Tokyo Olympic bronze medal-winning judoka Daria Bilodid is praying for peace to be restored in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of her homeland forced her to flee to Spain.
The 21-year-old two-time world champion told Kyodo News in an online interview Monday that the war started for her with an early morning explosion near her home, and that now she is praying the conflict ends as soon as possible.
“I really hope that soon this situation will end because it’s my home, where all my life has been and, of course, I want to come back,” said Bilodid, who became judo’s youngest world champion at 17 years, 345 days in 2018.
Bilodid said she had five minutes to pack at 5 a.m. on Feb. 24 after being woken and told to flee by her mother. Soon after, she heard something that sounded like a bomb exploding around 200 meters from her home near Kyiv.
A 20-hour journey followed as she evacuated to western Ukraine, where she spent 10 days, but struggled to concentrate on training because of the constant news of the war.
“It was a safe place but…it was the first time I had this feeling in my life. I just stayed in my bed crying, watching the news and feeling very, very bad,” she said.
With her mother, grandmother and her dog, Bilodid then moved on to Hungary before arriving in eastern Spain on Friday. There, far from the conflict, she has since been able to resume training twice a day.
“Now I try to think about training because it’s very difficult for me to think all the time about the war,” she said, though even in Spain there are still plenty of reminders.
Her father Gennadiy, a 2005 world championships 73-kg bronze medalist, remained in Ukraine to fight, although they have been able to stay in contact.
“I pray for all the situation and my father because it’s very bad,” Bilodid said.
“I feel really, really bad because I very much like Ukraine, it’s my homeland and I like this country and its people. When I see the pictures of all we had getting destroyed and people killed, I really cry.”
Interaction with other judoka in Spain, as well as the support she gets from around the world, is giving her courage in this difficult time.
“In training camp, I speak with other people and it’s better for my mental health,” she said. “I want to say big thanks to all people from all the world who go to the squares and support Ukraine, sing our national song and try to support Ukraine with money, water, clothes, food and everything.”
“Many people from different countries, judo and not judo…from Portugal, France and Japan said you can come to our house and we’ll give you everything we need, so it’s very good when you see people want to help.”
“I just want the whole situation to stop, the war to stop now because it’s not normal that people are dying … we want the world to help us.”
Bilodid supports the international sports federations that have suspended Russian and Belarusian athletes after the invasion, which Belarus supported. She said, however, that she has received critical messages from Russian athletes on Instagram.
“I don’t have respect for these people, because in my country people are dying and they say, ‘It’s ok, no problem.’ It’s a problem and I think these people from aggressor countries don’t need to compete,” she said.
Ukrainian Paralympians provided positive news for their country by winning a record 29 medals during the Beijing Games, something Bilodid is understandably proud of, although she was unable to watch.
“I saw the Ukrainian Paralympic sports are really good, and I’m proud of them in such a difficult time for our country,” she said. “Our sportsmen showed the good side of our country in winning medals.”
When forced to leave her home, Bilodid, who repeated as world champion in 2019, said her judogi was the first thing she made sure she packed.
“It was the most important thing for me,” she said.
Although admitting that more training is needed before she is fit again for competition, Bilodid said she has additional motivation as she pursues further success at the worlds and the Olympics.
“It’s my life and I have the same goals. I think I have more motivation because I want to make all my country and Ukrainians proud, and support my country with these medals,” she said.
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