Ukrainian basketball players find homes at Canadian college
The squeaking of their shoes and the noise of the ball on the pitch seems completely normal for Vika Kovalevska and Vlada Hozalova.
Basketball offers a brief refuge from the relentless undercurrent of tension they feel about what is happening back home in Ukraine.
The game also helps them settle into their new life in southern Alberta, where they play basketball for the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns.
“Basketball helps distract from everything that’s been going on 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 played at international level for the Ukraine women’s under-20 team. The two guards arrived in Canada in May.
Kovalevska, 23, has enrolled in business studies in Lethbridge and will start playing this season.
Hozalova, 24, must complete an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program in college before being academically eligible to play conference games in Canada West – Hozalova answered questions for this story by email. She can still train with the Pronghorns and play exhibition games.
The town of Berdyansk, southeast of Hozalova, currently under Russian occupation, was bombed in February. Hozalova walked out when a humanitarian corridor opened up.
She still had to pass through several Russian checkpoints and said she underwent a tense interrogation at one of them.
“These are the scariest times of my life. I thought for a second that I might not make it out alive,” Hozalova wrote.
“My daily life starts with me watching the news and unfortunately the other day Russia announced that my city was already (in) Russia. I am homeless and have nowhere to go.”
Hozalova’s mother and 17-year-old brother fled to Germany. Kovalevska’s parents and brother are in a relatively safer area of northwestern Ukraine, but uncertainty hangs over her.
“I have apprehensions for my family. I feel anxiety,” Kovalevska said.
“I am nervous because many bombs are arriving in Ukrainian territory every day. Innocent people are dying. You cannot predict which city it will be today or tomorrow.”
They have not heard from a mutual friend who has served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces for six months. Hozalova says he was taken prisoner while defending the Mariupol steel plant.
“We hope he’s 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 clear they were headed to Calgary, their contacts there sent query emails to universities and colleges in Alberta about basketball. Pronghorns coach Dave Waknuk responded immediately and enthusiastically.
A few days after their arrival, Hozalova and Kovalevska toured the Lethbridge campus and met potential teammates and the university administration, which had already established an emergency scholarship fund – or bursary – for current Ukrainian students and new.
“When the dispute arose, we already had students studying here at the University of Lethbridge,” said international executive director Paul Pan. “Because of the conflict, they have not been able to receive money from home to meet their needs. They feared that their parents would work because of the conflict.
“We were able to offer four scholarships to former students and four scholarships to new students.
Kovalevska and Hozalova were approved for scholarships covering campus life and tuition for two semesters.
“It wasn’t set up specifically for those 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 lived in Calgary for 10 years,” Kovalevska said. “A lot of volunteers here, Russians who have lived in Canada for many years, really tried to help Ukrainians.”
Kovalevska and Hozalova played on the Ukrainian eight-team professional women’s basketball circuit. U Sport, Canada’s national governing body for college athletics, allows three international players on a roster. According to basketball eligibility rules, schools can sign players with professional experience on women’s rosters, but not on their men’s teams.
“Both players bring such a high basketball IQ,” Waknuk said. “They understand the game because of their experience playing at a high level. Both are very competitive, very skilled.
“It took a little while for their conditioning to catch up to them, but once it did, the skills, the knowledge, the things that separate them came out.”
Off the court, the women are adjusting to life as student-athletes in southern Alberta.
“Thanks to sports, I’m here now, and basketball is part of my life,” Hozalova wrote. “I’m grateful to everyone who supports me and allows me to do what I love and be safe.”
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