On the 9th of November, the “Games of Heroes” CrossFit competition, supported by Promote Ukraine and NATO, took place in Brussels. Ukrainian veterans astonished the audience with their skill and fighting spirit. The “Games of Heroes” CrossFit competition traditionally involves Ukrainian military personnel who have suffered severe injuries but have found the desire and strength to recover and engage in sports. 

While spectators were gathering in the sports hall in Brussels, Ukrainian veterans were already actively warming up before their performances. The participants were checking the technique of exercises and joking a lot. A friendly atmosphere and team spirit were the first things you could notice entering the gym. And, in fact, the contribution to the psychological recovery and rehabilitation of Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers is the main goal of the “Games of Heroes.” Since 2016, the competition has been primarily held in Ukrainian cities, and in 2023, it reached Brussels.

Ukrainian adaptive athletes Oleksandr Pivniev, Serhii Romanovskyi (two on the left), Mykhailo Sokolian, and Ihor Semkovych (two on the right)

As in all sports, serious preparation precedes the competition. However, this task comes with an extra challenge, as former military personnel had to not only undergo rehabilitation after injuries and learn to live fully with a prosthesis but also perform complex exercises beyond the average man’s capabilities. We will discuss further why veterans decided to engage in sports after their injuries and what the “Games of Heroes” have become for them.

In the photo from left to right: Yevhen Koval (founder of the “Games of Heroes” project), Vasyl Kushnus (Promote Ukraine), and Nataliia Anoshyna (Chargé d’Affaires to the Kingdom of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg)

“We wanted to create something so spectacular that people would be thrilled by it,” says serviceman Serhii Romanovskyi.

Serhiy Romanovsky, who is said to be one of the first participants of the “Games of Heroes” project, is a professional military officer who served in the army for 16 years. He was injured in 2014 near Luhansk. It was impossible to save his leg, so he had to adapt to a prosthesis. After a rehabilitation period that lasted almost two years, he started doing CrossFit and got acquainted with the organisers of the “Games of Heroes.”

In the photo: Serhii Romanovskyi

“I have been engaged in regular training within the “Games of Heroes” project for seven years. I have participated in five to six competitions held in Ukraine and also organised several competitions in Lviv in 2016, 2018, and 2019,” shares Romanovskyi.

The military officer also recalled the beginnings of the “Games of Heroes” and how they have changed after the full-scale invasion. “Back in 2014, we needed to incept in people’s minds the idea of the invincibility of Ukrainian soldiers and the Ukrainian people. We wanted to create something so spectacular that people would be thrilled by it. And the “Games of Heroes” did a fantastic job with that. Later, it all transformed into sports rehabilitation for veterans and people with disabilities. Now (after the full-scale invasion), it has moved to a new stage: the release of an online training platform with qualified coaches. So, there is an opportunity for a large number of veterans to train where it’s convenient for them, without being tied to a specific gym or the trainer’s place of residence,” explained Romanovskyi.

In the photo: Oleksandr Pivniev

Oleksandr Pivniev from Kropyvnytskyi can also boast his track record in the “Games of Heroes.” He has been part of the project for five years and has participated in competitions five times. Alexander was injured in July 2016 during a mortar shelling near Toretsk in the Donetsk region. At that time, he served in the 53rd separate mechanised brigade. Due to a severe injury, Alexander had to undergo leg amputation. The rehabilitation process was long-lasting, about two years. Nevertheless, he learned to walk on a prosthesis in four months. Neither a serious injury nor amputation stopped him, and he returned to the army, serving in various units, only leaving the military a few months ago.

“I would advise all injured military personnel to join the “Games of Heroes.” Here, you will receive the best rehabilitation you deserve. We will go to competitions and win. Speaking for myself, the “Games of Heroes” have become true psychological rehabilitation,” confesses Oleksandr.

Ukrainian adaptive athletes during exercises

“I set a goal for myself to walk like a regular person,” says sapper Mykhailo Sokolian.

More and more military personnel who received injuries after the full-scale invasion are joining “Games of Heroes.” Part of this trend is the stories of sappers Ihor Semkovych and Mykhailo Sokolian. Although the guys served in different units, they met and became friends at the rehabilitation center, and now continue to do CrossFit together in the “Games of Heroes.”

Ihor Semkovych was injured in September 2022 but was forbidden to do sports for almost a year. He confesses that he couldn’t wait to start doing physical exercises, so he began training while lying down. When he received a prosthesis six months ago, he started walking, riding a bike, and actively participating in CrossFit.

“I decided that due to amputation, I need to be more mobile and pay more attention to my fitness so that my body functions better. So, I went to the gym while being in the rehabilitation center. It was the rehabilitation specialists who gave my contacts to the “Games of Heroes” organisers. The project representatives called me and convinced me to do CrossFit, even though I had never done it before. And here I am. These competitions are not about winning; our victory is that we are already involved in sports. It’s more to show other military personnel who are currently lying with injuries and amputations that life doesn’t end here, that you can engage in sports and fully restore your functionality,” shares Ihor.

Ukrainian fans actively support athletes.

The sapper admits that he got along very well with the guys he met at the “Games of Heroes” because, as he says, they “all share the same vibe.” He and his friend from the rehabilitation center, Mykhailo Sokolian, occasionally reminisce about stories from the period of treatment. The guys note that their rehabilitation went relatively quickly because the leg amputation was below the knee, allowing them to preserve the knee joint. Therefore, returning to regular life was not incredibly challenging.

“People jokingly called someone like us ‘simulators’ in the rehabilitation center,” the guys say.

The jury evaluates the execution of the horizontal pull exercise

Mykhailo Sokolian, who served as a sapper in the fourth tank brigade, adds that it’s crucial to set goals because if you just lie down, then nothing will be achieved: “I set a goal for myself that I want to walk like a regular person.”

Sokolian, who was injured in August 2022, confessed that his wounds took a long time to heal after amputation, and he only started using a prosthesis five months ago. Since then, he began training and even participated in a competition in Brussels.

“The “Games of Heroes” allowed me to fulfill, rehabilitate, and assert myself. Before the injury, I was actively involved in football, but after amputation, I can no longer play it fully. So, I explored options where I could achieve results and opted for CrossFit. Not to mention that sports help psychologically as there’s no time to think about something negative during workouts. Moreover, I found friends among the project participants,” shared Mykhailo.

Mykhailo Sokolyan gives an interview to Ukrainian journalists.

During the competitions, Ukrainian fans actively supported former military personnel, who are adaptive athletes now. After the completion of the events, an award ceremony for the athletes took place. According to the assessments of the professional jury, the athletes received diplomas, and those who performed exercises better than others received medals.

The “Games of Heroes” participants performing the Ukrainian anthem. 

Background information: “Games of Heroes” is the only sports training system in Ukraine designed for the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian army of veterans with severe injuries. The first “Games of Heroes” competition was held in 2016. Throughout the project’s existence, 6,500 veterans have undergone training under its auspices.

Text: Kseniia Breslavska, Mariana Yukhno

Photo: Anastasiia Varvarina

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