Fighting For Ukraine: Mykhailo Romanchuk Using Pool To Raise Awareness For Homeland’s Battle

Celebrating Gold Medal ROMANCHUK Mykhaylo UKR 800m Freestyle Men Final Swimming Budapest - Hungary 22/5/2021 Duna Arena XXXV LEN European Aquatic Championships Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Fighting For Ukraine: Mykhailo Romanchuk Using Pool To Raise Awareness For Homeland’s Battle

Had the Tokyo Olympics gone differently, Mykhailo Romanchuk might have contemplated ending his swimming career. A year—and an invasion of his country—later, and the competition pool has become his battlefield, his chance to contribute to Ukraine’s war effort.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, swimmer Mykhailo Romanchuk’s father, Mykhailo Sr., headed from their home in Rivne, in the west of the country, to fight on the eastern front.

“When he came into the war, the first thing he said is, ‘I’m going to the war for my children, to defend our country, to defend Ukraine,’” Romanchuk told Swimming World last month. “‘(For you, it’s) to defend Ukraine in the sport wars, in the swimming pool, in the athletic stadiums. The swimming pool and the athletic field is (your) field of the war.’

“We are not fighting because we want the medal—of course we do—but we’re fighting for Ukraine. It’s an opportunity for the Ukrainians to be proud of the athletes and it’s the opportunity for all the athletes to say what is happening in Ukraine, what the situation is.”

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Romanchuk, the swimmer, has taken on that responsibility wholeheartedly, and it’s inspired the fastest times and some of the biggest achievements of his career in 2022. To do so while his family, friends and country are defending their home is even more remarkable, in the same way that the medals he’s brought home are more than just about his individual accomplishments.

“After our medals, a lot of Ukrainians are writing to us, that we are proud of you, to keep doing it,” he says. “…A lot of people are enjoying these medals, and everybody’s proud of us, and it really motivates us much more than it was before, that you know that this medal is not just for you and your family like it was before. This medal is for all the Ukrainian people.”

SWIMMING THROUGH AN ANNUS HORRIBILIS

Even before Russian troops poured over Ukraine’s Eastern border, Romanchuk had a convincing case for the last year being “the hardest season of my life.”

His performance at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was significant for the Ukrainian program, winning a silver medal in the 1500 freestyle and bronze in the 800 free. They were the first Olympic medals for the country since 2004, when Yana Klochkova won two golds and Andriy Serdinov took home a bronze.

Coming, as it did, on the heels of winning gold in both events at the European Championships that year, you can’t fault the competitor within Romanchuk for wanting gold. Had he ascended the top step of the Olympic podium, the week he turned 25 years old, that might have been enough for him.

“It was very nice, and it was very cool that it was possible,” he says. “I can say that I was a little bit sad because it was just silver and bronze, because I’m a top athlete and I always want to be on the top of the podium. But you need to understand that sometimes it’s not your day and sometimes someone is faster.”

Romanchuk enjoyed a little downtime after the Olympics. But that’s when adversity started to roll in. His grandmother died in the fall, then he fell ill, keeping him out of the water for 10 days. At the last minute and knowing that he was undertrained, he and his coach made the decision to go to the FINA Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi in December. Their faith was rewarded with a bronze in the 1500 and nearly a best time, a medal Romanchuk calls “special for me.”

Then he got sick again upon returning to Ukraine. And he’d barely gotten back into the water, amid rising tensions, when war broke out, and he was unable to train for two weeks while the country scrambled to check Russia’s aggression.

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Romanchuk’s father went to the front. His family stayed at home in Western Ukraine, buffered from the heaviest of fighting, but still within the range of Russian missile attacks. (One friend, Romanchuk said, had an unexploded Russian missile land in their kitchen.) Romanchuk headed to Germany, where his friend and competitor, Florian Wellbrock, invited him to train. Romanchuk’s wife, Olympic jumper Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk, joined them, with Mykhailo training in Magdeburg under Coach Bernd Berkhahn.

Through all that upheaval, Romanchuk responded with a stellar summer. At the World Championships in Budapest, he was fifth in the 1500, but earned a bronze medal in the 800 free, lowering the national record to 7:40.05, behind a German record set by Wellbrock for silver. He added bronze in the 5-kilometer race. He then won gold in the 1500 free at the European Championships in Rome, setting a national record in a time of 14:36.10. He finished just off the podium in the 800 free in fourth.

“It was a hard season, and after all these situations, I did my best times in different competitions and different distances,” he says. “I’m really happy with this. At 26, I know that I can improve much, much more. And it’s really nice that I’m feeling that I can do one more step.”

HIS AND HERS AMBITIONS

Being arguably Ukraine’s foremost sporting couple offered a unique benefit at the Olympics in Tokyo. For all the athletes that had no family support in the stands, the Romanchuks at least had each other. Maryna was there for Mykhailo’s exploits in the pool, while Mykhailo got to the Japan National Stadium to see her finish fifth in the long jump.

“I think everybody saw the video of how she was cheering for me, and it was crazy and I feel her power, I feel her emotions in the water,” Mykhailo says. “It was really nice to feel the part of your family, of your wife in the pool. That is really close to me, and it was really nice.”

They are able to drive each other with their respective accomplishments. Over the same week, for instance, Romanchuk finished fourth in the 800 at Euros in Rome on Aug. 13 before winning the 1500 free three days later. So when Maryna finished fourth in the long jump at the European Championships in Munich on Aug. 18, Mykhailo offered a reminder: “I said, ‘OK, I was fourth also, but you have a good chance, and if I can win it, you can win it,’” he said.

The result was Maryna doing just that on Aug. 19, a world-leading leap of 15.02 meters, followed by a primal release of elation as she headed over to her coaching box, with Mykhailo front and center.

“She did it, with a huge European winning (jump),” Mykhailo says. “It’s really nice that we’re challenging each other and pushing each other with our results.”

A similar competitiveness drives him daily in Magdeburg. Romanchuk jokes that “if one of us wins a training or some set, he’s now the fastest in the world.” He’s got a decent claim for that. Along with Wellbrock, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500 and winner in the 10-kilometer, he also trains with Lukasz Martens, one of the rising stars in the global distance contingent who pulled off Euros gold/Worlds silver in the 400 and was second at Euros in the 800 free.

ROMANCHUK Mykhaylo UKR Gold Medal 400m Freestyle Men Finals Glasgow 03/08/18 Swimming Tollcross International Swimming Centre LEN European Aquatics Championships 2018 European Championships 2018 Photo Andrea Masini/ Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

Mykhailo Romanchuk; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini/ Deepbluemedia /Insidefoto

Romanchuk is immensely grateful for that group opening its arms to him when war broke out. But he also provides something in return, an extra push in the pool as the Paris Olympics loom.

That mental reset has been vital for Romanchuk. He’s delved further into open water, which he finds a fun new challenge to break up training, and he’s toying with the possibility of adding the 10-kilometer at the 2024 Olympics. As he grows deeper into his 20s, seeking those new challenges are vital to keep him improving and engaged.

“We have one of the strongest groups in the world, and it’s really cool that we’re pushing each other in training,” he says. “It’s really nice, and I can learn what he’s doing, he can learn what I’m doing in a competition, during the training, what is the strongest part of me or what is the weak part of Florian. We can also play with this, and it’s really nice. We can see the big mistakes of us and the training; we can improve these weak sides.”

THE ROAD AHEAD

The war in Ukraine is a daily reality Romanchuk’s people have to deal with. Whatever the headlines in your part of the globe may say, that isn’t changing. Mykhailo Sr. is back home, recuperating mentally and physically from the trauma of battle. He’ll likely be redeployed eventually. Romanchuk can’t really go home, not in a way that’s safe. Until Russia’s aggression is beaten back, he will have to remain abroad, occupying dual roles as an athlete and activist.

“The war is still in our land,” he says. “It’s in our country, in our homes. The army is fighting for our land, for Ukraine, and we are also fighting for Ukraine in sports stadiums.”

As long as that’s the case, Romanchuk won’t be able to compete strictly for himself. His blue-and-gold garb will signify something more.

Romanchuk can feel the push within the distance contingent. With 28-year-old Gregorio Paltrinieri and Wellbrock, 25, he’s part of a generation that has been established for the last two Olympic cycles. A crop of precocious young swimmers is nipping at their heels, with double Olympic champion Bobby Finke as its standard bearer. Martens, 20, and new 800 free world junior record holder Lorenzo Galossi are only going to get quicker.

Pressure is being exerted on Romanchuk from all sides, even before factoring in the intense internal drive that has been a constant throughout his career. But a self-described “positive person,” he’s trying to transform it to his advantage. He has Maryna to commiserate with on a predicament that few on the outside could fathom. And the way in which he seeks the bright sides of the move to Magdeburg is emblematic of his mentality.

The war in his homeland has offered a dose of perspective. If swimming is his battlefield, then the sacrifice of discipline and hard work in practice pales in comparison to what others have given in the fight against Russia.

“It’s a little bit more pressure, but you need to understand that when you’re feeling tired, when you’re feeling that your power is going out from your body, in this moment you need to be really strong mentally,” he says. “And in this moment, you are thinking, you are working just physically, and right now our army is pushing the Russian troops out from our country. They are doing huge work. And everything that I can do is just swim fast.

“So for me, 200 or 300 meters and my race is finished, and their race is still for eight months. So if they’re pushing, I also need to push.”

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