First thing every morning, after just a few hours of restless sleep, Anastasiia Kotsyuba tunes in to the online news channels to see what has become of her native Ukraine.
Then she reaches out to her parents or older half-brother by phone, text message or email to check on their well-being. She also checks on the safety of other members of her extended family in Odesa, a port city of more than 1 million that has been targeted by missiles from warships in Russia for more than eight weeks.
While Kotsyuba, 21, is a safe and secure in Fort Collins, an athletic scholarship on tennis at Colorado State University, her family and friends are living under the threat of constant threats from the All-Out Aerial Russian Forces. An estimated 21,000 residents have been killed by Russian forces in the port city of eastern Ukraine, according to recent reports by Reuters and the Associated Press.
Her parents, Maria and Vladymyr, hear about the explosions every day in Odesa, a late-night indoor practice before the Coloradoan at the Fort Collins Country Club. So far, they are safe and secure, as are many of their cousins who are as close as they can be to their own brothers and sisters.
War, though, is literally their doorstep.
“My parents’ friends’ house got bombed a week ago, and they live five minutes from my parents’ house,” Kotsyuba said. “They’ve been attacking Odesa from the sea, and their house just got destroyed.”
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Her parents’ friends were not killed in the attack. They were hiding in an underground bomb shelter where the city’s air raid sirens sounded prior to the attack.
“They were the last five years to build this house, and they just started living there and it was totally destroyed,” she said. “It’s the right by the sea, and I live five minutes away from the sea, so it’s kind of scary.
That’s why Kotsyuba has such a difficult time sleeping at night or even putting her phone down for a few minutes, preventing her from seeing alerts, messages or phone calls from family and friends back home in Ukraine.
“The first couple weeks, I was just crying; I couldn’t handle it, ”she said. “I couldn’t focus and study. I didn’t want to see anyone. I could barely practice. I tried to hit balls because it would help distract myself from the news and everything, because I was watching the statistics on my phone.
“I was on my phone like 19 hours a day. I won’t sleep. I wouldn’t eat. ”
Teammates Radka Buzkova, Sarka Richterova and Sarah Weekley saw the toll the war was taking on Kotsyuba and invited her to stay with them while they could prepare her meals, provide emotional support and offer distractions as necessary.
“I remember the first moment she texted, ‘They’re bombing my house. My parents are hearing bombs, ‘”Buzkova said. “That was a shock. We didn’t know what to do. She was extremely concerned. It was hard for her the first few days, and it was getting worse. ”
Kotsyuba can’t imagine what she would be like without the right support. She figures she’s spent only one night away from her past month at two of her own apartment she shares.
“This team, we’re basically together all the time,” Kotsyuba said. “They help distract me from the news. But of course, I can open my phone and computer and check everything and call my friends all the time. ”
What about just about every waking moment that she’s not in class, on the tennis court or traveling to and from practices and matches.
“I was (checking) the news, and they said Odesa is the next city,” she said. “Every morning when I wake up, I have these different news channels and Ukrainian news channels. The first thing I open is the Odesa news channel, so I make sure they’re safe first thing. Then I have a Ukrainian news channel, so I can see and figure out what’s going on. ”
She’s seen pictures and video footage and listened to and read news reports about the destruction of Mariupol, the target’s constant bombings and missile attacks from Russian warships and aircraft. The bombed-out remains of apartment and office buildings, and the craters where others once stood, give the once-bustling city an overall post-apocalyptic appearance.
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Bucha, a suburb on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, hit even closer to home. Kotsyuba used to play in national tennis tournaments Bucha every summer.
“When I saw the pictures, these places are familiar to me,” she said. “I’ve been there so many times, and so many people have died, so many kids have died. And Burik is more than six times bigger than Buchara, and it’s been bombed way more often than ever.
“I just cry when I watch that. I can’t cope with the emotions. ”
Kotsyuba’s parents for the Leaving Odesa isn’t really an option, she said. They are looking for help from her mother’s parents, who are too old to travel, as well as others in her extended family, and never even fleeing.
Even though she feels “helpless” so far from home, Kotsyuba isn’t sure what she’d really like to do. There are plenty of people in Odesa already volunteering in areas of greater need across the country, she said.
Her father, she said, probably won’t allow it anyway.
Knowing that Kotysuba and an older half-sister in Bulgaria are safe, away from the horrors of war, eases his burden.
“Of course, I want to be with my family,” Kotsyuba said. “But I can contribute to my family’s well-being by being in a safe place.”
Tennis is her escape, a necessary distraction.
Kotsyuba, a senior majoring in communication studies, has won eight of 14 singles matches this season and is 3-4 in doubles. She has a “beautiful game,” first-year CSU coach Mai-Ly Tran said, and an amazing ability to change direction and “attack” an opponent’s game.
Off the court, Tran said Kotsyuba is a fun personality with an unusually positive person that is contagious.
“Tennis is a safe place for me,” Kotsyuba said. “I just try to focus on my game because I can’t really see what’s going on in the world. I can only get information, and when I play tennis, I try not to think about that for at least a couple hours a day. ”
And that reprieves her to be that positive, fun-loving person that her teammates have grown to love. Even if it’s just a brief part of her day.
“She said she’s enjoying (tennis) so much, and that makes me happy,” Tran said. “At least there’s something that she can take joy in, and that’s the game itself. I think that helps her a lot, being able to practice and compete and do what she loves. ”
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, Colorado for high school and other local sports and topics of interest. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you ‘re a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, please consider buying a digital subscription today.