Skip to main content

In California, Ukraine's national surf team dreams of the Olympics, and the end of war


Anastasiia Temirbek faced 10-foot walls of whitewater as she paddled out next to the pier at the International Surfing Association World Surfing Games this week in Huntington Beach, California. 

The ocean had decided to pulse just as Temirbek’s heat began, sending a succession of solid waves into the lineup and leaving the surfers struggling to make it “out back” to the calmer water.

But at least there were no mines. 

And the water was a balmy 71 degrees – warm enough for a bikini rather than a thick, cumbersome wetsuit. There were no rockets flying overhead. There was no ice floating in the lineup, and bright sunshine bore down on the golden sand from a perfect, cloudless sky.

Temirbek is one of six members of the Ukrainian National Surf Team who traveled to California against all odds to compete in the country’s second outing at the annual 2022 ISA World Surfing Games. 

Ukraine’s fledgling surfing community has grown up on the beaches of the Black Sea in Odesa. Though the waves are small and the water is often frigid, the joy of surfing is real. 

But the war raging in Ukraine has left the Black Sea a no-go zone for surfers. 

The president of the Ukrainian Surfing Federation, Vasyl Kordysh – and several of the country’s other best surfers – are stuck in Odesa and, under wartime travel restrictions, aren’t allowed to leave the country to surf in the annual competition.

“I really wanted to be there with them at this moment,” Kordysh told USA TODAY in an interview from Odesa. ”But with our circumstances, it's not the best time right now.”

Mines in the lineup 

A few months ago, Kordysh moved closer to the ocean.

Now, he said, he can don his wetsuit at home and walk the few blocks down to Arcadia Beach, his local surf break – no small advantage when it’s snowing outside. 

Kordysh made the move for the love of his sport. But it turns out changing apartments also saved his life. A few weeks after he moved out, a rocket hit his old apartment building, obliterating it.

“It was really, really hard to go there and just check how it looks,” Kordysh said. “It's, like, a building with a hole. You can see through the building.”

Kordysh and Ukrainian surfers competing in California acknowledged the conditions in Odesa are far from ideal to train for the international surf circuit. The Black Sea serves up waves only when it’s very windy, producing smaller, mushier waves known as wind swell. It’s more like surfing the North Shore of Lake Superior (which actually happens) than the famed North Shore of Hawaii.

The water is also bitterly cold much of the year, requiring wetsuits, rubber gloves and booties and even hoods to keep the wind chill off, Ukrainian surfers said. 

But since the Russian invasion, restrictions on surfing in Ukraine have increased immensely. Kordysh said the waters off his favorite surf beach are now heavily mined to protect Odesa from a Russian invasion from the Black Sea. Compounding the danger, the onshore winds that create surfable waves at the beach also bring the mines closer to shore. The beaches themselves are mined.

Kordysh lamented that the mines might have to stay in place for years, robbing him and his friends of the natural balm of riding a wave.

These days are agonizing. He can see the water, but he can’t paddle out.

“The waves are starting to come in, and yeah, it's heartbreaking. But mostly what we care about is we want to win this war and we want to just get these Russian soldiers out from our land. This is what we are dreaming of, so we can go surf.”  

For subscribers: The great white shark mystery: In Southern California, they're being spotted more than ever

Russian surfers banned from competing

Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, or ISA, likens the organization to the “United Nations of surfing.” The group organizes competitions around the world, provides qualified judges, and, under Aguerre’s stewardship, brought surfing into the Olympics. 

While Ukraine was welcomed last year as the ISA’s 109th member nation, another country has been banned from competing in the 2022 World Surf Games: Russia.

The ISA banned Russian athletes from its events in March, following guidelines from the International Olympic Committee. The association issued a statement on its website about the move:

“The global surfing community is shocked and appalled by the awful act of aggression by Russia and Belarus’ role to facilitate their invasion of Ukraine. We are unequivocal in our views on this crisis and we stand in full solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”   

Aguerre, who was instrumental in getting surfing into the Summer Olympic Games for the first time in Tokyo in 2020, told USA TODAY the Ukrainian team is emblematic of what the organization hopes to achieve. 

“My job is to provide a platform where everybody feels equal – equal access, equal opportunities – and everybody is given a chance,” Aguerre said. “You might not win, because you're not the best in the competition, but you win because you're here. You win because you send a message to your fellow citizens at home in the middle of a war that even in the middle of a war, there is hope.”

Temirbek echoed those sentiments. She finished her Monday heat fourth out of four, but that wasn’t what was important. 

“It's definitely a huge honor for us to be here and represent our country during really tough times for Ukraine,” she said. 

Temirbek said her whole family remains in Ukraine, where most have been displaced by the war. Earlier this year, she said, she was cut off from her family for weeks and didn’t know if her parents were alive or dead. Finally, she reached them by phone.

Many surfers take to the ocean to get away from their problems for a couple of hours. But Temirbek said her sessions have often had the opposite effect, as she finds herself sitting on her board worrying over and over about the challenges facing her family far away. 

“I went out two weeks after the war started, and I was sitting in a lineup and saw smiling people that don't know what's going on,” she said. “I was trying to focus on the waves, and I couldn't. I was looking at the wave and at some point, I realized that I'm crying.”

While those solo sessions weren’t much comfort, Temirbek found that training and teaching other surfers has helped her reconnect with the ocean and leave her fears behind.

“I started to bring people to the ocean,” she said, and started turning her focus to someone else. “It was like three hours after, I realized, ‘Oh, I didn't think about anything!’”

More: How surfer Carissa Moore got back on top

Keeping the dream alive

More than 6,500 miles away from his hometown, Odesa, Kordysh’s friend Paviel Marakhovskyi watched his friends’ surfing heats in Huntington Beach from under the cover of a pink sun hat. 

Marakhovskyi was allowed to travel to the U.S. to compete because he has been living in Portugal. Like him, the rest of the Ukrainian team has been living outside the country. Four of the Ukrainian competitors recently moved to Bali, Indonesia. Another now lives in Los Angeles. 

Because they’re not residents of Ukraine, the team members could get visas to travel to Huntington Beach and compete, they said. The travel restrictions mean the country hasn’t been able to field its very best surfers, but at least Ukraine is represented, Marakhovskyi said.

The World Surfing Games bills itself as the beginning of the road to the Paris 2024 Olympics. The Olympic surfing event will be held in Tahiti, a former French island colony now an autonomous overseas country of the French Republic.

Tahiti is famous in surfing for having some of the most dangerous or “heavy” waves in the world. Rather than simply opening up Olympic surfing to teams from all countries, the ISA, in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee, created a system to funnel the world’s best surfers toward the Olympics from other qualifying events.

Many of the surfers who will compete will be decided by the results of the World Surfing League, the most prestigious league in professional surfing. The 10 highest-ranking eligible men and eight highest-ranking women in the league at the end of the 2023 season will qualify for the Olympics.

This week’s World Surfing Games in Huntington Beach, by contrast, decides just one men's and one women's Olympic berth. Whichever country wins the men’s and women’s competitions gets to pick one eligible surfer to compete in Tahiti in 2024. More surfers will qualify from the 2023 and 2024 World Surfing Games. 

The system heavily favors the surfing superpowers of the United States, Australia, Brazil and South Africa. The Ukrainian surfers who gathered on the beach Monday knew it was a long shot that any of them could make it to Tahiti. 

But for a few days during the competition, they found themselves surrounded by supporters and admirers.

Aguerre, the ISA president, said that during the opening ceremonies, athletes from the 51 countries competing were invited to pour sand from their local beaches into a clear box in the “Sands of the World” ceremony. When the Ukrainian team took the stage, they were greeted with exultation, Aguerre said.

“Everybody was standing up clapping hands and saluting them and honoring them,” Aguerre said. “I told them: ‘You're here. You’re sending a message to the world.”  

More from USA TODAY

For subscribers: An electric bike rode into the backcountry. Now there's a nationwide turf war

For subscribers: Texas DPS chief spent a career focused on protection. Now questions about Uvalde are looming