Anastasiia Temirbek faced 10ft walls of whitewater as she paddled alongside the pier during the International Surfing Association’s World Surfing Games this week in Huntington Beach, California.
The ocean had decided to pulsate just as Temirbek’s heat set in, sending a succession of solid waves into alignment and leaving surfers struggling to “come back” to calmer water.
But at least there were no mines.
And the water was a balmy 71 degrees – warm enough for a bikini rather than a thick, bulky wetsuit. There were no rockets flying overhead. There was no ice floating in the queue, and bright sunshine was falling on the golden sands of a perfect, cloudless sky.
Temirbek is one of six members of Ukraine’s national surfing team who traveled to California against all odds to take part in the country’s second outing at the 2022 annual ISA World Surfing Games.
The young Ukrainian surfing community has developed on the beaches of the Black Sea in Odessa. Although the waves are small and the water is often freezing, the joy of surfing is real.
But the war raging in Ukraine has made the Black Sea a no-go zone for surfers.
The president of the Ukrainian Surfing Federation, Vasyl Kordysh – and several other top surfers in the country – are stuck in Odessa and, due to wartime travel restrictions, are not allowed to leave the country to surf during the annual competition.
“I really wanted to be there with them right now,” Kordysh told USA TODAY in an interview from Odessa. “But with our circumstances, it’s not the best time right now.”
Mines on the program
A few months ago, Kordysh moved closer to the ocean.
Now, he says, he can don his wetsuit at home and hike the few blocks to Arcadia Beach, his local surf spot — a big plus when it’s snowing outside.
Kordysh made the trip out of love for his sport. But it turns out that changing apartments also saved his life. A few weeks after he left, a rocket hit his old building, destroying it.
“It was really, really hard to go in there and check out what it looks like,” Kordysh said. “It’s like a building with a hole. You can see through the building.
Kordysh and Ukrainian surfers competing in California have acknowledged that conditions in Odessa are less than ideal for training for the international surf circuit. The Black Sea only serves as waves when there is a lot of wind, producing smaller, more muscular waves called wind swells. It’s more like surfing the North Shore of Lake Superior (which actually happens) than the famous North Shore of Hawaii.
The water is also very cold for much of the year, requiring wetsuits, rubber gloves and booties and even balaclavas to avoid wind chill, Ukrainian surfers said.
But since the Russian invasion, restrictions on surfing in Ukraine have increased enormously. Kordysh said the waters of his favorite surfing beach are now heavily mined to protect Odessa from a Russian invasion from the Black Sea. To compound the danger, onshore winds that create surfable waves on the beach also bring the mines closer to shore. The beaches themselves are mined.
Kordysh lamented that the mines may have to sit in place for years, depriving him and his friends of the natural balm of riding a wave.
These days are scary. He can see the water, but he can’t paddle.
“The waves are starting to come in, and yes, it’s heartbreaking. But above all, what interests us is that we want to win this war and we simply want to get these Russian soldiers out of our land. This is what we dream of, to be able to go surfing.
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Russian surfers banned from competition
Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, or ISA, likens the organization to the “United Nations of Surfing”. The group organizes competitions around the world, provides qualified judges and, under Aguerre’s leadership, introduced surfing to the Olympics.
While Ukraine was welcomed last year as the 109th ISA member nation, another country has been banned from participating in the 2022 World Surf Games: Russia.
The ISA banned Russian athletes from participating in its events in March, following International Olympic Committee guidelines. The association released a statement on its website regarding the move:
“The global surfing community is shocked and appalled by Russia’s horrific act of aggression and Belarus’ role in facilitating their invasion of Ukraine. We are unequivocal in our views on this crisis and we fully solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
Aguerre, who helped bring surfing to the Summer Olympics for the first time in Tokyo in 2020, told USA TODAY that the Ukrainian team is emblematic of what the organization hopes to achieve.
“My job is to provide a platform where everyone feels equal – equal access, equal opportunity – and everyone has a chance,” Aguerre said. “You might not win because you’re not the best in the competition, but you win because you’re here. You win because you send a message to your fellow citizens back home in the middle of a war that even in the middle of a war there is hope.
Temirbek echoed those sentiments. She finished her Monday run fourth out of four, but that wasn’t what was important.
“It’s definitely a huge honor for us to be here and to represent our country during very difficult times for Ukraine,” she said.
Temirbek said his entire family remains in Ukraine, where most have been displaced by the war. Earlier this year, she says, she was cut off from her family for weeks and didn’t know if her parents were alive or dead. Eventually, she reached them by phone.
Many surfers go to the ocean to get away from their troubles for a few hours. But Temirbek said her sessions often have the opposite effect, as she finds herself sitting on her board worrying over and over about the challenges facing her family far away.
“I came out two weeks after the war started, I was sitting in a queue and saw smiling people who don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I was trying to focus on the waves, and I couldn’t. I was watching the wave and at some point I realized I was crying.
While those solo sessions weren’t very comforting, Temirbek found that training and teaching other surfers helped her reconnect with the ocean and leave her fears behind.
“I started bringing people to the ocean,” she said, and started focusing on someone else. “It was like three hours later I realized, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of anything! “”
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keep the dream alive
More than 6,500 miles from his hometown of Odessa, Kordysh’s friend Paviel Marakhovskyi watched his friends’ surf waves at Huntington Beach from the guise of a pink sun hat.
Marakhovskyi was allowed to travel to the United States to compete as he lives in Portugal. Like him, the rest of the Ukrainian team lives outside the country. Four of the Ukrainian competitors recently moved to Bali, Indonesia. Another now lives in Los Angeles.
Because they do not reside in Ukraine, team members could obtain visas to travel to Huntington Beach and compete, they said. Travel restrictions mean the country hasn’t been able to field its best surfers, but at least Ukraine is represented, Marakhovskyi said.
The World Surfing Games stand as the start of the road to the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Olympic surfing event will take place in Tahiti, a former French island colony that has become an autonomous overseas country of the French Republic.
Tahiti is famous in surfing for having some of the most dangerous or “heavy” waves in the world. Rather than simply opening up Olympic surfing to teams from all countries, the ISA, in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee, has created a system to channel the world’s best surfers to the Olympics from other events in qualification.
Many surfers who compete will be determined by the results of the World Surfing League, the most prestigious league in professional surfing. The top 10 eligible men and top eight women in the league at the end of the 2023 season will qualify for the Olympics.
This week’s World Surfing Games in Huntington Beach, on the other hand, decides a single men’s and women’s Olympic spot. Whichever country wins the men’s and women’s competitions will be able to choose an eligible surfer to compete in Tahiti in 2024. Other surfers will qualify for the 2023 and 2024 World Surfing Games.
The system strongly favors the surfing superpowers of the United States, Australia, Brazil and South Africa. The Ukrainian surfers who gathered on the beach on Monday knew it was a long way for any of them to make it to Tahiti.
But for a few days during the competition, they found themselves surrounded by supporters and admirers.
Aguerre, the ISA president, said that during the opening ceremonies, athletes from the 51 competing countries were asked to pour sand from their local beaches into a transparent box during the “Sands of the World” ceremony. “. When the Ukrainian team took the stage, they were greeted with joy, Aguerre said.
“Everyone was standing up, clapping, saluting them and honoring them,” Aguerre said. “I told them, ‘You are here. You are sending a message to the world.
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