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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Russia-Ukraine conflict hits home for UF Diver Anton Svirskyi

Svirskyi’s family remains in Ukraine as Russian bombs continue to fall

Anton Svirskyi calls Russia's invasion of Ukraine a bad dream. 

The biomedical engineering junior and UF diver's family members have taken shelter in Ukraine following the start of Russia’s invasion Feb. 24.

“Everybody is scared,” Svirskyi said. “[My] family that's older is just hiding in the basements. They're getting bombed every day, all day," 

While the conflict continues in Eastern Europe, Svirskyi, 20, remains in Gainesville. The constant danger his loved ones face in his home country sits on his mind as he attempts to balance training and classes at UF. 

His routine includes a three-hour diving session Monday through Saturday mornings at the Ann Marie Rogers Swimming and Diving Pool in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Classes follow throughout the afternoon, leaving the end of the day free for Svirskyi to catch up with his friends and family on the frontlines.

“I was born and raised in Ukraine,” Svirskyi said. “My whole family is there. It has been a tough time for me. Although I'm not there, I see what's happening. I talk to my friends, grandparents, and my family there. It's something that nobody thought would happen.”

The escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine forced the Svirskyi family to immigrate to the United States in September 2015. 

Before his exodus, Svirskyi earned 38 gold, 12 silver and four bronze medals in various international diving competitions with the Ukrainian national team. Since then, his premier international experience was limited to competing in the Junior European Olympic Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July 2019.

Svirskyi is at the tail end of his second season on the Gators diving team, having spent his freshman year at Saint Peters University as a track and field athlete. He graduated high school in Brick Township, New Jersey, where his 16-year-old sister has been staying with Svirskyi’s mother amid the chaos.  

While many of his close relatives have joined the fight on Ukrainian soil, Svirskyi’s thoughts often dwell on his maternal grandparents, who are separated from one another. Svirskyi’s grandfather suffered a heart attack on March 9 while participating in humanitarian aid efforts. He was admitted to a hospital in Svirskyi’s hometown of Zaporizhzhia in critical condition. 

Zaporizhzhia, a city on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine, is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The plant was overtaken by Russian forces March 4. 

His grandmother, a diabetic amputee, is home alone in Zaporizhzhia and unable to seek proper shelter. Despite this, she has been able to provide food for soldiers and civilians. When the attacks are not as profound, Svirskyi said, his aunt has been able to visit her. 

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Svirskyi has not seen his grandparents since he fled Ukraine about seven years ago.

Whenever he would talk to them on the phone, typically around 10 p.m. Ukraine time, their house lights would always be off. This is due to a strictly enforced law dubbed “light disguise,” which requires all homes to keep their lights dimmed from sunset to sunrise so Russian bombers have a more difficult time navigating the darkened streets. 

The scene is reminiscent to The Blitz of 1940-41, when Londoners were compelled to obscure all indoor light and extinguish any lumination from the outdoors to ensure the best chance of survival against the bombs of Nazi Germany.  

Svirskyi is also saddened by how his fellow athletes and friends in Ukraine have had their training and education halted by the threat of Russia’s invasion. 

“I don't think it's fair to them,” Svirskyi said. “I never thought my friends would have to pick up an AK-47 and have to go fight the Russian army as civilians.”

With the dire situation weighing heavily on his conscience, Svirskyi has been steadfast in his preparation for his first-career NCAA diving championships appearance scheduled for next week in Atlanta, Georgia. Svirskyi will compete in the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform dive events after qualifying during last week’s NCAA Diving Zones.

This feat is even more impressive considering that Svirskyi stopped diving when he arrived in the United States and only restarted the sport two years ago.

Svirskyi will command the diving board in Atlanta with the never ending support of his Gators teammates and coaches.

“This particular team that I have here at Gator diving is more family than we've ever been,” UF diving coach Bryan Gilooly said. “If Anton is going through something, we're all going through something. There's not much we can do but be there for him, and if there is anything we can do we will be all over it.”

Divers from multiple colleges approached Svirskyi at the Zones competition to offer support, proving how strong the diving community is regardless of school affiliation.

“In general diving is a very supportive community,” Gillooly said. “I see the outpouring of support online from all the diving community for the Ukrainian diving athletes and coaches. It wasn't a surprise to see all the athletes at [zones] showing their support for Anton.”

Diving has been a source of relief and distraction for Svirskyi. For three hours a day, six days per week, he focuses his energy on perfecting the dives he has practiced since he was four years old. 

“It is an escape from reality,” Svirskyi said. 

“Diving is so mental that when you're doing it, you can't worry about anything else,” he said. “I also got obsessed with diving for that reason. I can get my mind off things and not worry about anything until I'm done with practice. I feel like it has helped a lot for me to bear with this.”

Despite his best efforts, Svirskyi admits that getting through practice has been exponentially more difficult in recent weeks. On Monday, he practiced with tears in his eyes and does not know how he was able to complete his routine. 

“You're on the boards in tears and you try to push everything that's going on to the back of your mind and focus on diving, but it seems impossible in the moment,” Svirskyi said.

“Sometimes when I feel like I have nothing, I'll give this team my everything. I feel like it's my duty to keep showing up. Even if it's just getting through practice and not having the best practice of your life, just getting through it is a win in my book.”

Svirskyi’s teammate Leonardo Garcia has seen first hand how his fellow diver has struggled to maintain his composure during practice. Svirskyi and Garcia, a native of Colombia, both transferred to Florida in 2020 for their sophomore seasons and have been inseparable since. 

“Sometimes he comes to the pool and he's not feeling very good,” Garcia said. “He might be crying or something and the only thing I can do is just give him a hug to support him.”

​​Garcia also understands that Svirskyi uses diving to get away from the endless cycle of bad news. When he interacts with Svirskyi during practice, he does his best to keep the focus on improving their technique and keeps their conversations lighthearted.

“[Ukrainians] are more than tired of listening to all these stories and all this news about how their country is getting bombed,” Garcia said.

“When he gets to practice, if people start talking about it again, I feel like it's going to be a burnout or it’s just going to be a lot of information [for him].”

Svirskyi has become increasingly self-aware of the precariousness of his emotional state: “I noticed I am a lot more sensitive right now.”

Svirskyi continues to receive updates from his family and friends in Ukraine. His best friend, also an Olympic athlete, has taken up arms against the Russian invaders. There is nothing Svirskyi wants more than to be alongside his loved ones, but he knows that returning home would go against his mother’s wishes.

“I want to go back, but it wasn't fair to her because [my parents] took [my sister and I] away from Ukraine because of the war,” Svirskyi said. “For me to just sacrifice everything they have done for us would not be fair to my parents.”

As a result, survivors' guilt has been a constant thorn in his side. 

“I told [my mom] I don't think it's fair for me to just sit on the sidelines and to inspect this from afar,” Svirskyi said. “It's heartbreaking. My best friends are fighting and I'm just sitting here as if nothing happened.”

Although he is nearly 6,000 miles from home, Svirskyi has taken any measure he can to make a difference. He attended a peaceful demonstration at Turlington Plaza on March 3 and has been posting flyers on social media to raise awareness and funds. 

Svirskyi reached out to his academic advisor, who agreed to help him set up a plan to send donations to the Ukrainian people. He forwarded a list of sought-after medications that Ukraine is short on and is waiting to hear back to see how donations will be organized. 

“He wants to be right there with them,” Gillooly said. “He's lending his support however he can, but for him, it's never enough.”

Woven between the heartbreak and the nightmares that allow him little sleep, Svirskyi finds solace in phone calls with his mother. Their conversations used to average one to two hours in length, but that has not been the case since the invasion began.

Talks from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. between Gainesville and Brick Township have become their new normal. 

“We tell each other stories and we talk about the bright future that Ukraine will have to calm each other down,” Svirskyi said. “These little conversations help.” 

In addition to looking ahead, reflecting on the Ukraine he grew up in brings Svirskyi a level of bittersweet comfort as he recalls the fond memories of his early youth. He associates three words with the version of his homeland he envisions when he closes his eyes: sunshine, flowers and wheat. 

The wheat fields of Ukraine supply nearly 10% of the global export market and provide Svirskyi with a childhood of priceless core memories. 

“When I was growing up, it was always very peaceful,” Svirskyi said. “I remember my grandparents and going on walks with them. Riding my bike, when my grandma would watch me with my sister and my cousin. It has been joyful thinking about those times.”

At next week’s national championships, Svirskyi will sport a wide variety of Ukrainian clothing to acknowledge his nation’s suffering and show that he is diving for far more than just a title. He will wear a pair of t-shirts from his days with the Ukrainian Olympic Team, as well as a sweater emblazoned with “The Ghost of Kyiv”, an anonymous fighter pilot who reportedly shot down six Russian jets during the Kyiv offensive Feb. 24. 

Svirskyi will also head to Atlanta with his country’s flag and a blue and yellow shammy towel he will use to dry off between dives. 

Gillooly summed up the toughness Svirskyi has shown over the last several weeks.

“For him to carry that weight on his shoulders, make the NCAA championships this year, and be one of the top-50 divers in Division 1 athletics after taking five years off says something about his character,” Gillooly said.

Svirskyi will take on his first ever NCAA diving championships with the heaviest of hearts, but the strength he has put forth during these trying times will see him through to the end.

It is the strength of his family. The strength of Ukraine.

Contact Ethan Eibe at eeibe@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.

The Alligator’s university reporter Gregorio Ruiz-Perez also contributed to this article. Contact Gregorio at gruiz-perez@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @GregRuizPerez. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of the country Colombia and correct events Svirskyi will compete in.

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