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    BRAMA News and Community Press

    BRAMA, Jan 12, 2004, 1:00 am ET

    Women on Top: Ukrainian Sports in 2003
    by Lada Shara

    2003 may well be remembered as the year women saved the honor of Ukrainian sports. Swimmer Yana Klochkova continues to be the closest thing Ukraine has to a 'sure thing' for multiple gold at the 2004 Olympic Games. After the national soccer team failed to qualify for the European championship yet again and the Olympic dreams of Ukraine's basketball, volleyball, soccer and water polo teams were crushed, the women's handball team came to the rescue by qualifying for the Athens games. (Notably, the only other Ukrainian team still in contention for the Olympics is the women's field hockey team.) In strength sports like wrestling and weightlifting the best results also came from women. Even in winter sports, traditionally Ukraine's Achilles heel, the most noteworthy events have been figure skater Elena Liashenko winning Grand Prix events for the first time in her career and the sensational performances of Nordic skier Valentina Shevchenko on the 2003/04 World Cup circuit.

    It's also conspicuous that the best performances of the year came from Ukraine's underpaid and under-appreciated amateur athletes. Training under the nose of Dynamo Kyiv's palatial base outside Kyiv, most Ukrainian athletes are forced to contend with crumbling and frequently unheated facilities that lack proper equipment. They live on tiny stipends and are often limited in the number of tournaments they compete in because their teams cannot afford to pay travel expenses. Under the circumstances it is, perhaps, inevitable that some desperate athletes and coaches abandon Ukraine for greener pastures.

    To be sure, Ukrainian politicians strive mightily to bask in the glory of Ukraine's sporting successes (witness Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's election as president of the National Olympic Committee). But the government's usual approach to supporting amateur sports is to throw some money at enterprise in the months leading up to the Olympic Games, as though a champion could be grown from scratch in three months or less. And yet the fact that Ukrainian athletes win championships and set world records in spite of the conditions they work in suggests that if proper financial support were provided, Ukraine's sporting successes could be formidable indeed.

    Here, then, are those who persevered in spite of everything: the ten finest Ukrainian athletes of 2003 as selected by the Association of Sports Journalists of Ukraine.

    Yana Klochkova

    1. Yana Klochkova
    Born 7 August 1982 in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine
    Sport: swimming
    Strokes: individual medley, freestyle, butterfly

    Why her?
     · Won two gold medals at the World Aquatics Championship (July 2003, Barcelona)
     · Won four gold medals at the World University Games (August 2003, Daegu)

    Although preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games led her to skip the European Short-Course Championship for the first time in recent memory and scheduling prevented her from defending her 400m freestyle title at the World Aquatics Championship, Yana Klochkova was, as always, the steady rock of Ukrainian sports in 2003. By winning her signature 200m and 400m individual medleys at the world championship and then tacking on gold medals in the 200m freestyle and 200m butterfly at the World University Games, Klochkova proved once again that she is the world's middle-distance swimmer par excellence.

    Volodymyr Lukashenko

    2. Volodymyr Lukashenko
    Born 14 February 1980 in Kyiv, Ukraine
    Sport: fencing
    Sword: sabre

    Why him?
     · Won one gold and one bronze medal at the World Fencing Championship (October 2003, Havana)
     · Won one gold and one silver medal at the World University Games (August 2003, Daegu)

    A wonderfully elegant practitioner of the Olympic program's most elegant sport, Volodymyr Lukashenko won only two major fencing tournaments in 2003, but he produced his best performances when they mattered most. In August he won the gold medal in the individual sabre event at the World University Games and captained his compatriots to a silver medal in the team competition. Then in October he triumphed at the world championship, defeating Romania's Mihai Covaliu 15-11 to become world sabre champion and helping Ukraine win a bronze medal in team competition.

    3. Natalia Skakun
    Born 3 August 1981 in Lebedyn, Kyiv oblast, Ukraine
    Sport: weightlifting
    Category: 63 kg

    Why her?
     · Won two gold and one silver medal at the World Weightlifting Championship (November 2003, Vancouver)
     · Set a new world record of 138kg in the women's 63kg clean-and-jerk

    Certainly, Natalia Skakun's track record as a junior competitor suggested she was destined for great things. In November last year's European champion became world champion in the 63kg class, winning gold medals for total weight and the clean-and-jerk, setting a world record in the clean-and-jerk and taking the silver medal in the snatch.

    Natalia Conrad

    4. Natalia Conrad
    Born 4 August 1976 in Kyiv, Ukraine
    Sport: fencing
    Sword: epée

    Why her?
     · Became women's epée champion at the World Fencing Championship (October 2003, Havana)

    Perhaps Ukraine produced no more unlikely champion in 2003 than Natalia Conrad. Going into the World Fencing Championship, Conrad's best results in 2003 were a quarterfinal loss at the World University Games and a single top-20 finish at a major fencing tournament. But in Havana Conrad demonstrated real nerve as she worked her way through the draw, culminating with a hard-fought 10-9 victory against France's Maureen Nisina in the final. In the process she became the first Ukrainian woman to be crowned world champion in fencing.

    5. Iryna Melnyk-Merleni
    Born 8 February 1982 in Khmelnytsky, Ukraine
    Sport: freestyle wrestling
    Category: 48kg

    Why her?
     · Became women's 48kg world champion for the third time at the World Freestyle Wrestling Championship (September 2003, New York)

    After a difficult 2002, when injury kept her out of competition and she found herself torn between continuing to represent Ukraine or accepting a lucrative offer to compete for Greece, Iryna Melnyk-Merleni reasserted her complete dominance over the 48kg class by defeating American Patricia Miranda 5-4 in the final of the World Freestyle Wrestling Championship. Given that women's wrestling will make its Olympic debut at the Athens Olympics, one can only hope that Ukraine's sporting authorities will do everything possible to keep Merleni happy and on their team.

    6. Vitali Klitschko
    Born 19 July 1971 in Belovodsk, Kyrgyzstan
    Sport: boxing
    Category: heavyweight

    Why him?
     · His controversial loss to Lennox Lewis turned him into something of a folk hero (June 2003, Los Angeles)
     · Proved that he was the real thing by destroying Kirk Johnson (December 2003, New York)

    Following his younger brother's shocking defeat at the hands of Cory Sanders in March, Vitali Klitschko suddenly found himself the primary defender of the would-be Klitschko boxing dynasty. In June he finally got what he and his brother had been after for years: a chance to fight Lennox Lewis. Although he'd accepted the fight as a last-minute substitute, Klitschko gave Lewis one the biggest scares of his career, and when the fight was stopped in the sixth round because of gruesome cuts over his left eye, Klitschko was leading on points. Technically, he lost the bout, but in a sense Klitschko emerged from the ring victorious, having dispelled lingering doubts about his ability and perseverance, winning over the crowd and establishing himself as a bankable draw. Now the question is, will Lewis dare to agree to a rematch?

    Anna Bessonova

    7. Anna Bessonova
    Born 29 July 1984 in Kyiv, Ukraine
    Sport: rhythmic gymnastics

    Why her?
     · Won 2 gold and 4 silver medals at the World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship (September 2003, Budapest)
     · Won 3 gold medals at the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship (April 2003, Riesa)
     · Won 1 gold and 4 silver medals at the World University Games (August 2003, Daegu)

    2003 was the year when Anna Bessonova established herself as the audience favorite and a real threat to dethrone Russian Alina Kabaeva as queen of rhythmic gymnastics. The jury's decision to award Bessonova the silver medal in the all-around competition at the world championship was greeted by a chorus of boos from the crowd in Budapest, and her spectacular ribbon routine was routinely welcomed with standing ovations.

    8. Andriy Shevchenko
    Born 29 September 1976 in Dvirkivshchyna, Kyiv oblast, Ukraine
    Sport: soccer
    Position: forward

    Why him?
     · Scored the decisive penalty kick that made AC Milan winners of the 2003 Champion's League
     · Presently leading the scoring race in Italy's Serie A

    Ukraine's perennial failure to qualify for the World Cup and European championships has always hindered Shevchenko's prospects of being recognized as Europe's best soccer player. Yet he is, without question, one of the world's great players, and there are few things in soccer as exciting as watching Shevchenko receive a cross pass, turn on the turbo speed to maneuver around two or three falling defenders and then blast the finishing kick past a helpless goalkeeper. It can only be hoped that someday the Ukrainian national team will provide Shevchenko with the sort of midfield support that has helped him score so many goals for AC Milan.

    9. Victoria Chuyko
    Born 1 March 1972 in Brovary, Kyiv oblast, Ukraine
    Sport: shooting
    Event: trap

    Why her?
     · Became women's trap champion at the World Shotgun Championship (September 2003, Nicosia)

    Having only recently returned to competition (from 1999 to 2002 she coached the Iraqi national shooting team), Chuyko knocked the cobwebs out of her pistol in record time to qualify for the 2004 Olympics with a fifth-place finish at the European championship in August. By September at the world championship in Nicosia, where she had set the trap world record in 1998, she proved that she was back on top of her game, winning a shoot-out against Italian Roberta Pelosi to take the gold medal.

    10. Artem Udachyn
    Born 26 May 1980 in Mariupol, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine
    Sport: weightlifting
    Category: 105kg+

    Why him?
     · Won two silver medals at the World Weightlifting Championship (November 2003, Vancouver)

    As a junior competitor, Artem Udachyn won eight world titles between 1998 and 2000. His progress now continues in the senior ranks. At this year's World Weightlifting Championship he improved on the two bronze medals he won in 2002 by taking silver medals for the snatch and total weight.

    Honorable Mentions

    Finally, here are ten other notable athletic performances from 2003.

    Ihor Chervynsky (swimming)

    No, Chervynsky did not defeat Australian Grant Hackett in 2003. At present that is probably beyond the capacity of any mortal. But he did come away from the World Aquatics Championship with two medals in hand, courtesy of a couple of gritty performances. Chervynsky claimed the bronze medal by a mere 0.33 seconds in the 800m freestyle and took the silver in the 1500m by 0.24 seconds.

    Ivan Heshko (athletics)

    Heshko really came into his own during the 2003 season by slashing five seconds off his personal best in the 1500m. At the World Athletics Championship, where European runners mounted a notable challenge to African dominance in the event, he used a devastating finishing kick to come seemingly from nowhere and claim the bronze medal.

    Serhiy Koridze (futsal)

    In 2003 Ukraine came away from the UEFA Futsal Championship with its second straight silver medal, but as the national soccer team continues to tank, it's reassuring to know that Koridze and co. will be flying the flag for Ukraine at the futsal's next World Cup.

    Olena Kostevych (shooting)

    Queen of the air pistol, Kostevych finished 2003 as the ISSF's female shooter of the year.

    Serhiy Lebid (athletics)

    Lebid's seasons are nearly always a combination of triumph and disappointment, and it is this inconsistency that keeps him out of the top ten. After failing to post results fast enough to qualify for the 5000m at the World Athletics Championship, he settled for a gold medal at the World University Games. His sensational start to the 2002/03 cross-country season came undone at the world championship, but in December he claimed his record-tying fourth European title. Now his sights are set on the 2004 cross-country world title and a medal in the 5000m at the Olympics in Athens.

    Volodymyr Polikarpenko (triathlon)

    Although he did not compete in the Triathlon World Championship, his three World Cup victories toward the end of 2003 confirmed his legitimate claim to being the best triathlete in Europe.

    Yaroslav Popovych (cycling)

    Few cyclists have entered the professional ranks with greater expectations than Yaroslav Popovych, and this season the 23 year old began making good on the predictions. Making only his second attempt at the Giro d'Italia--a grueling three-week marathon of highways, cobblestone streets and mountain passes--Popovych faced down scorching heat, downpours and even snow with daring and impeccable technique to finish third overall.

    Andriy Serdinov (swimming)

    Swimming in the semi-final of the 100m butterfly at the World Aquatics Championship, Serdinov broke Australian Michael Klim's three-year-old world record with a time of 51.76 seconds. As it happened, Serdinov's record stood for less than five minutes, since it was broken in the next semi-final by American Michael Phelps (whose record, in turn, was broken in the next day's final by American Ian Crocker). Nevertheless, Serdinov established himself as a real contender for a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games.

    Olena Tsyhytsia (handball)

    Just when it seemed that Ukraine would not be represented in team sports at the 2004 Olympics, Olena Tsyhytsia and the women's handball team came through. Although Ukraine lost the bronze medal to South Korea at the Women's Handball World Championship, its fourth-place finish was enough to book passage to Athens. Tsyhytsia led the team throughout the tournament, but, ironically, it was her goal in the dying seconds of Ukraine's first match, a one-goal victory against Norway, that ultimately guaranteed Olympic qualification.

    Oleh Venhlinsky (soccer)

    Forgotten by the national team and cast out of the Valhalla that is Dynamo Kyiv, Venhlinsky is having the last laugh as leader of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. His intrepid and dedicated play has kept Dnipro in the running for the UEFA Cup long after more celebrated teams like Dynamo and Shakhtar Donetsk have been booted out.

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