Here’s what Utah officials are doing for dozens of Ukrainian athletes seeking refuge from war

Donations will support 50 displaced curlers and skiers, including Olympic aerials medalist Oleksandr Abramenko

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yaroslav Shchur practices with the Ukraine curling team at the Utah Olympic Oval, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Kearns • It was 5 a.m. on Feb. 24 when Yaroslav Shchur’s neighbor knocked on his apartment door with the news: Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Shchur couldn’t believe it. Not until days later when he saw with his own eyes some men he didn’t recognize driving through his neighborhood in Kyiv. They drove a Ukrainian car, but they were not Ukrainian. Their request for directions “to the center” of the city was a dead giveaway.

Shchur, 18, had resolved to stay in Ukraine and protect his family. He saw himself fighting alongside his brother, a firefighter who went to Bucha after the Russians retreated from the area to salvage ammunition and machinery from the debris. But Shchur had something no one else in his family did. Something valuable.

“Safety,” he said. “My parents told me to leave.”

On Tuesday, that safety was inside Utah Olympic Oval.

When Shchur picked up curling during his first year of college, he couldn’t have imagined it would bring him here. He and nine other members of the Ukrainian national curling team are among approximately 50 displaced Ukrainian athletes, coaches and family members who have been invited to make Utah their temporary home. They will spend the summer — or longer if necessary — living and training in Salt Lake City and Park City thanks to an effort coordinated and paid for by the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation.

“This is highlighting, I think, one of the great things that Utah does,” said Colin Hilton, foundation’s CEO. “When we know we’ve got things that could be helpful, then we act on it. We do something.”

An estimated 65,000 refugees, former refugees and their children live in Utah, according to a 2021 Utah WorkForce Refugee Services report. About 2,000 of those hail from Ukraine, according to the state’s refugee service office. And when President Joe Biden said in late March that the United States welcome in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, Gov. Spencer Cox said Utah’s doors were “wide-open.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Polina Putintseva and Yaroslav Shchur talked about the war in Ukraine, before practicing with the Ukraine curling team at the Utah Olympic Oval, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

“Utah has a long and proud legacy of welcoming refugees to our state,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in a news release. “This is an incredible opportunity to support our Ukrainian friends in pursuing their goals in sport and life.”

The next wave of refugees will be associated with Ukraine’s aerial and freestyle ski teams. They will mostly live in Utah Olympic Park housing and will train on the park’s air bags and jump pool. Expected to arrive in early June, the group may include Oleksandr Abramenko. Abramenko won gold in aerials at the 2018 Olympics and silver in Beijing in February — as Ukraine’s only medalist. Just 16 days after that, the New York Times ran a photo of him, his wife and his 2-year-old son sitting on a barren mattress in their garage.

The curlers, who range in age from 17 to 22, arrived Friday and are living in housing at the University of Utah during the summer. If their stay lasts beyond August, Hilton is working with Weber State to provide them with extended accommodations. They’ll do their training at the Oval and at the Weber County Ice Sheet, which is expected to be the curling venue if Utah is awarded the 2030 or 2034 Olympic Winter Games.

When asked how their current digs compare to their homes in Ukraine, the athletes’ eyes grew wider than the Olympic rings.

Everything is different,” Polina Putintseva, one of the five athletes on the women’s team, said through an interpreter.

Gold medal winner Oleksandr Abramenko, of Ukraine, celebrates after the men's aerial final at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

They have access to a state-of-the-art gym, an Olympic-size pool and even a bouldering wall. In Ukraine, they had little to train with after the country’s only rink, which opened in 2020, shut down the day the war started. Coach Erkki Lill said his team had been keeping in shape by doing track workouts and running firefighter drills up staircases.

But even with the spacious rooms and relatively new amenities, the athletes’ minds never wander far from their families and homes.

“I’m never not thinking about the war,” Putintseva, 20, said.

Putintseva got a call from her mother at 7 a.m. the morning Russia invaded her homeland. Her mother told her to come over. When the shelling started in Kyiv, she and many members of her family went to the subway station and slept there for three nights. Her mother, father and three grandmothers remain in Ukraine.

Putintseva and her teammates got out March 15. Lill, who just took the reins in January and was still living in his home in Estonia, worked with the Ukrainian Curling Federation to arrange for the nine athletes to leave to attend a competition. That process wasn’t without its entanglements. Ukraine has banned men ages 18-60 from leaving in case they are needed to fight in the war. Not until they received a special exemption from the country’s minister of sport could Shchur and most of the rest of the men’s team depart.

When they boarded a train bound for Poland, each carried just one bag, smaller than a carry-on, and their sliding shoes. Putintseva said documents and charging cords took up most of the space, leaving her a few pockets for underwear, a couple T-shirts and a sweater for the cold.

From Poland, the team flew to Finland for a training camp, then to Lithuania for the European C-Division Championship. Along the way, the curling federation of Sweden, which has the same color scheme, provided uniforms and travel bags. In Finland, they were given brooms and clothes and they received free room and board in Lithuania.

Still, the upheaval in the midst of war took a toll on the athletes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Coach Erkki Lill talks about the war in Ukraine, at the Utah Olympic Oval, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

“They are stressed all the time,” Lill said through a translator. “They lost a lot of weight when they first moved out of Ukraine.”

He said some athletes lost around six pounds and others up to 14 pounds. Stress and a change of diet meant several came down with food poisoning in Finland. At the same time, though, the prospect of competing had some benefits.

“Curling is helping us get distracted from the war,” Putintseva said.

Ukraine does not have a vibrant history in curling. Its national federation started in 2013. Last year, it sent its first team to the European C-Championships, where the men placed eighth and the women fourth.

This year, the women didn’t get into the playoffs despite taking down Belgium, which did. Somehow, though, the men managed to sweep their way to second place, elevating Ukraine to the B Division for the first time in the nation’s history.

Unable to return home to celebrate, they instead boarded a plane bound for Utah.

The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation had worked through the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to formally extend an offer of help to Olympic pole vaulting champion Sergey Bubka, the president of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine. The curlers were the first to accept, followed by the skiers.

Lill sees the Utah summer camp, or whatever it ends up being, as a silver lining in an otherwise dreary set of circumstances. He said this is the first time the team will be able to train on ice throughout the summer.

“They have really good opportunities here. They are very grateful and they are willing to pay back for everything that they receive here,” Lill said. “They’re shocked, but in a good way.”

The Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation has set a goal to raise at least $500,000 to support the Ukrainian teams training in Utah, Hilton said. The invitation remains open, he added, so more Ukrainian athletes may soon be on their way.

“It gives you that sense of warmth and we’re making a difference when you see the glowing faces at a time of contradiction,” Hilton said. “We’re happy they’re here to enjoy it but, you know they’ve got family that they’re thinking about, too.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.