Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Basketball players fleeing Ukraine find a home with University of Lethbridge Pronghorn. CBC News

The squeak of their shoes and the thumping of the ball on the court seem downright normal to Vika Kovalevska and Vlada Hozlova.

Basketball provides a brief sanctuary from the constant undercurrent of tensions over what’s happening at home in Ukraine.

Hoops also helps them ground their new life in Alberta, where they play basketball for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorn.

“Basketball helps you take attention away from everything that’s happening around you,” Kovalevska told The Canadian Press.

“I just try to focus on the exercises, turn off my mind and immerse myself in a fast and dynamic game world, where there’s no time to think about anything else.”

‘The scariest moment of my life’

Kovalevska and Hozlova are friends who have played internationally for Ukraine’s under-20 women’s team. Both guards arrived in Canada in May.

Kovalevska, 23, enrolled in business studies at Lethbridge and will play Canada West this season.

Hozlova, 24, needs to complete an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) at university before being academically qualified to play conference games.

She can still practice with pronghorns and play exhibition games.

Hozlova wrote her answers in an email to The Canadian Press.

Its southeastern city of Bardiansk, now under Russian occupation, was bombed in February. Hozlova came out when the human corridor opened.

She still had to cross several Russian checkpoints and says she made tense interrogations all at once.

“Those were the scariest moments of my life. I thought for a second that I might not be able to survive this,” Hozlova wrote.

“My every day starts with the fact that I watch the news and unfortunately, the other day, Russia announced that my city is already in Russia. I am homeless and have nowhere to go.”

canada visa

Hozlova’s mother and 17-year-old brother fled to Germany. Kovalevska’s parents and brothers live in a relatively safe area in northwestern Ukraine, but uncertainty weighs heavily on her.

“I’m apprehensive about my family. I feel anxious,” Kovalevska said.

“I’m terrified because every day many bombs hit Ukrainian territory. Innocent people die. You can’t predict what city it will be today or tomorrow.”

He did not hear from his friend Sergei, who has served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine for six months.

Hozlova says that she was taken prisoner while defending the Mariupol steel plant.

“We hope he is alive,” Kovalevska said.

To avoid conflict, both women obtained their Canadian visas. Using Facebook, he looked for volunteers in Canada who could help him.

Once it became clear that he was moving to Calgary, his contacts sent Alberta universities and colleges inquiring emails about basketball.

Pronghorns coach Dave Waknook responded quickly and enthusiastically.

Within days of their arrival, Hozlova and Kovalevska visited the Lethbridge campus and met with potential peers and the university administration.

The university has already set up an emergency bursary for current and new Ukrainian students, it was contingency.

“When the conflict happened, some of our students were already studying at the University of Lethbridge,” said international executive director Paul Pan. “Due to the conflict, they were not able to get money from home to support themselves. They were worried that their parents were out of work because of the conflict.

“We were able to offer four bursaries to returning students and four to new students.”

‘Thanks for the game, I’m here now’

Kovalevska and Hozlova were approved for a bursary covering on-campus living and tuition for two semesters.

“It wasn’t set up specifically for these two,” Pan said. “The timing was just right for them.”

Before moving to Lethbridge, the two women lived with a Russian woman in Calgary.

“She had been living in Calgary for 10 years,” Kovalevska said. “A lot of volunteers here, Russians who have been living in Canada for many years, really tried to help Ukrainians.”

Kovalevska and Hozlova played in Ukraine’s eight-team professional women’s basketball circuit.

U Sport’s rules allow for three international players on a roster. Under basketball eligibility rules, schools can take players with professional experience to the women’s rosters, but not to their men’s teams.

“Why that is, I don’t know, but professional player rules are different on the women’s side than the men’s,” Wakanuk said.

“Both players bring such a high basketball IQ. They understand the game because of their experience playing at a high level. Both are very competitive, very skilled.

“It took a while for their conditioning to catch on, but once they did, the skills, the knowledge, the things that set them apart came out.”

Off the court, two women are adjusting to life as student-athletes in southern Alberta.

“Thanks for the game, I’m here now, and basketball is a part of my life,” wrote Hozlova. “I am grateful to all the people who love me and allow me to be safe.”

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