Ukrainian basketball players find home at Canadian university

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The squeak of their shoes and the thud of the ball on the court feel blissfully normal to Vika Kovalevska and Vlada Hozalova.

Basketball provides a brief sanctuary from the relentless undercurrent of tension they feel from what is happening in Ukraine.

The game also helps them land in their new life in southern Alberta, where they play basketball for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns.

“Basketball helps take your mind off everything that has happened around you,” Kovalevska said.

“I just try to focus on practices, turn off my brain and immerse myself in the world of a fast and dynamic game, where there is no time to think about anything else.”

Kovalevska and Hozalova are friends who have played internationally for the Ukraine women’s under-20 team. The two guards arrived in Canada in May.

Kovalevska, 23, enrolled in business studies at Lethbridge and will start playing this season.

Hozalova, 24, needs to complete an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program at university before being academically eligible to play conference games in Western Canada. Hozalova answered questions for this story via email. She can still practice with the Pronghorn and play exhibition games.

The city of Berdyansk, southeast of Hozalova, now under Russian occupation, was bombed in February. Hozalova left when a humanitarian corridor was opened.

He still had to pass several Russian checkpoints and says he endured tense questioning at one.

“Those were the scariest moments of my life. For a second I thought maybe I wouldn’t make it out alive,” Hozalova wrote.

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“All my days start 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.”

Hozalova’s mother and her 17-year-old brother fled to Germany. Kovalevska’s parents and brother are in a relatively safer area in northwestern Ukraine, but she is overwhelmed by uncertainty.

“I am worried about my family. I feel anxiety,” Kovalevska said.

“I am nervous because every day many bombs arrive on Ukrainian territory. Innocent people die. You can’t predict what city it will be today or tomorrow.”

They have not heard from a mutual friend who is serving in the Ukrainian armed forces for six months. Hozalova says that he was taken prisoner while defending the Mariupol steel plant.

“We hope he is alive,” Kovalevska said.

Seeking to escape the conflict, the women obtained Canadian visas. Using Facebook, they searched for volunteers in Canada who could help them.

Once it became apparent that they were headed to Calgary, their contacts there emailed inquiries to Alberta universities and colleges about basketball. Pronghorns coach Dave Waknuk responded immediately and enthusiastically.

Within days of their arrival, Hozalova and Kovalevska toured the Lethbridge campus and met with potential teammates and the university administration, which had already established an emergency scholarship fund, or fellowship, for undergraduates. current and new Ukrainians.

“When the conflict happened, we already had some students studying here at the University of Lethbridge,” said International Executive Director Paul Pan. “Because of the conflict, they were unable to receive money from home to support themselves. They worried that their parents would not have jobs due to the conflict.

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

Kovalevska and Hozalova were approved for scholarships that cover campus life and tuition for two semesters.

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

Before moving to Lethbridge, the two women stayed 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 lived in Canada for many years, just tried to help Ukrainians.”

Kovalevska and Hozalova played on Ukraine’s eight-team professional women’s basketball circuit. U Sport, Canada’s national governing body for collegiate athletics, allows three international players on one roster. Under basketball eligibility rules, schools can have players with professional experience on women’s rosters, but not on men’s teams.

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

“It took a while for their conditioning to catch up to them, but once it did, the skill, the knowledge, the things that separate them, came out.”

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

“Thanks to sports, I am here now and basketball is part of my life,” Hozalova wrote. “I am grateful to everyone who is close and supports me and allows me to do what I love and stay safe.”

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