‘The world didn’t care enough’: Ukrainian climber’s journey from Crimea to Olympic chance | Sport

Three years after Russia had occupied Crimea, the Ukrainian climber Jenya Kazbekova returned to her “favourite place in the world” and achieved a personal best route on its rocks. The crux of her challenge that day in 2017 lay not in scaling the peaceful, sun-drenched cliff, but far below. “I closed my eyes to what really bothered me – Russian guns, flags, currency,” she says. This summer, she aims to reach Paris and climb against the odds for Ukraine once more, after injury, illness and Covid-19 ended her Tokyo dream – and Putin’s full invasion became a living nightmare, forcing the rest of her family to flee to Britain.

Kazbekova’s connection to climbing and Crimea spans three generations. “It was as natural as walking – I don’t remember ever not climbing. It’s just part of me,” says the 27-year-old from Dnipro. On frequent family holidays to the Crimean peninsula, her father taught her how to fall safely, turning trepidation into joy: “It was a big lesson in working through fear.”

Her grandmother had become the Soviet Union’s champion on the same cliffs in the 1960s, while her grandfather ran climbing camps. Her World Cup‑winning parents and coaches, Serik and Natalia, had met, fallen in love and owned a hotel and shop there.

In 2017, Kazbekova had thus resolved to climb again in Crimea – despite her discomfort. “It felt wrong, but it’s my favourite place in the world – how could I not be there?”

Jenya Kazbekova has decided she must keep competing ‘not for myself, but for my country, to provide hope for Ukrainians’

While the Donbas war raged in eastern Ukraine, the former world youth champion continued her family legacy at senior World Cups – including those held in Russia, igniting a backlash from Ukrainians: “Why are you travelling there? They’re killing our people!” they said. Caught in a moral quandary, Kazbekova considered boycotting competitions: “Should I put my career on hold? The world didn’t care enough to do anything.”

She persisted, reaching international finals. In 2019, Olympic qualification beckoned. But after an intense season, her “batteries were low”.

During a qualification event in Toulouse she injured her knee on the first climb, continuing in pain. Kazbekova channelled the grit of her champion mother, Natalia, whom she had admired as a child for “showing up” despite health issues. “I wanted to give my all even if I only had a little bit, because it matters to me to give 100%,” she says. “But it was heartbreaking not to qualify.”

One year later, her last chance in Moscow was thwarted by a positive Covid test. “That’s how my Tokyo dream ended.”

Throughout the pandemic, Kazbekova was burned out and recovering from another injury. She sought therapy, wondering in her limbo whether missing Tokyo had been a blessing in disguise.

On 24 February 2022, “the uncertainty, the fear, that ‘what’s going to happen?’ feeling” surged. Kazbekova, her mother and her younger sister, Rafael, were training in Kyiv. “We woke up from explosions, looking at each other like: ‘What are these sounds?’ – then it happened again,” she says. “I had so much fear. I was trying to pack and my hands were shaking. It was surreal.” They drove to Germany over four days, arriving “half-alive”. Serik shuttled others to safety.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, losing the hope that it would end soon,” she says, holding back tears. “Climbing really helped me cope. It was the only time I didn’t feel fear, anxiety – I wasn’t updating the news and could take care of myself.”

Kazbekova immediately protested against Russians being allowed to participate in elite sport. “It’s not personal, I don’t hate Russian climbers – I have friends there,” she says. “But I can’t treat Russian climbers one way and the rest of Russia otherwise. There’s no grey zone for me.”

At the same time, she couldn’t imagine herself competing, either. “I wanted to pause the whole world, but all you can do is keep going. Life goes on, which is the weirdest thing ever.”

Kazbekova’s results reflected her dilemma. “My head and heart weren’t in it. I thought: ‘Why am I here when people in my country are dying?’”

The European championships approached: “My season’s going to shit. I’ve lost my home. I didn’t know if I should compete.”

Then, a guiding light appeared: a Lebanese coach, Malek, who had also fled war. “He’s not just trying to understand or feeling sorry for me – he actually understands what I’m going through because he’s experienced it. He walked me out of my darkness.”

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Her perspective shifted: “What I do matters – I should keep going not for myself, but for my country, to provide hope for Ukrainians and a reminder for the world that we’re still out there.”

During the European championships, Kazbekova fell ill and spent a night in hospital. Disoriented, she forgot her vest and competed in an unofficial Ukraine T-shirt. She was penalised but still reached the finals, demonstrating resilience – and Olympic potential. She finished fourth in the 2023 European Olympic qualifier, won two international bouldering events – tearing up as the Ukrainian anthem played – and placed second in a speed-endurance competition (her grandmother’s discipline in Crimea).

Now based loosely in Utah, she trains under Malek, with additional physiotherapy, conditioning and psychological support. “I feel like I’m on the right path and that I’ve stepped up closer to my potential, whereas before I was just touching the surface,” she says. “It feels like it’s just the start.”

Her parents are “the perfect team” at competitions, providing “something to lean on” amid the turbulence. They relocated to Manchester with Rafael, 15 – a future Olympic hopeful. Natalia coaches climbing after English classes and Rafael attends school. They’re adapting, despite “struggling a bit with the Manchester accent” – and weather. In 2022, Natalia, Serik and Rafael all became British champions.

Kazbekova’s grandparents stayed in Ukraine (“with my cat”, she says wistfully). Despite the danger, she has returned to compete in the Ukrainian championships, defending her title for 12 years running – often sharing the podium with Rafael.

“It’s weirdly nice to go back – home is home, but it’s hard to stay with the background anxiety and fear,” Kazbekova says. She hopes for peace and Ukraine’s sovereignty, and to one day ascend her beloved Crimean cliffs again: “I miss climbing there a lot.”

In climbing and in life, she says, “it’s your next move that matters”; both are “a never-ending process of learning”. She’s considering studying psychology. “No matter what shit comes my way, I find a way to turn it around. I keep going with a smile.”

In the Olympic qualifier series beginning this month, Kazbekova will climb for a chance to honour her heritage, her country, her sport. Having finished sixth in the first of two Olympic qualifier series events in Shanghai recently, she is on target to qualify for the Paris Games provided she emerges successfully from the final event next month in Budapest. There she intends to showcase her heritage, her country, her sport – and her resilience.

“Representing Ukraine in Paris in such hard times, showing that we don’t give up, that we keep going, would mean everything,” she says. “The Olympics is a big deal for climbing, but it would be a much bigger deal for Ukraine if I qualify.”

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