There were a lot of hoops for the Ukrainian men’s canoe polo team to jump through to get to St-Omer to make their International Canoe Federation world championships debut this week.

First they had to get an exemption from the Ukrainian military so they could leave the country. Ever since war broke out with Russia all men of fighting age have been required to be available for the frontline defence effort.

Then they had to get an official invite to compete. The Ukrainians hadn’t qualified for this year’s world titles, so they would need to seek a wildcard from the ICF.

On the weekend the Ukraine team arrived in St-Omer, weary after a two-day road trip covering more than 2000 kilometres. In one pocket, the military exemption, in the other, an ICF wildcard clearing the way for the team to compete for the first time.

“It’s a great honour to have the possibility to enter for the first time the world championships. We are happy to be here,” team leader Oleksii Lomaka.

“We know what level this competition is, because we have already taken part in Essen and St-Omer in European championships. But this is for sure bigger and a good test for us.”

ICF canoe polo committee chair Greg Smale was surprised when he received the Ukrainian request for a wildcard. After determining the request was legitimate, he and his committee were only too happy to open the door to the athletes from the war-torn country.

Lomaka said his team were excited to get the opportunity, but also mindful of the situation they would be leaving behind.

“It was more about preparation, because we found out about the possibility to enter the worlds in June. We tried our best to prepare ourselves, and to prepare our equipment, so we made some efforts, and we are here and we are happy that everything happens now,” he said.

“We are from Kyiv, so it is quite safe because the war left the Kyiv region from April. But for sure, every time we hear air defence horns we hide in shelters. This has become our regular routine. It’s sad enough, but as it is. It’s our normal life as we have it now.

“We have adjusted our life to help our army, and to adapt our normal behaviour to hide in shelters and to understand the threats of these attacks. We are trying our best to have a good sense of humour and to help our army with money and doing volunteering.”

Every member of the team is of the age where they could get called up at any time to bolster the Ukrainian defence efforts. But the military has told them that, for now, they are not needed.

“The whole team was in Ukraine. We are all guys who are restricted by martial law in Ukraine, so we have the possibility to be called up by the military,” Lomaka said.

“We made some arrangements with our local authorities, with our Ministry of Sports, and they gave us permission to come to the world championships to participate.

“If military forces ask us, we will go. But it depends on need and possibility, and who was in previous years with military experience. In Ukraine we have 15-20 million men, so it is impossible for everyone to go to military forces.”

Lomaka said just arriving and competing in St-Omer is a big achievement for his team. They are all in daily contact with loved ones back home, and nervously watch news updates throughout the day.

And Lomaka said being in St-Omer is also an opportunity to remind the world the war in Ukraine is not over, especially now it is not getting the attention it once was.

“Everyone is thinking of the future victory, but for sure everyone is worried for their family, but our friends are happy for us to come here and represent Ukraine in such tough conditions,” he said.

“We want to tell everyone that we are in a state of war and we would be happy for your support, and we are thankful for Europe for its current support.

“Life is going on in Ukraine, we will become stronger and get back stronger from this crisis and war.”

Ukraine will begin its first ICF canoe polo world championships with a clash against Portugal on Wednesday morning.

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