On a bittersweet day for Ukraine, the country has won six gold medals at the Paralympic Winter Games – just as one athlete learned her father had been taken prisoner by Russian troops.
Despite grappling with heartbreak following Russia’s invasion of their homeland, the team in yellow and blue dug deep to net two gold, four silver and three bronze medals on Tuesday – on day four of the games being held in Beijing.
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In a show of girl power on International Women’s Day, Iryna Bui achieved her dream of Paralympic gold, sharing the podium with teammates Oleksandra Kononova and Liudmyla Liashenko in the standing middle distance biathlon race.
“We are here to fight for Ukraine, with Ukraine and in the name of Ukraine,” the 26-year-old Bui told reporters.
Kononova said even though she was physically in China competing, mentally she was still back home.
“All my thoughts, my heart and my soul is with my family and with my child,” the 31-year-old said.
“Emotionally it’s very difficult to focus and to concentrate on the race and the competition, so this is the most difficult Paralympic Games for me.”
Liashenko’s home in Kharkiv, which is under heavy bombing, was destroyed on Monday which caused her to pull out of her cross-country race, team spokeswoman Nataliia Harach said.
The United Nations estimates two million Ukrainians have fled the country as part of the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
‘My father has been taken’
Anastasiia Laletina, 19, pulled out of her biathlon middle distance sitting race on Tuesday morning after receiving bad news from home, Harach said.
“Her father is a soldier in the Ukrainian army and [was taken] prisoner by Russian soldiers. They beat him,” Harach said.
“She was very upset and couldn’t take part in the race.”
Harach added that Laletina was resting and receiving support from the team’s doctor.
She added a Ukraine team coach’s home in Kharkiv had also been bombed in recent days.
Ukraine’s athletes at the Paralympics have excelled despite the uncertainty and destruction back home.
In Tuesday’s men’s visually impaired biathlon race, Ukrainians took all three medals, led by winner Vitalii Lukianenko, 43.
Also in biathlon, Grygorii Vovchynskyi nailed silver in the men’s standing final after winning gold in the sprint event earlier in these Paralympics.
In the men’s sitting event, Taras Rad added a bronze medal to his silver from Saturday.
“I’m always thinking about my family and friends when I am staying at the hotel … but right now talking about them I am shaking, I worry a lot about them,” he said through an interpreter.
Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from the games over the invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian team is second on the medals table, with six gold and 17 medals in all. Hosts China are at the top with eight golds.
Ukraine has more medal chances in cross-country sprint races on Wednesday and further biathlon events on Friday.