By Erik Uebelacker
Ukraine brought the largest team of competitors to the Youth World Championships with a whopping 59 athletes. Even as conflict continues to rage on in their home nation, Team Ukraine is energized and united behind their athletes.
“It is very important for us to send the team for the World Championship because the people of Ukraine need to know that there is some other life, not only war,” said Anton Blank, president of the National Federation of MMA Ukraine.
The ongoing crisis in the nation has meant that the team has had to adjust its training for this year’s World Championships.
“The preparation was different from last year,” Blank said. “The first thing was that we were not able to have the U18 National Championship. So, the National team was based on 2021 World medal winners. The second thing is that a lot of our youth athletes are now in different countries. So, they could not prepare like they usually did.”
In addition to the 59 athletes competing under these unique circumstances, Team Ukraine is joined by 30 adult coaches and staff. Among them is Iryna Molodenko, who shared her firsthand experience of the horrors of the war.
“My people love Ukraine,” Molodenko said. “We don’t have to cry. We have freedom. We don’t have to [keep losing] friends. Every day there are bombs while my children are sleeping.”
With so much turmoil at home, Team Ukraine is more motivated than ever to represent their country on the global IMMAF stage. Molodenko recognizes what a big opportunity this tournament is for those involved.
“It’s their dream,” she said of the team. “[They] dream to be sportsmen and trainers. They’re working every day, and this is a special moment.
Ukraine had the most medals in the 2021 Youth World Championships, winning 52. Blank is hopeful the team can build off of last year’s success.
“We are planning to be the best again,” he said. “But we understand all the difficulties we met at this period.”