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

14 mins read

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

The ocean had decided to pulse just as Temirbek’s heat began, sending a steady 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.

Anastasiia Temirbek is all smiles after Tuesday's competition.

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 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.”

Julia Kulish of the Ukrainian team catches a wave Tuesday at the 2022 ISA World Surfing Games.

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. 

Vasyl Kordysh surfing in Odesa, Ukraine, where water temperatures often call for not only a wetsuit, but booties and a hood.

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.”

Smoke rises in the air after shelling in Odesa, Ukraine, Saturday, July 16, 2022.

Kordysh and Ukrainian surfers competing in California acknowledged the conditions in Odesa are far from ideal to craft one’s skills for the international surf circuit. The Black Sea only serves up waves 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.

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