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Ukrainian MRU volleyball player finding solace in sport as war rages on in her homeland

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A Ukrainian volleyball player studying at Mount Royal University was just about to join her home country’s national team when war broke out. Now, as Cami Kepke reports, it’s her beloved sport that’s helping her and her family connect and keep calm through trying times. – Mar 17, 2022

Nataliia Klimenova was practically raised by volleyball.

Her pure love of the game goes back as far as she can remember, so stepping onto the court never felt like a dream. Instead, she says it felt like destiny.

“My mom played for the Soviet Union team,” Klimenova said. “I grew up watching my parents playing beach volleyball, building sandcastles under the rafters.”

In the Ukrainian factory city of Severodonetsk, volleyball was king and the local Superleague players were idolized.

From an early age, Nataliia joined hoards of people, packing the local Ice Palace of Sport to watch the athletes compete and envisioning what it must be like to be in their shoes.

At 5’6, she wasn’t exactly a lock to go pro — but her parents encouraged her to pursue her passion.

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Years later, Klimenova’s career has taken her across Europe and over the ocean to Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Klimenova practices as the Mount Royal Cougars prepare for its Canada West Final Four matchup against the University of Alberta. Tom Reynolds/ Global News

In early 2022, she was poised to take another big step forward.

“I got a call from the national team from Ukraine and they were like, ‘We want to see you, we will pay for the flights, we will have an opportunity to host you here,'” Klimenova recalled. “My ex-teammates with whom I grew up with there were like ‘Now you’re coming it will be the best season ever’. I was so excited.”

After COVID-19 halted all travel plans, she was especially excited to reunite with her family after four long years apart.

But just four days after that call, Russia invaded Ukraine and those plans were put on hold.

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It was a horrifying case of deja vu for the far-flung eastern city, which had been captured for several months in 2014 by pro-Russia militants before being liberated.

“It’s been a disaster,” Klimenova said, watching a video of a historic local building, now reduced to rubble. “A couple of the cities are destroyed and, like, erased completely from the surface of Earth.”

Read more: Arnold Schwarzenegger makes impassioned plea to Russians: ‘This is an illegal war’

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) estimates nearly three million Ukrainians have fled the country in search of safety, Klimenova’s family is not among them.

She says her father is 56 years old and legally must stay, in case he is called to fight.

Her grandmother is too frail to travel, and her mother will not leave the others behind.

Read more: B.C. Ukrainian woman’s quest to grow Jamaican karate continues in spite of Russian invasion

As the family tries to stay in contact, volleyball has become an unexpected outlet to channel grief and stress — helping the Klimenovas find surreal pockets of normalcy in a seemingly never-ending storm of war.

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“You’re trying to be a little bit happier when once in a while you get an opportunity to talk to them, just to not stress them out,” Klimenova said. “You’re in tears, answering their questions about how your game was.”

I’m sending them little videos – they had trouble with getting internet for a while- but as soon as they get the service… they’re like, ‘Oh, you had some great digs,”. You’re like, ‘Yeah, but you know that grandma’s house was bombed…” It’s surreal.”

Other days will pass with no contact at all.

Klimenova has received phone calls from strangers back home letting her know her family is alright.

Read more: Canada will allow Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war to stay for 3 years

While she hopes for peace to come to her home country soon, she’s unsure what will be left for people to return to.

A continent away, all she can do is wait for the next call, focus on her game, and dream of the day she can bring her family to join her in Canada.

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