The Team Ukraine Interview - Stab Mag

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Photo: Pedro Bala

The Team Ukraine Interview

“There are mines near the shore, and already a lot of people have died…so it’s very unsafe to surf.”

features // Sep 24, 2022
Words by Christian Bowcutt
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The visas for Team Ukraine had not arrived –– their flight left the next day.

Their board bags were packed and their plane tickets and hotels were already paid for. Seven months since Russian forces started their rather hellish “Special Military Operation” (*entire world makes air quote gesture*) in Ukraine, causing the largest refugee crisis since World War II and displacing a third of the sovereign country’s population, the approval for Ukraine’s fledgling surf team’s travel to Huntington Beach understandably came slowly. It took a lot for the six surfers and coaching staff to arrive in Huntington Beach for the ISA World Surfing Games. 

But, hours before take-off, the US embassy in Indonesia (where the surfers had been waiting) handed the team back their passports along with valid visas and the surfers found themselves on the long flight to California to compete for Olympic qualification. That’s where I met surfers Valerii, Nina, and Paviel — who both competes and acts as team manager. They were kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with Stab about their discovery of surfing, surf communities in Ukraine, and the state of their country and its people in the midst of a devastating invasion. 

A long way from Odesa. Photo: Christian Bowcutt

Valerii is 15 years old and is from Kiev, Ukraine. His fascination with surfing began when he was 12, on a trip to Bali with his family. After his first surf, he remembers thinking, “Wow, this is so cool, I want to keep surfing.” He recalls seeing other surfers in the water and resolving to “be like them … I still do want to be like them.” His mom and stepdad now live in Bali and his dad lives in Ukraine, working as a doctor and most recently a medic during the conflict. 

Nina began surfing just two years ago. Now she’s repping her country on the global stage. Photo: Pedro Bala

Nina is 33 years old and is from “a little town beside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.” She began surfing only recently in 2020 when she moved to Bali, and “fell in love with the ocean so I couldn’t not surf.” Of being in Huntington Beach she says, “This is incredible, I still can’t believe I’m here, to be honest.” I asked Nina what the process of getting the entire team (they managed to compile a complete 6-person team) to California was like. She said, “Part of our team couldn’t make it here because males are not allowed to leave the country in case they need to join military forces. For those of us who were in Bali, the challenge was that the timing was super tight, as all of us just qualified for the Ukraine National Team. Until the last minute, we were not 100% sure whether we were gonna make it or not. We literally got our passports with American visas one day before the flight. Thankfully in the end everything aligned and we are here, representing our beautiful Ukraine. So proud and so grateful.”

Like so many surfers before him, Valerii got hooked in Indo. Photo: Pedro Bala

Valerii mentioned that part of the reason that it was so difficult to get here was that many sports in Ukraine, like surfing, are not yet official sports (Ukraine did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics). He said he wants to, “show that surfing is also a sport, and our government needs to support this.” He and Nina both added, however, that they understand that right now it simply cannot be the priority with everything going on. 

I then asked them about the surfing community in Ukraine and where the HB equivalent is if one exists. Nina said that it’s definitely no Huntington –– but that the surfing hub is in fact Odesa, an area in southern Ukraine on the banks of the Black Sea that was heavily attacked by Russian forces. Odesa, she says, was where Ukrainian surfing was born and where the USF (Ukrainian Surfing Federation) is headquartered. She also mentioned that Paviel, their team manager, is from there. Paviel happened to walk in at this moment and I was able to ask him about his hometown. I asked if it is possible to surf there now with the invasion. He said, “No, right now, because of the Russian invasion, there are many mines near the shore, they are drifting to the shore and already a lot of people have died because of that, so it’s really unsafe to surf. A friend of mine surfed in the early days of the war. But later on the army said that it was not a safe place and to not enter the water. I think in the next couple of years it won’t be possible to surf safely. We’re gonna do our best to fund an artificial wave, it’s the only way we can bring up a strong youth.”

Team Ukraine. Photo: Christian Bowcutt

I asked, thinking I had misheard, if he really meant mines, as my mind conjured up images of the dystopian-looking spiked “balloons” standing out in sharp contrast against the manicured, comparatively Edenic Huntington Beach scene. He reassured, “Yeah, mines, they are just drifting around, the washed-in mines, they are usually deep, but when a storm comes up they drift in.” He said, however, that Odesa is now, “under Ukrainian control. Pretty much all, or most of the territory is under Ukrainian control. Our army is doing a great job, they are just pushing them back where they came from.” 

When asked whether any members of the team have to go back and fight, he said, “The thing is that the men were obliged to come back, but we don’t have as high demand right now. The army is manned with trained military. If you haven’t gone through the training and you are not very useful from the beginning, they have to use time and resources to train you. So pretty much everyone is on hold. There are a lot of volunteers that trained on the first days, they went for the training and got very involved. Not everyone is obliged right now. The thing is that it’s been getting worse and there are rumors of more demand. I’m personally gonna go back, and I think most of the men’s team thinks the same way. Right now, what we can do is support financially, and that is what we are doing right now.”

On the road to Teahupoʻo? Photo: Christian Bowcutt

Paviel mentioned that his close friends and family are currently safe and that Odesa seems secure. But he said that the same cannot be said for other areas, “Some cities have missiles fired every day, so it’s quite unsafe. We have the hope that our army can put everything in its place.” 

When asked what their hopes are for their country going forward Nina said, “First and foremost, we are going to win this war. Every Ukrainian is doing the best they can for this win. We are united, we are strong, and we are free people. Every single day we are praying for ZSU warriors (armed forces of Ukraine) to come back home alive, defend our homeland and return territories occupied by Russia. Including the waves in our beautiful Crimea and the Black Sea coast.”

Paviel said, “We are trying to promote the sport of surfing for the younger generation, basically the idea of the federation is to build up real sport and to promote it to the level of the Olympic games. So that is where we are going.” The team’s dream is to one day qualify for the Olympics through the ISA World Games. 

The team would like to thank Vasyl Kordysh, President of the Ukrainian Surfing Federation and the Ukrainian Army for defending them and their country.

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