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by Harry Minium

Minium: ODU Swimmer Tetiana Yevminova Escaped War in Ukraine, But Worries About Parents Left Behind

Tetiana Yevminova is one of ODU's best swimmers. She also a courageous young woman who remade her life by coming to America to attend college.

Tatiana Yevminova with her parents, Oleksandr and Ohla and brother ArtemTatiana Yevminova with her parents, Oleksandr and Ohla and brother Artem

By Harry Minium

NORFOLK, Va. – The nightmare began for Tetiana Yevminova at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2022, as the 18-year-old was sleeping soundly in her family’s modest apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

She was set to rise just before dawn, bundle up and walk through the icy-cold streets to a tram headed for the Kharkiv City Aquarena, where she would don her swim suit and begin a grueling, two-hour workout.

Her coach was once a mentor to a Ukrainian Olympic Gold Medalist and she felt Tanya, as she is called by friends, had the potential to compete internationally.

The team had nearly finished preparations for the Ukrainian national championships. But that event, like so much else in Ukraine, was canceled by the intersection of nationalism, international politics and a senseless war.

Before her alarm went off, Tanya awoke to the sound of artillery shells, missiles and bombs falling all over the city.

Russia invaded Ukraine that morning, and Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret that he dearly wanted to conquer Kharkiv, a city where Russian is spoken by most residents who nonetheless voted overwhelming years earlier to remain a part of Ukraine.

Located in northeastern Ukraine, Kharkiv is only 18 miles from the Russian border.

The politics involved was lost on Tanya and their family, as they hid in a bunker.

“I was so scared,” Tanya said. “I was crying. I had never heard anything like that.

“You think you know what bombs sound like until they fall near you. It is terrifying.”

They spent a week in the cellar before emerging to buy some food.

Russia made large inroads into the city’s suburbs before being pushed back by the Ukrainian Army. But the war continues with no end in sight.

The city is again being bombarded by Russia, whose troops have won territory on the outskirts of the city.

Media reports, including some in Russia, indicate that conquering Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, remains a major priority for Putin.

Last month, the city’s iconic TV tower succumbed to a Russian missile and dozens of civilians have been killed in recent attacks.

Like millions of her countrymen who have been scattered by the winds by the war, Tanya fled from Ukraine. Her parents, Oleksandr and Ohla Yevminov insisted that she leave.

She was a scared and confused young teenager when she left home with no real plan for her future. How she turned her tortured journey into a success story, as a successful college athlete who will earn her degree in less than a year, is a credit to her courage and determination. 

She traveled to Hungary, then to Germany before coming to America to live out her dreams of getting a college education while also continuing her swimming career.

Tanya is a junior at Old Dominion who starred this season for the swim team. She shared Sun Belt Conference Newcomer of the Year honors with James Madison’s Rachael Brown and was named a third team All-Sun Belt choice.

She scored or helped ODU score points in three events in the Sun Belt Conference Championship swim meet. She is set to graduate next May with a degree in leadership.

And yet her world remains torn apart.

Her brother, Artem, is living in Poland. He happened to be there at a soccer tournament when the invasion began and he and his teammates have stayed put.  

Millions of Ukrainians have fled to Poland and Germany and hundreds of thousands more all over Western Europe. 

“It is so good that he is in Poland,” Tanya said. “At least he is safe there.”

Alas, her parents remain in Kharkiv. And Tanya worries about them every day.

They are fortunate in that they live several miles to the southwest of the city center. It is away from actual fighting, although missiles often fall nearby.

They fled to western Ukraine briefly during the early part of the war but moved back. They have little money and own their house in Kharkiv.

“They live there for free,” Tanya said. “That’s why they stayed there.

“Everything in the West was so expensive.”

Her mother works on a pet shop and her father works in a fishing rod factory, when there is electricity, to make ends meet. Russia has hobbled Kharkiv’s three largest power plants with artillery and missiles.

Tanya went to visit them last summer and “I was so scared that I could not sleep at night. There were three or four missile attacks a day.”

The pool she once swam in now filled with rubble. When she traveled through the city with her father in 2022, she saw damaged buildings.

“It was one of the greatest swimming pools in Ukraine,” she said. “But it got destroyed.”

And she’s lost friends, all of them male and all of them young, fighting for their country against the Russians.

“There was one guy. We swam in the same lane at practice. He’s not alive any more,” she said.

“And there was another guy, only 19 years old. He died a few months ago.”

She says she has yet to completely process the death and destruction occurring in her hometown.

“Sometimes, I have a dream about helicopters dropping bombs,” she said. “I dream about missiles being fired. I’m not a young child, but I don’t think it matters how old you are. War affects you.

“There are many days when I am depressed. There are days when I just can’t enjoy life.”

Tears rolled down Tanya’s cheeks when I asked how worried she was about her parents.

“It’s not safe, I know that,” she said. “I keep asking them to leave and they won’t. There’s nothing I can do about it.

“It’s hard on my parents. They miss us so much. Even my dad, he has cried when we talk on the phone. My brother, he is in Poland. He’s not that far away. I’m so far away.

“I feel their pain, but I know what I’m doing now is going to help me in the future.”

All she could control was her own destiny. And shortly after the war began, she took her future firmly into her own hands.

Tanya at first moved to Hungary, where she lived for a few months. But Maygar, the language in Hungary, is difficult to learn and it was clear the people in the town where she lived weren’t particularly enthused about refugees.

“I could not stay there,” Tanya said.

She had a friend who connected her with an aid worker who found her a host family in Hamburg, Germany. There, she stayed with Mai and Ella Wellingerhof, who treated her like family, just like their kids, Jan and Melanie.

In part because of its dark history during World War II, Germany offers liberal benefits for refugees. Tanya got a monthly stipend from the German government.

Her host family insisted that she bank away every Euro she received.

“They let me keep it,” she said. “They paid for everything.

“They were so good to me. I love them. I consider them to be family.”

She was able to train with a Hamburg swim team. “The coach spoke Russian and that was great,” she said.

She could have been happy in Hamburg.

But she wanted more. She knew the only place she could attend college and swim for a college team was in America. Nowhere else in the world are athletic teams tied to colleges like they are in the United States.

“I called my Dad to ask him about it and told him it’s probably a crazy idea and then explained what I had planned,” she said. “He said it sounds good but why don’t you wait a year?

“He said they weren’t prepared, they weren’t ready for me to go so far away from home.”

But after thinking it over for a few weeks, she decided not to wait.

“I just decided it’s my life and I just want to take this opportunity.”

By then it was early summer and most colleges had already spent all of their scholarship money. She emailed coaches and found a team that had scholarship money left over – Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, Oregon.

She saw her mother and brother one last time in Poland before departing on a precarious adventure to the United States. She was 19, her English wasn’t very good and she knew no one.

She cried as she hugged her mother and brother goodbye.

“Everything was different there,” she said about Oregon. “Different language, different people. It was so hard for me. For the first three months, I was just depressed. I just wanted to be in my room and not talk to anyone. I was still worried about my family.”

She quickly gained 25 pounds, which isn’t unusual for a European who moves to America – food in the United States, high in oils, sugar, preservatives and chemicals, is more fattening than food in Europe.

“It took me so long to lose the weight,” she said.

But she excelled in the pool. She broke three school records and helped her school to several state championships. She also did well academically.

And that’s in no small part because of a woman named Barb Yost, who met Tanya and took her under her wing. Barb is a nurse and cared for Tanya when she was sick.

She housed Tanya over Christmas break and even took her on a family vacation to Seattle.

“She is my American Mom,” Tanya said.

With only two more years of athletic eligibility – she went to college part time in Ukraine for a year -- Tanya entered the transfer portal and sought out a four-year school.

She eventually hooked up by phone with Jessica Livsey, ODU’s head coach.

Jess, as her friends call her, was intrigued when she learned about Tanya.

“We knew she was a good swimmer,” Jess said. “We really liked her. She’s a very nice girl, a hard worker.

“But her English was not very good.”

She enrolled into the English transition program at ODU and Jess was able to cobble together enough financial aid for her to move from the West Coast to ODU.

Alas, because she enrolled at ODU so late in the summer, she had to room with three freshmen in a residential hall.

“I’m sure that wasn’t easy for her,” Jess said. “But she embraced it. She’s sort of been the mother of the group.

“The second semester, she chose to stay with them.”

Tanya has done well academically and obviously swam well. But socially, she’s struggled a bit. Only recently has she begun to open up.

“She’s such a hard worker,” said Tim Socha, director of sports performance for ODU’s Olympic sports. “When she’s working out, she’s all business.

“She doesn’t say much. I joke with her and sometimes it takes a lot to get a smile out of her.”

Jess knows that Tanya has struggled with her parents still being in a war zone. “But she’s sort of a closed book,” she said. “She doesn’t talk a lot about it.

“You have to ask her. She doesn’t just open up about it. There have been times when she’s come in and said there’s stuff going on at home and she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“But she gets the help she needs. She’s got a good support group. She’s got her boyfriend and friends from Ukraine sort of scattered around the east coast.

“She seems to be confident now asking for help. She wasn’t as much when she first got here.”

All wars end but when peace finally comes to Ukraine, Tanya doesn’t plan to return there to live. She hopes to stay in America, a country she has come to love.

“People in America are so friendly, they are so nice,” she said. “They’re always saying their sorry, for bumping into you or anything else. They are so open.

“When I think about the future, I want more for my kids than I had. I don’t want them to have any limits. When I was a kid and we would go to the store, I would ask my Mom to buy some chocolate.

“She would tell me that she was sorry. She didn’t have money for that. We only had money for food.

“Here, there is so much potential. If you work hard, there is more opportunity here.”

She is in Florida with her boyfriend, Danylo Storozhev, for the summer and is teaching children how to swim. She and Danylo met in middle school in Kharkiv. They’ve been dating since high school and he is a living reminder of the people she left behind in Kharkiv.

“It’s so good to be with him,” she said. “He is really good to me.”

She has anxiously watched news reports about the fighting around Kharkiv.

“I’m trying to be strong, to not let this overwhelm me,” she said.

“I don’t want to be depressed. I’m just trying to keep myself busy.

“But it’s getting worse and worse. The Russian military is getting closer to the city center.”

Her parents recently decided that perhaps it’s time for them to leave and move to Poland to be near their son. But her father’s mother and sister are still in Kharkiv and don’t want to leave. 

“He doesn’t want to leave his mother and sister alone,” Tanya said.  

“I asked my Mom a few nights ago how it is. She said it was really loud. It’s really getting close to them.

“I feel anxiety about my parents. I worry about them. But I understand why they have stayed so long. It’s really hard for people who have lived in one place all of their lives to leave.

“I know all I can do for them is talk on the phone to them and pray for them.

“And do my best to succeed here in America.”

Minium is ODU's Senior Executive Writer for Athletics. Contact him at or follow him  on TwitterFacebook or Instagram.