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Newly arrived Ukrainians making a big splash in Canadian artistic swimming

A newcomer from Ukraine forced to flee the war in her country is having an immediate impact on Canada’s artistic swimming community, as results at a recent World Cup event in Markham, Ont., demonstrate. 

Montreal’s Audrey Lamothe won bronze medals in the women’s solo technical and women’s solo free.  Afterward, the 18-year-old gave a lot of the credit to one of her new coaches in particular, Yelyzaveta (Lyza) Yakhno.

“Lyza is very good (role) model for me. She inspires me a lot to get better and better because I think she’s a very strong woman,” Lamothe said. “Lyza inspires me not to be as strong as her, but just to have some piece of it to give me energy and to fight like her when I swim.”

Throughout the World Cup, Yakhno was never far from her young pupil’s side. Yakhno has been the assistant coach for Team Canada since she arrived in Canada in September.

The 24-year-old helped Ukraine win bronze in the team event at the recent Olympics in Tokyo. In 2018, World Aquatics named her the top artistic swimmer in the world. 

“I feel like I have lived three lives already,” Yakhno said, who was forced to flee her hometown of Donetsk at age 15 after Russia invaded the eastern Ukraine city in March 2014. “My parents often had to go underground to hide themselves because of the bombs,” she said. “One of the rockets even landed in the garden of my uncle’s house and thankfully didn’t explode.”

A team of artistic swimmers celebrate their medal at the Olympics.
Yakhno, third from left, celebrates the bronze medal she won with Ukraine’s artistic swimming team at the Tokyo Olympics. (AFP via Getty Images)

Surprise message

She says her second life came when she moved to Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, close to the Russian border. The coach of Ukraine’s national team spotted her talent for artistic swimming at a competition and invited her to join, putting her on a path to the Tokyo Olympics.

After the games, she began thinking about coaching and maybe even buying a house with her boyfriend. But on Feb. 24, 2022, right after the Beijing Olympics, Russia invaded Ukraine again and her plans changed in an instant. Kharkiv came under heavy fire. Like all Ukrainians, Yakhno was trying to figure out how to stay safe with her mom, boyfriend, and their families. 

That’s when she says she got a surprise message from Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS).

“One week after the war started, Canada Artistic Swimming texted me with an offer to coach,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so lost. After a month, I decided, why not? I’ll give it a try.”

An artistic swimmer celebrates with her coaches
Yakhno, centre, with Canadian swimmer Audrey Lamothe, right. (Antoine Saito/Canada Artistic Swimming)

Valuable perspective

Jackie Buckingham was the CEO of Canada Artistic Swimming at the time.

“We have always been close to Ukraine, in terms of working together in the sport and just supporting each other,” said Jackie Buckingham, who was CEO of CAS before retiring from the role this past January. “We were devastated when the war broke out. We were looking for ways that we could help the artistic swimming team at one point, early on, the whole team was going to come to Canada to train with our national team.”

That proved to be too challenging logistically, but Team Canada did need an assistant coach and turned to Yakhno.

“We are fairly fortunate here,” Buckingham said. “To have exposure to someone who’s had the tough life experience that she’s had was so valuable to be able to put things in perspective. She has a way of communicating that is just so soft. That was part of the attraction.”

That brought Yakhno to Canada, where she says her third life began. She is living in Montreal in a rental unit the team used in the past. As luck would have it, the owner is from Ukraine and has made her feel right at home.

At the World Cup in Markham, Yakhno was thrilled to see some of her old teammates from Ukraine’s national team. Ukraine has trained in Italy for most of the past year after the pool in Kharkhiv, where the national team trains, was destroyed by a bomb. 

More than 100 newcomers and refugees who have settled in Canada over the past year were in the stands at the Markham event, many of them waving Ukrainian yellow and blue flags. CAS offered newcomers who fled the war free tickets for the event. They snapped them up within days and were rewarded with two gold and two silver won by the Ukraine team.

Fans h old a flag that combines Canada and Ukraine colours.
Fans wave a combined Ukrainian-Canadian flag at a World Cup event in Markham, Ont. (Antoine Saito/Canada Artistic Swimming)

‘Ukrainian mermaids’

Maryna Saidova is a settlement team coordinator in Toronto who works closely with Ukrainian newcomers and helped make the arrangements. Her own connections to the sport run deep.  Her mother-in-law is the head coach for Ukraine. 

“Media back home have dubbed the team ‘Ukrainian’s mermaids’,” Saidova said after Ukraine. “We are so proud of how the team has become one of the best in the world.  Despite the war, they continue to be at the top.”

Maryna Obleshchenko is one of the Ukrainian newcomers who took in the event with her 11-year-old daughter, Daria.

Daria was an up-and-coming swimmer back in Ukraine but hadn’t been in a pool since the war broke out. Their hometown in Crimea was occupied on the first day of the invasion.

Obleshchenko says taking in the World Cup was a “mind shifting event” for her and her family.

“I didn’t even know Canada had an artistic swimming team,” she said. “My daughter said to me, ‘How old are these girls? When did they start to train to be so great? Is it possible for me to join’?”

Obleshchenkso says she is going to try to find out the answers to those questions but in the meantime about a week after the event she signed up Daria and her four-year-old for swimming at a community centre near where they live.

That’s music to the ears of Steve Wallace, the new CEO of CAS.

Wallace believes in a few years we will see many of these Ukrainian newcomers involved in the sport at the highest levels.

“The sport is part of their DNA,” he said. “Our clubs and provinces throughout the country wherever the newcomers are settling are telling us they are getting a lot of Ukrainians coming straight into their clubs, and they are integrating them in as coaches and athletes. 

Wallace says Ukrainians love for the sport is already paying dividends for Canada.

Besides Yakhno coaching, Olena Verbinska, who was born in Kiev and moved to Canada when she was six, is also on the national team.

Wallace said he is going to look for ways to continue to build those connections. If the sport can help the newcomers with their transition and they can help Canada, which hasn’t won an Olympic medal in artistic swimming in years, he sees it as a win-win.

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