Mike Hutton: Ukraine is never far from the minds of fighters who train at Hammond

As much as the Ukrainian Greco-Roman wrestling team tries to lose themselves in the intensity of their daily practices at Hammond Central High School, they understand this indisputable reality.

Their training trip to the United States doesn’t mean they can put what’s going on back home behind them.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine now extends into its sixth month. Sirens and bombs still sound daily. Innocent people die, some children. The troops are sacrificing their lives to try to keep Ukraine free.

The war fades from our consciousness the longer it goes on. News reports level off. We turn our attention to another mass shooting somewhere. At a block party in Gary, a parade in Highland Park, or a mall outside of Indianapolis. We continue with life, aware of what is happening in the Ukraine, but the gravity fades. It is a distant war for many.

Not for the Ukrainians.

Everyone on the team of 16 fighters and two trainers report having family and friends who were injured, killed or in danger.

The rhythmic thumps of bodies on the padded mats are the sounds of a wrestling team hard at work.

It is a necessary and patriotic job for a country devastated by war.

But it comes with a price.

As soon as the day is done, after they’ve gone to a RailCats game or visited the building that was once known as the Sears Tower in Chicago, the wrestlers and coaches pick up their phones and call home. Some call in the morning. Some call two or three times a day.

They need to know that everyone is okay. That no one was injured or killed by a bomb or a stray bullet. It is a tense way of living life.

But there are no other options.

Through an interpreter, Vladlen Kozliuk, one of their best fighters, said that the facilities and hospitality are top notch.

But his heart is in the Ukraine.

He calls his mother every day. Kozliuk talks to his father from time to time. He is in the military and serving in hot spots. His location and duties are top secret. Even Vladlen doesn’t know what his father is doing.

“Everything is great here,” Kozliuk said, “but it’s much better to be home.”

Kozliuk’s story is not unusual for Ukrainians, who call their athletes “jocks.”

He was part of the Ukrainian army, working in the border patrol unit on February 24, the day Russia attacked. All Ukrainian men must serve in the army between the ages of 18 and 25. Due to the war, able-bodied men up to the age of 60 are eligible to be drafted.

His superiors told Kozliuk to return to training because he “brings fame to our country.”

There was a problem.

Most of the training facilities had been destroyed by the bombardment.

Indiana stepped in to lend support. Gov. Eric Holcomb helped secure a $95,000 grant from the Indiana Sports Corp. for the team to train here.

Hammond Central was the perfect place.

It had a new weight room, a swimming pool, and a second small gym dedicated to wrestling.

It is also close to Chicago, which has a large Ukrainian population.

Anna Krysenko, the wife of Ukrainian wrestling coach Volodymyr Shatskykh, said the team had to get out. Its budget for training was cut and the facilities were destroyed. Shatskykh said that 100 athletes have died and at least 300 have been injured. Eligible military personnel cannot be out of the country for more than 30 days.

“We tried to train, but it was hard to call it training,” he said. “We didn’t have enough finances. We didn’t have enough people because they were scattered all over the country. Here is great. It is a location in one place. We had so many sports facilities destroyed there. It is awful. We have no idea if they will survive.”

Krysenko had her own close call. There’s a picture on his phone of a bullet hole in the middle of the windshield of his car. The next image shows blood running down his cheek. Shards of glass had flown into his face.

Was lucky. It was not serious.

One of his university professors was bombed three hundred meters from his house, he said. He left a hole that looks like the size of half a city block. Her friend has lost her memory and she has long-term health problems.

Krysenko has not spoken to her father since June 20. His family isn’t sure where he is, but they think he’s okay. He does not have a cell phone. There was a long stretch between April and May in which they had no contact with him. She is from Donetsk, which is on the eastern border. She is partially controlled by Russia. She is not good there, but no one wants to leave her house.

“My parents say, ‘I’m not going to leave my house,’” he said. “If we go, the Russians will destroy it.”

There is a joke in Ukraine that goes like this.

War is a great opportunity to see all your relatives.

Andrii Kulyk understands this well.

Nine of his relatives moved into his and his grandmother’s apartment, which is in the same city.

Kulyk had an uncle killed in the first month of the war. He was driving a car that was hit by a bomb.

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The people here have lifted their spirits. Aid. They were featured in a game of RailCats, and Kulyk said he felt like “a movie star walking the streets of Chicago.”

Kulyk said a lot of people “come to us and say, ‘We’re with you. God bless you. Russians, bad people.

Shatskykh said the journey is much bigger than finding a good place to train.

It is about showing the Ukrainian people that the Russians will not stop them from moving forward.

“They are qualified athletes,” Shatskykh said through an interpreter. “They are well known all over the world. We want to show people that we are strong. We will fight to the end. Sports bring people together. We want to show people that we can do this on the pitch, but also in the arena.”

They will soon return to the Ukraine and look for a place to train before the World Championships in September in Serbia. Some will return to service. No one knows what it will be like, but they will find a way to train even with buildings on fire and bombs falling around them. It’s what they do and they have to find a way to move on.

Mike Hutton is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune. He can be reached on Twitter at @MikeHuttonPT.

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