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‘I hope they’re OK’: Vlad Pavlenko competes in USATF Indoor Championships while bombs explode in relatives’ Ukrainian town

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 27, 2022

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

The weight on Vlad Pavlenko on Sunday went well beyond the 35-pound ball he was swinging toward the roof of the Podium.

And when that part of his day was over, it began to overwhelm him, fears spilling out amid tears.

His grandparents and other relatives, back in Ukraine.

The bombs exploding in their town, Kharkiv, just 30 miles from the Russian border.

The safety of a nation and its people, and his heritage that Pavlenko admitted he “tried to hide” growing up near Chicago, but which in recent years has fueled his drive, and his pride.

“I hope they will know I was able to do something good in their spirit, for them,” he said, “but it’s just such a horrible time.”

On his second throw of Sunday’s weight throw competition at the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships, the 24-year-old Iowa State engineering graduate took the big ball by its handle and spun it out 76 feet, 1 inch – a lifetime best by 2½ feet and good for fifth place.

And when the throwers in the finals were re-introduced to the Podium crowd, Pavlenko came out of the tunnel wearing a cowboy hat and showing off a large tattoo of the Ukrainian trident on his left shoulder. Another tattoo, of his mother’s hometown, covers his chest.

But any celebrating and flexing were short.

“I hope they’re OK,” he said of his family. “I’m about to go find out.”

On Sunday, Russian forces blew up a natural gas pipeline in the city – though in a Facebook post, regional Gov. Oleh Synyehubov insisted the invading troops had been subdued and that “control over Kharkiv is completely ours!”

But with Kharkiv a key city in the conflict, the attacks figure to intensify.

Pavlenko said he had spent the week trying to stay “radio silent” – blocking out the news and not talking to anyone about the Russian attack on Ukraine, if only to concentrate for a moment on his small place in the world.

“I came here to compete and it was better not knowing,” he said. “I haven’t been on the phone. No social media. I know my family’s city got hit, but otherwise I don’t know anything.

“On my flight here is when they were bombed. It’s been hard – seeing my mom the other day, I could tell she hasn’t been sleeping and trying to call her parents all the time. It’s been hard not to talk about it with everybody, but I know that people care.”

Pavlenko’s family came to the United States in 1996, and he was born a year later. But his mother Irina’s parents remained in Ukraine, as did a brother and his family. Pavlenko has made trips to the country – the last time in 2015 – and the family was hoping to return later this year.

“It’s a tough country,” he said. “We don’t come from much.”

He didn’t always appreciate that legacy.

“I felt like an outcast here for a long time,” Pavlenko said. “I had an accent.

“My name was Vlad. So I hid it for a while. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much I cared.

“I had a falling out with my brother. He had the symbol on his shoulder and when we patched things up and embraced each other, I got one to match his. I was finally so proud to be Ukrainian after 18 or 19 years of hiding it, telling people, ‘Oh, I’m just Russian,’ because it was easier to explain. No, I’m Ukrainian.”

Athletically, Pavlenko’s road has been just as rocky.

He barely bothered with track and field in high school – his Iowa State bio lists his lone highlight as “finished fifth in shot put at sectionals as a senior.”

His coach, however, pitched him to the Cyclones as a walk-on, and he developed into a 237-foot hammer thrower – in a way, by embracing a persona that refuses to be embarrassed.

Hence, his Instagram handle: the Denim Cowboy.

“I’m a dorky guy,” he admitted. “I was a tryout guy in college. I’m still really young in the sport and I battle these nerves. One of my mentors was talking to me about being in the proper headspace and at the end he goes, ‘How can you be nervous warming up in a denim coat?’ And it dawned on me, he’s right. My next meet was the NCAAs and I took fourth – the No. 1 American.

Then I got eighth at the Olympic Trials.

“To be the Denim Cowboy, to be someone else – it kind of gave me confidence. I grew up watching WWE and I loved it, all the characters. Why can’t I be a character?”

Away from the ring, however, there is no make-believe.

“With the fight going on right now, all I know is that Ukraine is not backing down,” he said. “And that’s me – I’m not backing down.”

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