Safe in San Diego, Ukrainian national gymnasts find solace on the mat

Safe in San Diego, Ukrainian national gymnasts find solace on the mat


After fleeing a war-torn country and the only homes they’ve ever known, nine Ukrainian gymnasts are determined to represent their homeland the way they know best: as dedicated athletes.

With the help of a Ukrainian-born San Diego gymnastics coach and a handful of local sponsor families and donors, the young women are safe and already training for the next world championship competitions.

“It was a hard journey … but our whole team is together again and we can do what we love finally,” Alina Salmanova, 20, said. “Competing is so important to us so we can represent Ukraine.”

The athletes, ranging in age from 14 to 20, make up the Federation of Aesthetic Group Gymnastics, or AGG, of Ukraine’s national team, called Alcor Mizar, representing some of Ukraine’s most elite athletes.

The Ukrainian team is training at Alliant University Sports Center in Scripps Ranch and the Hourglass Gymnasium at Miramar College six days a week, local Team Emerald, alongside Emerald City Rhythmics’ AGG USA team.

Through the trauma of war, a harrowing journey to safety and settling among sponsoring families, the Ukrainian team is finding solace in the one thing that hasn’t changed: gymnastics. The gym remains their safe place.

Yelyzaveta Bulavina, 15, looks to her left as she and fellow gymnasts stretch

Yelyzaveta Bulavina, 15, looks to her left as she and fellow members of the Ukrainian national gynastics team stretch during practice.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They are still learning English, but they share a common language in gymnastics, helping them to bond with Team Emerald gymnasts, who they train in tandem with three times per week.

It helped that Team Emerald’s coach, Fernanda Gutierrez, had competed with some of the Ukrainian gymnasts years ago.

When the news hit that Russia had invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Elena Baltovick, president of AGG USA, said she immediately called her Ukrainian counterpart, Iryna Gutnik, Alcor Mizar’s coach.

“I woke her up and I said, ‘The war has started,’ so she actually heard it from me — here in the United States — before anyone else,” Baltovick said.

Baltovick, who is also the president of San Diego’s Emerald City Rhythmics, is originally from Kyiv and had befriended Gutnik years ago during one of the team’s visits to the US for a competition. The coaches have since worked together to train their teams through the years.

Alcor Mizar was based in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine located just 19 miles south of the Russia–Ukraine border. Early on in the invasion, Kharkiv, a predominately Russian-speaking city, was considered a major target for the Russian military.

For the first month of war, Baltovick kept in close contact with Gutnik — watching helplessly as Kharkiv was destroyed. Some of the gymnasts lost everything.

Alina Salmanova, 20, right, hugs Fernanda Gutierrez, coach of Team Emerald, during practice

Alina Salmanova, 20, right, hugs Fernanda Gutierrez, coach of Team Emerald, during practice.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Aryna Zemlianko, 17, said she’ll never forget the moment a rocket flew into her bedroom.

“It was like a slow-motion moment from a war movie; everything started falling and flying around,” Zemlianko said. “I don’t have my room anymore.”

For weeks, the girls lived in makeshift bomb shelters — in basements, subway tunnels and even the team’s gymnasium — while buildings shook like earthquakes through the frequent bomb drops, one of which 16-year-old Valeriia Liubushyna described as the worst moment in her life.

“I will never forget me and my grandma waking up to the sound of bombs dropping and rockets flying,” added team captain Elina Fomina. “In a month we lost our home, our school and our training facility.”

On March 27, Baltovick put out a call to action on social media, rallying anyone who’d be willing to help her give the team the opportunity to start fresh in the US Online fundraisers and helped raise the initial $12,500 to purchase their airfare.

One week later, the team was embarking on an agonizing journey, first traveling through Ukraine to convene in Warsaw, Poland — leaving behind their homes and families.

Elina Fomina, 18, center, and fellow members of the Ukrainian national gymnasts do a warmup routine.

Elina Fomina, 18, center, and fellow members of the Ukrainian national gymnasts do a warmup routine.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“From town to town, there were military stops, so every time they’d pull in, their heart would stop because they didn’t know whether it’d be a Russian soldier or a Ukrainian soldier, so it was super scary,” Baltovick relayed.

The girls then took connecting flight after connecting flight, from Poland to Spain to Columbia, before finally landing in Mexico on April 7.

Though exhausted from their travels, it was when they saw the ocean in Rosarito for the first time that the girls finally allowed themselves to breathe, smiling and laughing as they ran on the beach together and put their feet in the water.

They entered San Diego the next day, and over the next couple of months, sponsor families helped to house, feed and transport the girls, as well as garner more funding. However, Baltovick, who is still working to get the girls everything from Social Security numbers to food and clothing, said there’s a lot of work left to do to get them self-sufficient. She is still fundraising to make that happen.

Host families Jonathan Gale, his wife Windy Gale, daughter Tatum Gale, 11, and Irina Shalomayeva, right

Host families Jonathan Gale, his wife Windy Gale, daughter Tatum Gale, 11, along with Irina Shalomayeva, right, watch the gymnasts practice.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Meanwhile, the girls are trying to adjust to life in a new country, enrolling in schooling and getting their driver’s permits.

“The girls feel good because so many people are helping them,” Gutnik said. “They are safe and taken care of … but for us, everything’s changed: the food, the culture.”

For Yelyzaveta Bulavina, the most memorable moment thus far was celebrating her 15th birthday with a party last week.

“We did lots of dancing, listened to music, ate hamburgers and hot dogs — it was a lot of fun,” she said.

It was the first time things truly felt normal, she added.

Head coach Iryna Gutnik, center, talks to the Ukranian team during practice.

Head coach Iryna Gutnik, center, talks to the Ukranian team during practice.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Back home, the girls’ families have scattered — some have left as refugees to other countries, while others are still in the war zone in bomb shelters or taking up arms in the war effort.

“They talk to their families twice a day,” Baltovick said. “Luckily, Ukraine has internet in basements.”

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