As synchronized swimmers, Maryna and Vladyslava Aleksiiva are used to having to smile no matter what.
The sunny sisters are one of Ukraine’s best hopes of a gold medal at the Paris Olympics after winning a bronze in artistic swimming at the Tokyo Games three years ago.
However, the trials the 22-year-old twins have been put through — forced to flee their homes, surviving shelling and sleeping in bomb shelters — have tested even their stoicism.
They have even had to jump out of the pool and “run to the basement in wet swimsuits” when the explosions got too close, Maryna Aleksiiva said.
Russian tanks were stopped in the suburbs of their hometown Kharkiv during the invasion almost two years ago, with the sisters having to leave their sparkly costumes behind when they fled. Regular bombardments have not stopped them from returning to Kharkiv to prepare for the Games, even if the windows of their training pool are still broken from the missile attacks the border city is often subjected to.
“Everything has been bombed: our pool, where we started training, our school, our city center,” Maryna Aleksiiva said.
While the Ukrainian army eventually pushed the Russian troops back, Kharkiv is still vulnerable, only 30km from the border. Last week, 11 people were killed in the latest wave of Russian missile attacks on the city.
It is not exactly the ideal environment for elite swimmers to go for gold, especially when there is no generator to warm the water when the power fails, as it often did last year after the country’s electricity grid took a pounding from the Russians.
“When the war started, we did not know what to do,” said Vladyslava Aleksiiva, the shyer of the two, who often lets her twin finish her