Last semester, the Ukrainian National freestyle wrestling team arrived on campus to train with the No. 12 Cornell wrestling team. The team traveled to Ithaca over Thanksgiving break, after being invited to the Bill Farrell Memorial in New York City.
The wrestlers, most of whom are in their early twenties, are not discernible from any other students at Cornell beyond their uniform navy blue team tracksuits.
The former eastern bloc nation is no slouch. The Soviet Union, for which Ukrainians competed — even after its dissolution — under a unified team until the 1990s, holds the most Olympic gold medals in wrestling out of any country in the world. Ukrainians earned countless bronze, silver and gold Olympic medals on behalf of the Soviet Union.
United World Wrestling, the global sanctioning body for amateur wrestling, hosts tournaments all around the world to showcase the planet’s top talent in one of humanity’s most grueling sports.
One example of said talent is Vadym Kurylenko. Kurylenko, who traveled to Ithaca with the team, recently took home bronze in the 74-kilogram freestyle category of UWW’s U23 2022 World Wrestling Championships in Pontevedra, Spain. He fell to powerhouse Iran’s Mohammad Sadegh Firouzpour in the quarter finals, who went on to win gold. Firouzpour’s brother, Amir, also won gold at 70 kilograms.
While the wrestlers may have looked like any other student, they faced an adversity to which few Cornellians can relate: their home country at war.
Andrii Dzhelep, 22, and Ihor Nykyforuk, 23, wrestle for the team at 61 kilograms and 70 kilograms, respectively. Dzhelep and Nykyforuk noted some of the problems their fellow countrymen and citizens are currently facing.
“We have no light. You know, maybe two or three hours in a day,” Dzhelep said back in December. “And, you know, it’s becoming winter.”
Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and one of the major cities currently without power, faces regular bombardment by Russian forces, spending most of the winter without heat or electricity.
Without electricity, heat or running water and with the country still actively at war, Ukraine was not an ideal place to train, and the destruction of their home had left the wrestlers worried.
“Our capital is destroyed,” Dzhelep, who hails from Lyiv, said.
All of this worry represented an unimaginable burden on the minds of Ukraine’s best wrestlers. Dzhelep said that while he enjoys training with America’s best college wrestlers, the grim reality remains at the back of his mind — especially because both of their families remain in Ukraine.
“It’s very cool, but I understand what happened,” Dzhelep said. “What right now happens in Ukraine, I am sad for this — depressed.”
Still, despite the horror their country faces today, the men do not carry the burden onto the mat.
Junior Benny Baker, who wrestles for the Red at 157 pounds, commented on the impact — or lack thereof — he has seen the situation have on the Ukrainian team.
“I wouldn’t say that you could see it on their faces,” Baker, a former Wyoming Seminary wrestler, said. “When they’re in here, you can’t really tell all that much. But I’ve followed a couple of them on Instagram and they post things about Ukraine on their stories, like how the capital is even damaged.”
Despite the language barrier between the Ukrainian and Cornellian wrestlers, Baker explained that, while it may be a slight hurdle, it has not impeded their training.
“For the most part, you kind of have to use your hands, and say a couple of words and really get your point across when you’re trying to talk to them,” Baker said. “Some of them do know a bit of English and it is easier to talk to those guys.”
Baker said that when it comes to wrestling, the Ukrainians’ style differs slightly from that of Americans, something Dzhelep and Nykyforuk also noted.
“They definitely have a different feel,” Baker said. “Their practices don’t necessarily run the same. They either are going super hard or super soft. So, it’s a weird foreign feel of their wrestling, but it’s cool because it gets you out of your comfort zone.”
The Ukrainians commented on the technical differences they observed over the week of training.
“We have a difference in the style,” Dzhelep said. “American style is like, grab the leg, push, push and again grab the leg. We have more of, like, the suplex.”
There is a palpable sense of gratitude that is universal among the players and coaches of the national team. Though they do not speak English, the Ukrainian coaches still expressed to The Sun just how happy and grateful the team was to be in the United States and in Ithaca.
Dzhelep and Nykyforuk both emphasized their support of the Ukrainian military and appreciation for American support.
Head coach Mike Grey ’11 explained that hosting the team has significance beyond wrestling.
“It’s kind of a partnership,” Grey said. “On the wrestling side, but also, you know, on the diplomatic side.”
After training with the Red last semester, the Ukrainian team temporarily parted ways for the winter, with some returning home to Ukraine and others taking part in competitions across the U.S.