlete, who knew many people who have been killed in the conflict. 

"I've become cynical. If you're too emotional, it's unbearable... I used to be much more emotional; now I'm just in shock. It's like another world, a world I don't like." 

Stolen childhoods

In addition to training and competing, Heraskevych organizes aid deliveries to the worst-hit areas of Ukraine. In March 2022, he and his father set up a children's foundation. 

"At this time, it's important to make children happy because their childhood is being stolen right now," Heraskevych says. 

"Our children can tell by the sound which missile is flying through the air. They can distinguish whether it's missiles or shots from machine guns. It's very frightening." 

The athlete travels across Ukraine organizing sporting events for children. In some cases, these take place in stadiums that were destroyed in the fighting. Heraskevych wants to convey the values of sport and distract from the everyday life of war. It's all about friendship, respect and togetherness. 

The 24-year-old recounts the first training session in Kyiv, where children from Mariupol among those taking part. 

"Their eyes lit up. That was great."

 'Won't compete with a murderer' 

Now it's time for his second run; Heraskevych gathers his strength, concentrates and plunges down the ice track. This is better than his first and he makes up a bit of time, moving up four places to 12th. While it wasn't as good as he may have hoped, in his mind it was still a good competition, because it allowed him to demonstrate that Ukraine hasn't been wiped off the map. 

Russian and Belarusian athletes were absent from the competition, barred due to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. If Heraskevych had his way, it would stay that way. 

"I am very grateful that many organizations have suspended Russian athletes. Because this way they can no longer use sport for propaganda purposes," he says. He also has no understanding whatsoever for International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach's ambition to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes back into international competition.

With the support of his father, Vladyslav Heraskevych is trying to bring smiles to the faces of Ukrainian childrenImage: Vladyslav Heraskevych

"Today, Russian athletes can murder civilians in Ukraine, and then tomorrow we welcome them at a competition? I don't want to be involved in competing against a murderer."  

Support from an Olympic champion 

With the World Cup season now over, Heraskevych has finished 13th in the overall standings. But for him that is secondary. Apart from competing in several other competitions in South Korea and the United States, Heraskevych plans to train Ukrainian youth skeleton teams along with his father and to accompany them to competitions. 

He will be supported by German Olympic luge champion Felix Loch and his wife Lisa. Loch, co-founder of the organization "Athletes for Ukraine," and Heraskevych have become friends in recent months and even spent Christmas together. 

Whenever possible, Loch attends the training sessions that Heraskevych organizes for Ukrainian children. It is important to support them, the Ukrainian stresses. 

"When I see this new generation, I have hope. They are our future. And seeing the gleam in their eyes makes me happy." 

This article was translated from German.