As war rages on, Ukraine lugers compete in World Cup

The Ukrainian Luge team presents poses with the Ukrainian flag at the Mirror Lake Inn on Tuesday. From left are Denja Weibrecht, Andrew Weibrecht, Taras Hartsula, Andriy Mandziy, Ihor Hoi, Nazarri Kachmar, Volodymyr Vakhrushev, Olena Stetskiv, Oleksandra Mokh, Anton Dukach and Dmitry Feld. (News photo — Parker O’Brien)

LAKE PLACID — Ukrainian luge athlete Oleksandra Mokh has spent this past week preparing for her first-ever FIL Luge World Cup on U.S. soil.

Back home, her brother is fighting in the Ukrainian army, which is fending off a Russian invasion that started nearly two years ago.

Mokh, 19, isn’t the only Ukrainian athlete with a relative fighting in the war which has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, according to the United Nations. All six of the Ukrainian luge athletes and two coaches, who are in Lake Placid for the World Cup on Friday and Saturday, know someone who is currently fighting in the war.

For some of them, it’s uncles and godfathers. Nazarri Kachmar, one of the youngest Ukrainian luge athletes, has classmates fighting in the army.

And nearly all of them know people who have died.

USA Luge Marketing Manager Dmitry Feld, who has continued to provide aid for his home country of Ukraine, said there’s no family in Ukraine now that doesn’t have somebody in the army or who isn’t touched by the war.

“The people who did sliding in the Ukraine, some of them died in the war,” Ukrainian national team head coach Taras Hartsula said through Feld, who translated his comments to English. “The director of the sports council, he’s in the army right now.”

The need for support

On Tuesday evening, the Ukrainian luge athletes met with Andrew Weibrecht, Olympic silver and bronze medalist in alpine skiing, at the Mirror Lake Inn. The hotel, which is owned by Weibrecht’s parents, has donated to Ukrainian relief efforts since the start of the war nearly two years ago.

“With everything that has happened in Ukraine in the last almost two years now, we want you to know that we really support you,” Weibrecht told the Ukrainian luge team. “As a former athlete, I understand how hard athletics is when it’s normal. There’s a lot of stress, and there’s a lot going on. For all of you to be sitting here in this room right now, I commend you all for taking on that challenge.”

Having been in Lake Placid for a short amount of time, the luge athletes said they were proud to see Ukrainian flags throughout the village.

While the U.S. Congress has hit a standstill on the approval of nearly $106 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel and other security needs, the luge athletes called for more support from the U.S.

“Ukraine cannot give up their territories to the Russians have taken,” Hartsula said. “If they give them up the Russians will get stronger and will try to attack again.”

Hartsula believed that Europe wasn’t ready for the attack.

“They all thought that NATO would defend them,” Hartsula said. “But if Ukraine doesn’t stop them, they will just keep walking to Moldova to Poland, Bosnia and Estonia — even Germany.”

But to the team, the Russian invasion on Ukraine has been a long time coming.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had three nuclear warheads, so nobody would mess with them then,” Hartsula said.

Under the Lisbon Protocol, which was signed in 1992, Ukraine and two other non-Russian countries was forced to return the nuclear warheads to Russia. Hartsula believes that just having those weapons could have prevented the Russian invasion.

“First it was Donbas, then it was Crimea and nobody protected them,” Hartsula said. “That’s why support is so important because now they finally understand you need to help Ukraine stand against Putin.”

Luge in the Ukraine

While this isn’t most of the team’s first time competing in Lake Placid, they weren’t originally supposed to compete in the FIL World Cup season opener. Instead, they planned on taking part in the European World Cup races.

“They weren’t sure if they could come to the United States because the American Embassy in Kyiv in not functioning,” Feld said.

The Ukrainain luge team had to make appointments with the U.S. Embassy in Lativa. But upon arrival, problems occurred when the athletes were told that they would have to wait until August to get visas because they weren’t from the country.

Through USA Luge, they got a hold of the USOPC and got them to help out, according to Feld.

“They connected with the American Embassy in Latvia and made sure that they all got visas. It was very quick,” Feld said. “The second problem is that there are no planes in Ukraine, so they have to drive from Romania, and they have to drive to Poland or Germany, so it takes a long time to get here. It took them about 48 hours to get here.”

The athletes were able to come to Lake Placid a bit earlier, so they’ve had a bit more experience leading up to this weekend’s event. Three-time Olympian Andriy Mandziy said Lake Placid is the toughest track he’s competed on.

“They don’t have a lot of outside training,” Feld said. “They always come from the World Cup, and it’s a limited amount of sliding that they can take.”

During the summer, even though it was very difficult due to the war, they were often forced to interrupt their training due to air raids or missile attacks. But during the fall, the Ukrainian national team trains on the luge tracks in Sigulda, Latvia, Altenberg, Germany and Lillehammer, Norway.

In Ukraine, there is only one luge track, which is made of wood. It’s where all of the athletes first tried luge. Feld even slid on it back in the day.

“In the winter time, they put the snow on it and spread it with water,” Feld said. “At one point, part of the wood wasn’t usable so they basically stopped to fix it.”

Kachmar was just 10 years old and in school when a luge coach showed up and asked if he wanted to try. Most of the team was around 10 years old when they started. Last year, they had youth and junior luge with about 90 athletes.

With the World Cup just one day away, Mandziy said he’s extremely proud to represent his country.

“Even in the war, they want to show to the world that they are an independent country,” Feld said, “and they want to show by competing that they can represent Ukraine well even as the war rages on.”

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