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‘I’ve lost so many friends’: Ukrainian WSU rower says war has irreparably changed life back home

Kateryna Maistrenko would rather be worrying about her classes.

She’d rather be focusing on rowing practice and her team’s regatta this weekend in Las Vegas.

But during the past week, since Russia invaded Ukraine, her mind’s been elsewhere.

“My feeling is I’m not angry. I’m just lost,” Maistrenko said. “I feel like my soul left my body, but I still have to function.”

Maistrenko, a senior on Washington State University’s rowing team, grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine, and barely spoke English in 2017 when she arrived in Pullman.

She was calm and composed when talking about the war Wednesday, but the Russian invasion has devastated her hometown and permanently changed the lives of her family and friends.

“Pretty much everyone I knew, they went to war on the front lines,” Maistrenko said. “These past several days, I’ve lost so many friends. They were fighting , tried to resist the Russian army coming closer to Kyiv. All these young boys, they could have had such a bright future.”

Maistrenko’s two brothers are on the front lines and, while they’re OK, the fighting has had a direct toll on her family.

“I lost pretty much everything,” she said.

The apartment Maistrenko grew up in is gone, destroyed by a bomb. The same happened to her parents’ rowing training camp.

“I don’t think we have any docks or anything; it’s just ashes,” she said. “It’s something that my parents are so passionate about, and it’s just hard to process.”

Maistrenko said her father is looking after maybe 100 kids from the rowing camp. They’re mainly staying in the basement of the Maistrenkos’ country house, stuck inside, sleeping on the floor and crying a lot.

The house is brick, Maistrenko explained, but she’s still worried about everyone staying in the basement as opposed to a proper bunker.

It’s hard to worry about school when your country is at war, Maistrenko said.

“I’m just surviving,” she said. “I’m only doing good in one class. It’s very hard to focus. I can’t sleep at night. I try my best. I try to do little things that actually make me happy, but I don’t know if anything can make me happy right now.”

For Maistrenko, a member of the Ukrainian national rowing team, being on the water helps. Her teammates have been supportive, too.

“I’ve brought all my Ukrainian national gear, gave it to my teammates, now all my international rowing team is a Ukrainian national team,” Maistrenko said.

Despite worrying about her family and watching videos of bombs hammering her hometown, Maistrenko said she’s encouraged and amazed by what Ukrainian men and women are doing to repel Russia.

Internationally famous Ukrainians have run toward the fight, not away from it.

“They always will fight for their home,” Maistrenko said. “It’s something that I would do.”

Boxers Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko, who have three Olympic gold medals between them, are fighting. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is fighting, as is his brother Wladimir, an Olympic gold medalist and fellow former heavyweight champ.

Everyone seems to be doing their part.

“My chemistry teacher from high school, she’s actually making cocktails Molotov from her apartment,” Maistrenko said.

Maistrenko said she’s contributed all of her savings to the resistance effort and sold most of her possessions to raise money.

She said she hopes talking about the war, here in America, will help.

“I just want to be heard,” she said, “and to make an impact so that in the future no kids will suffer anything like this.”

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