The Russian invasion of Ukraine has directly affected athletes from both nations, with Russia’s best facing competition bans globally while Ukrainians fear for their safety and attempt to continue training despite the ongoing turmoil in their country.
The third nation that is directly tied to the events of the last month is Belarus, which has allegedly aided the Russians in its attacks and as a result been grouped in with them in terms of athletes facing various sanctions and bans from competition for the foreseeable future.
Olga Yasianovich, the head coach of Belarusian swimming sensation Anastasiya Shkurdai, spoke with SwimSwam on the Russian invasion of Ukraine from a Belarusian perspective. Yasianovich touches on life, training, and the sanctions implemented by FINA that block her swimmer from competing at this year’s World Championships.
Yasianovich, who has been coaching Shkurdai since 2010, says they were at a training camp in Tenerife, Spain, preparing for the 2022 World Championships when news first broke of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
“The first reaction is of course shock,” Yasianovich said, adding that they are back in the Belarusian city of Brest for the time being, though things remain uneasy.
“We’re continuing the training process,” she said, with the focus turning to the Belarusian Championships in early April after being denied entry to Worlds. “But mentally, it is very tough. We worry a lot. And unfortunately, we are unable to have any influence on what is happening.
“We can only pray for the war to be over soon.”
In terms of the ban put in place by FINA to disallow any Russian or Belarusian athletes from competing at the World Championships later this year in Budapest, Yasianovich ultimately doesn’t object to it. At the end of the day, she feels for those most directly impacted and is OK with the sanction if it plays a part in ending the attacks sooner.
“As far as Belarusian athletes are concerned, we are a peaceful nation,” she said. “And every third Belarusian has relatives in Ukraine. Therefore, many people are very worried about the events in the neighboring country. Including athletes.
“Professionally, we all understand perfectly well what we had to go through in order to reach our current level (of performance).”
Yasianovich recalls the first time she took her star pupil to train with the Energy Standard club in 2017, the team for which Shkurdai would eventually represent in the International Swimming League (ISL).
“Training with foreign athletes, including those from Russia and Ukraine, and competing in various competitions allowed my swimmer to reach the finals of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I developed as a coach. This is an invaluable experience.
“But now FINA has decided to ban us from the competition. Well, this is FINA’s decision. If this somehow helps end the war in Ukraine, so be it.”
Looking at it from the perspective of a Belarusian who is being denied opportunities for actions taken by their government, Yasianovich is more concerned with the human side of the invasion, not the subsequent restrictions that impact her career.
Does she think the sanctions on Belarusian athletes are fair? The question isn’t even entertained. What’s unfair is those who have lost lives and continue to fear for their safety.
“It is unfair that peaceful and innocent people are dying,” she said. “No political goal should take human lives. I think that many Belarusian athletes will agree with me, because I am sure that they are also against the war.
“For my part, I just want to express regret that now, in the 21st century, when there are so many organizations in the world fighting for human rights and striving for universal understanding and peace, what we are seeing in Ukraine has happened.”
When asked if she had an opinion on the Belarusian government’s role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yasianovich simply said she’s focused on her career, her life, and what she can control.
“All my life I try to do what I can, what I do best, where I can be most useful,” she said. “And I train athletes, I teach them to achieve high goals. Perhaps someone will not like my answer, especially when the public is demanding some action from athletes and coaches. I am devoted to sports 24/7. I write training programs, plan my work, give workshops to athletes and coaches, and share my experience.
“In general, I try to help people as much as I can. And now, more than ever, I appreciate the opportunity to live and work, to do what I love.”
Yasianovich and Shkurdai are currently working on making their way out of Belarus and over to the United States to train.
Yasianovich says that whether that’s something they can do in the next few months or not, she does want to eventually head to the U.S. to continue to evolve as a coach and push Shkurdai to new heights.
“American swimming takes a leading position in the world. In the USA, a huge amount of modern literature focused on our sport has been published, and a huge number of conferences for coaches are now being held. As a coach, I always want to grow and develop. That’s why, of course, I would like to plunge into the world of American swimming in order to acquire new knowledge, as well as share my experience.”
She notes that while Shkurdai’s ISL appearances eliminate her chance of competing in the NCAA system, she still wants to explore what it’s like to train with an American club at some point.
“We do not yet know if we will be able to try our hand in the U.S., to understand American swimming from the inside, but there is hope that we will be given this chance,” she said, adding that the ISL’s recent cancelation of Season 4 only increases their desire to head stateside for training.
“Besides, we shouldn’t forget that in 2028, when Anastasiya will be only 25, the Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles.”