SOCHI, Russia — The four women joined hands and flung their arms in the air before taking four bows, like a theatrical company receiving a standing ovation. Their performance was one for the ages, one that seemed to transcend sport. As their country burned, the women of Ukraine’s talented biathlon team maintained their focus and managed to win gold at these Winter Olympics.
“It is the dream of a whole lifetime,” said Vita Semerenko, 28, competing in her second Olympics for Ukraine. “Our dream and the dream of the whole of Ukraine has come true.”
Ukraine has been marred by violent protests, and the horrific images have drawn world-wide attention, but located just 800 miles southeast of Kiev, Ukraine, the violent atrocities have been inescapable in Sochi. One skier made an early Olympic exit in protest of the government back home, and it wasn’t until the biathlon team took the course Friday that fans in Ukraine had much reason to celebrate.
The team’s surprising win in the 4×6-kilometer relay was Ukraine’s first gold at a Winter Olympics since Oksana Bayul’s in women’s figure skating in 1994.
The team’s anchor Olena Pidhrushna, 27, said she’d been inundated with messages of support in recent days and drew inspiration reading through her emails Friday morning.
“We are so happy that the people of Ukraine are happy back home and that something good happened for our country,” she said
At the finish line Friday evening, Pidhrushna collapsed face down after completing the final leg, and was quickly swallowed whole by teammates and coaches. In the stands, Ukranian flags flapped frantically and the crowd roar lasted for a long minute.
A few minutes later, Valj Semerenko stood with her teammates on the top platform for the flower ceremony — the athletes will receive their hardware at a medals ceremony Saturday — and couldn’t stop the tears. The bottled-up emotions of several years of athletic training were only amplified by several days of uncertainty back home.
“I tried to calm down and was trying to hide it behind my skis,” Semerenko said. “They were tears of happiness, not only mind, but of the whole country, our team.”
Sergey Bubka is one of Ukraine’s most successful athletes, a longtime world-record holder in the pole vault and four-time Olympian who won gold at the 1988 Games. He’s now the head of Ukraine’s Olympic Committee and has struggled to process what has unfolded back home. “We waited 20 years for gold medal! And we needed it right now,” he tweeted Friday. “Let this win unite Ukraine and bring peace!”
“We needed this moment,” he said later.
It was the second medal for Ukraine these games, after Vita Semerenko took bronze in the women’s 7.5K sprint.