Ukrainian Lyza Yakhno building a new life, new career in Canada

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Russian missiles destroyed the training facility that helped turn artistic swimmer Lyza Yakhno into an Olympic medalist, forcing the Ukrainian star to take her new show on the road.

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The 24-year-old had been living in Kharkiv to be near the Lokomotiv training centre, which suffered major damage in early September as Russia continued to target Ukrainian infrastructure with bombs and missiles.

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After winning Olympic bronze in the team event at Tokyo in July 2021, Yakhno hung up her nose clips and decided to dip her toes into the coaching pool. Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) officials had spoken to Yakhno following the Games, and were ready with a formal offer of employment whenever she wanted to make the transition out of the water and onto the pool deck.

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In late September 2022, with war still raging in her homeland, Yakhno jumped at the opportunity to move to Montreal and work as an assistant coach for the Canadian senior national team under the direction of head coach Gábor Szauder.

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“This was my first opportunity to coach. Because of the war in Ukraine, I couldn’t coach there because everything was destroyed,” she said recently in an email interview with Postmedia.

“My mother is in Germany with Ukrainian refugees; they have helped her a lot. In Ukraine I have a lot of friends still. My boyfriend is in Lviv. He can’t leave Ukraine. He has a job there and he can’t go across the border because men between 18 and 60 years old can’t leave the country, due to army restrictions. He has a job but now he has to go and fight.

“I also have a stepsister. She is older than me. She has a child and they are in Mariupol, which was occupied and destroyed by the Russians. I am happy that my sister and her child are still alive but it was a really horrible time for them.

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“I lived in Kharkiv near the training with the artistic swimming team. Now it’s a really horrible time for people in my city. Our city is near the Russian border, so really close to Russia and they were bombing every day and a lot of people died.”

Yakhno was scheduled to fly to Poland and travel from there to Ukraine for Christmas, before returning to Montreal in the new year. She’s living near the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, with a Ukrainian woman who has been in Canada for two decades. Yakhno, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English, is now quickly learning French. She had previously been to Surrey, B.C., and Toronto for competitions in 2018 and 2017 respectively.

“Everyone asks me if I have warm clothes,” she said. “But we have cold winters in Ukraine, sometimes down to minus-25C. Canada is different from my country and things are very different here. Ukrainians and Canadians also have different mentality; it seems Canadians are always saying sorry.”

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Getting the Olympic bronze medalist and FINA’s 2018 artistic swimmer of the year on board was quite a coup for CAS. Her qualifications for the job include a Bachelor of Physical Culture and Sport, with a specialization in coaching activities, from the Kharkiv Academy State of Physical Culture, one of the oldest sports management universities in Ukraine. She followed that with a Master of Physical Culture and Sport degree, specializing in the psychology of physical culture and sport.

“Lyza represents values which I believe were necessary to bring to our national team,” said Szauder, who described her as “calm, quiet and tough.” He also praised her flexibility, ballet education and arm movements.

“She creates balance in an unbalanced world, and I’m very happy she’s with us.”

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Yakhno was born in Donetsk and grew up in “a typical family living and working in the office.” She said she took up swimming at a young age, on the advice of a physician.

“In childhood I had a little trouble with my back, with my posture, and the doctor advised me to try swimming to correct my posture.”

She tired of the endless laps associated with training for races and was intrigued by the more complex, gymnastic elements of artistic swimming. She also had a natural talent for it and was soon elevated to the national junior team. By 2016 she was a three-time world junior medalist, and three years later she was a world senior gold medalist in the highlight event.

Now, Yakhno admits she has much to learn as a new coach, and she is focused on improving the skill set of Canada’s national team athletes.

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“In our sport, skill is the foundation on which everything else is built. I really appreciate hard work because it makes you better, so I am trying to pass on those values. Canada’s team is quite young and, while we are trying to improve our skills, we also work with everyone on becoming well-rounded athletes.”

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