The Ukrainian Winter Paralympic team left behind a country at war, enduring an unlikely and emotional journey to compete at the 2023 Beijing Winter Games and, incredibly, achieving an unprecedented haul of medals.
Despite suffering nightmares in the little sleep they had and constantly calling home for updates, the Ukraine team finished second in the medal table. It was the story of the Games, and this is their journey — from reaching the Games, to winning golds, then returning to Ukraine to face a harsher reality than ever before.
JUST AS THE team were coming to terms with what they had achieved in Beijing, the 67-year-old Ukrainian Paralympic committee president, Valerii Sushkevych, decided to deliver one last message. Sitting in a quiet section of Istanbul Airport on the way to Warsaw, Poland, he issued a stern and purposeful warning.
They had already achieved so much. The delegation had completed a remarkable journey to China — an effort Sushkevych would later describe as a “miracle” — and once in Beijing, they found ways to win even as their bodies and minds defied extreme emotional fatigue. The athletes had called and messaged frightened family members back home at almost waking moment. Now, those same emotions were running high in Istanbul: Many of the athletes wanted to see loved ones for the first time since Russia’s invasion. They wanted to return to Ukraine.
Sushkevych had spent weeks defying all odds. He had orchestrated the team’s improbable journey to the Games, and provided the guiding voice the athletes needed to channel the emotions to dominate on the slopes of Beijing. No obstacle, however daunting, would stop him and his team achieving what they truly desired. His message, then, came almost came out of character.
He begged his team to change their minds.
“Why not stay in Poland?” he asked desperately, warning them of the dangers of returning. A number of the team intended to travel back to their native Kharkiv, a city now consumed by thick concrete rubble. Others planned to go to Kyiv, or anywhere their families were sheltering.
The response Sushkevych received was unwavering. They told him they knew better than him just how dangerous it was. They would not reconsider, that their minds were made up.
And so, he relented. He would not stop anyone from returning, he said, and would do all he could to help them once they did. His final message was that of good luck, and that he wished that he would see them all again one day.
DECADES AGO, Sushkevych, paralysed after contracting polio as an infant, fought his way to the office door of then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma for a 10-minute meeting. The 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta were coming up, and Sushkevych, having founded the country’s Paralympic Committee, was granted permission and funding to send a team. It would be Ukraine’s first Paralympic Games. They won seven medals, including one gold.
Since then, Ukraine’s Paralympic teams have come to hold a special place in the country’s sporting fabric, a source of real national pride. That is in large part down to Sushkevych, who has dedicated years to improving opportunities for people with disabilities, sometimes even in the face of mockery and doubt. He worked seven days a week, without holiday, as he focused his efforts on grassroots sport just as much as elite programs. Ukraine has competed at every Games since. Within two decades, after Sushkevych built gyms and facilities around the country, Ukraine finished third at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. They won 117 medals, including 41 golds.
“The Paralympic movement is an achievement of mankind,” Sushkevych likes to say. His efforts were so impressive that a documentary crew made a film about him. Released last year, it was called “Man of Steel,” and it tells the story of how his parents fought against old Soviet social conventions to enrich his life through sport and education.
Ukraine competing in Beijing last month, then, was a matter of high importance to Sushkevych. The 20 Winter Paralympic athletes had been away for weeks at a training camp just outside Milan at the time of Russia’s invasion, but getting the rest of the staff out of Ukraine became increasingly difficult. Sushkevych and his wife, Juliia, had fled Kyiv by car the night before and urged the rest of the staff to join them at the Paralympic Centre in the mountains outside of Lviv. From there a plan was hatched: They, and all of the uniforms and equipment they would need for the Games, would travel by bus to Milan, Italy, to meet the athletes, and then fly to Beijing.
First, though, they had to leave Ukraine, and the clock was ticking.
TRAVELLING TO MILAN would prove no mean feat. Departing on Feb. 27, the team bus was prioritised to overtake a line of thousands of refugees, each seeking safety and shelter. To show who they were, Sushkevych and his team used duct tape to pin the flag of the Ukraine National Paralympic Committee to the front grill of the bus. The refugees shouted messages from their cars as the bus passed: “Win for Ukraine.”
It took five hours to finally cross into Poland. They were met by locals who lined up in the snow with makeshift signs offering a spare room in their homes. From there the team travelled for two days and two nights, first through Poland, then Slovakia, Austria and, finally, Italy. They raced against time to make their flight from Milan to Beijing. Two drivers rotated eight-hour shifts. To sleep, Sushkevych laid on two bags in the aisle between the seats. They spent the bus ride checking phones for updates on the war.
On Feb. 29, the team met with the Milan-based athletes at a car park just outside of Milan. Sushkevych called an impromptu meeting to decide finally if they would travel to Beijing to compete, or return to Ukraine. They had just five minutes to decide. Only one member of the delegation — a guide — opted to return home. Everybody else agreed in unison.
“Are you ready?” Sushkevych said to the group. One member fired back. “Valerii, are you ready?” he said in a raised voice, answering the call of his 67-year-old committee leader. Sushkevych was struck by the response. He nodded.
But some doubts still lingered. Later, on the plane, team captain Grygorii Vovchynskyi strapped himself into his seat and realised he wouldn’t be able to check his phone for war updates. What would once have been an exciting journey to compete at the pinnacle of their sports became an anxious wait.
The following afternoon, now in Beijing, Sushkevych held a news conference. Russian and Belarusian athletes had been banned from the Games by the IPC just hours before, and Sushkevych explained why the Ukraine team were compelled to compete. “Not coming here would have been taking the easy option … Our presence at the Paralympics is not merely a presence, this is a sign that Ukraine is and will remain a country,” he said.
It wouldn’t be until 4 a.m. that Sushkevych went to bed that night, in what became common working hours for him at the Games. He took some sleeping medicine and drifted off to sleep. The following day would bring the opening ceremony. What came next would become the story of the Games.
AT TIMES, competing for medals seemed impossible. The athletes simply were not in the right mental space. After the opening ceremony, the team’s press manager Nataliia Harach found team captain Vovchynskyi standing alone in the freezing cold outside the team hotel. His eyes were red.
“Grygorii, what happened?” she asked.
“I cried because so many people around me hugged me,” he replied. “They told me that they love Ukraine… I can’t hear it. I just cry, and cry, and cry.”
He missed his 10-year-old daughter, Adriana, who he had not seen in three months due to competitions and training camps. She had often been his training partner — he would tie a rope around his waist and she would hold on. “I ski and do all the work while she rests,” he says. The night before his first race, he called to tell her he loved her. His men’s 6-kilometer standing biathlon event took place on the first day of competition, and it was anyone’s to win.
The race, which went perfectly, set the tone for the Games. He was the only athlete not to miss a target in his shooting. His nerves, somehow, were as steady as ever, and his skis seemed to glide effortlessly on the snow. After he crossed the line to claim gold, Canadian biathlon coach John Jacques approached Vovchynsky. “I have known you for more than 10 years,” he said, “but I have never seen you as strong as today. Nobody could have beaten you today.”
“That could be the best race, with the best result, that he will ever have had,” Jacques, who coaches Vovchynskyi’s main rival Mark Arendz, later told ESPN. “It’s so rare for those situations to occur because there are so many tiny things that could go wrong: A tiny little piece of velcro could fail, or someone could ski over his pole, or someone wouldn’t screw the mat down right and cost him a tenth of a second.”
Vovchynskyi had the kind of perfect day that might come once in a career.
“He did it. He earned it,” Jacques says. The Ukrainian team also claimed an unprecedented clean sweep of the medals in the men’s sprint visually impaired biathlon. Remarkably, after the first day of competition at Beijing 2023, Ukraine ranked No. 1 in the overall medal table.
Later that evening, Vovchynsky was overwhelmed by the comments he received from Ukrainians on Facebook. After their team meeting, Vovchynsky pulled Sushkevych aside and thanked him: Now he understood why he insisted the athletes had to compete in Beijing, why Ukraine needed to be here. Then he video-called his daughter and showed her his gold medal. She told him it was great, but she was more interested in asking one question.
When would he come home?
AS THE TEAM thrived in their events, Sushkevych had work to do of his own. Alongside his role as the head of the country’s Paralympic Committee, he also serves in the Ukrainian government as the minister for disability, and he knew all too well how difficult the conflict in Ukraine had been on the country’s disabled people.
It was a difficult time for Sushkevych as he watched some of his life’s work be destroyed. He heard that a Russian bomb had hit a gym for blind children that he had built in Kharkiv.
He and his team received messages each night in Beijing from disabled people in Ukraine asking desperately for his aid. He read them all and tried to help, which most of the time meant contacting a local official. One woman, a wheelchair user, was alone in her deserted apartment block in Kyiv, unable to escape given the broken elevator. Valerii assumed the worst when he did not hear from her for a couple of days. Finally, she replied, and he was able to arrange for someone to help her down.
Most evenings in Beijing, the athletes retreated to the team’s hotel in the Olympic village and held a meeting. Sushkevych led, congratulating medal winners and laying plans, but he always moved on to another topic: Why Ukraine needed to compete at the Games. His message remained unchanged from his short speech in Milan — that Ukraine must compete at the Winter Paralympic Games to show it still exists — but as each day passed the message seemed to seep deeper into the athletes’ psyche. That week, just as Vovchynsky had done, at least six members privately approached Sushkevych, either at the hotel restaurant, in a quiet corridor, or their room, and thanked him. They threw their arms around him and told him that now, in Beijing, they understood. They knew they belonged at the Paralympic Games because so did Ukraine.
The medals kept coming but so did the anguish. Sushkevych would meet his athletes at the venue each morning and look into their eyes. The red veins and swollen eyelids were a giveaway. Most had been crying all night long, but now were about to compete at the highest level of their competition. What came next often astounded even those within the team.
Juliia Batenkova-Bauman, who competes in cross-country skiing and biathlon and suffered from repeated nightmares, fell twice in her 15km race but refused to quit. She finished in fifth. Others were not even able to compete. On March 9, 19-year-old biathlete Anastasiia Laletina pulled out after hearing news that her father, who was fighting back home, had been captured by Russian forces.
The team held a minute’s silence for all victims of the war the next day and called once more for “peace for all.” Sushkevych spoke briefly to the press afterward, saying: “It’s not only one minute of solidarity. Today one minute was about thousands of people, including children and people with disabilities.”
Still, Ukraine continued to win medals. Vitaliy Lukyanenko, competing in his seventh Paralympic Games and, at 43, the team’s oldest athlete, won two golds and a silver in the men’s visually-impaired biathlon. Oleksandra Kononova and Oksana Shyshkova won golds in the exhausting sport of cross-country skiing. During their medal ceremonies, coaches from other Paralympic teams attended just to marvel at their achievements.
On the final day of competition, Vovchynsky led the team to gold in the 4 × 2.5 km open relay. It capped an achievement that can scarcely be believed: Ukraine, winning 29 medals including 11 golds, finished second in the medal table, ahead of powerhouses like the United States and Canada, whose teams were both over twice the size. Sushkevych, the man who had spent decades leading Ukraine’s remarkable Paralympic success, couldn’t quite believe it himself.
Despite the war, news of the team’s successes travelled fast in Ukraine. Valentyn Digtiarenko, the editor-in-chief of Equalympic, Ukraine’s first fully inclusive sports TV channel and its rights-holder for the Games, was volunteering as much time as he could in his village’s Ukrainian military unit.
“I see a lot of people and town folks because I am a volunteer in the military, they don’t know that I am an editor at Equalympic,” he tells ESPN. “But every day, a couple of them would come up to me and say: ‘Valentyn, did you hear? Our Paralympians won two or three medals?
“That was a surprise for me.”
Sushkevych posted a montage video to his Facebook page, which has 13,000 followers, recounting the team’s success. Within a week, the video had 2 million views and over 2,000 comments that were dotted with yellow and blue hearts, mostly from people still inside Ukraine.
“Well done! We are proud of you! Glory to Ukraine!” read one message.
“I look at you, I can hardly hold my tears!!! We are all proud of you!!! Thank you,” read another.
At the end of the Games, the team flew to Warsaw. The next morning they said their goodbyes and headed their separate ways.
Seventeen of the 20 athletes intended to head back into Ukraine. It would be the first time they had stepped foot in the country since the war began.
VOVCHYNSKY RETURNED TO his home city of Bilousivka, around 200km from Kyiv. His daughter had been staying at his parents’ house. When he opened the front door and saw her, they shared an emotional hug. This time in person, he again told her how much loved and missed her. Then he leant back and smiled, his arms wide open.
“Who is the champion?” he asked his 10-year-old training partner.
“I am the champion!” she screamed.
Back in Poland, Sushkevych and his administrative team remained, working until the early hours of the morning just as he had in Beijing. However, within two weeks of watching the athletes return, Sushkevych’s wife, Juliia, said she wanted to go back to Kyiv, too. He said he would not go: He had more work to do. His phone still rings and buzzes around the clock, with disabled athletes around Ukraine continuing to ask him for help.
He and the winter athletes have stayed in close contact with each other through a group chat. Some have joined their local military units. Others returned to see their homes flattened. If anyone who is in a dangerous city has not been heard from in a couple of days, they will receive a message from their teammates to check on their safety, and for reassurance that they still exist. It is their new reality.
One athlete, whose name and location have been omitted from this story for his safety, called Sushkevych recently and told him he had made it back to his hometown. When he arrived, he found his house had been destroyed, but his only concern was finding his family, who were sheltering underground with almost no food.
He approached a small group of police officers, explaining who he was and that he had just returned from Beijing as a reigning Paralympic champion. The officers were stunned.
“Really?” they said, pressing him with questions as they stood in the ruins of the city.
He pointed to the Ukrainian Paralympic logo on his team-issued coat.
“Can you show us your medal?” one officer asked.
The athlete hesitated. “They’re at the bottom of my luggage,” he said.
But the officers insisted. They proudly wanted to see for themselves what he had achieved for his country. And so the athlete dug through his bag and handed the medal to the officers, who held it for a while before handing it back. “Come with us,” one of the officers said. Shortly after they found the underground shelter, where 15 of his extended family were safe inside.
He entered to a hero’s welcome, reunited with his loved ones after weeks apart, now sheltering from war. And in his bag was a gold medal that meant more, so much more, than it ever could have before.