When the first Russian bombs started falling on Kyiv last Thursday, Yulia Zhytelna learned this not from her parents, Volodymyr and Natalia, who were sleeping in the Ukrainian capital, but from a news bulletin in the lobby of the Sacramento hotel where she was doing her homework.
“I actually couldn’t speak,” she said. “I just started crying because I couldn’t imagine my country, my peaceful country, at war. I’m shaking now because I remember that feeling.
Therefore the State of California Northridge tennis player turned to someone she knew could wipe away those tears and stop that shaking. She turned to Ekaterina Repinahis roommate and doubles partner.
She turned to a Russian.
“It’s Kat,” Zhytelna said. “She was so supportive of me. I cried on his shoulder. She was with me.
Seems like an odd couple now, putting a Ukrainian and a Russian together in the same hotel room, let alone on the same side of a tennis court. But until last week – or at least before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 – it seemed natural. The two countries had more in common than they had separately.
“My mother is Russian,” Zhytelna said. “And she gave birth to five Ukrainians. I’ve never had any problems with Russians. I have Russian friends.
Repina is among the most recent.
“They were already very close. And now I think they’re even closer,” Northridge tennis coach Gary Victor said. “They share a life experience that we can only imagine. It brought them together and their bond is truly unbreakable.
The team also bonded.
“The last three days have been a flood of tears,” Victor said. “Not just among them. But also among their teammates, who feel really sad for them, their families and the countries. And just their worlds being completely turned upside down.
“Kat can be Yuliia’s big sister and show her the ropes of college tennis. And they get along great.”
— Gary Victor, Cal State Northridge Tennis Coach
Repina, who Victor said has friends and relatives in the Russian military, refused to talk about the story, fearing it would cause problems for family members back home. But she, too, feels the stress of war.
Pairing the two seemed obvious before the season. Repina, who played two years at Iowa State before moving to Northridge, is strong on the baseline and Zhytelna is an excellent serve and volley player. They can also speak to each other in Russian.
But Victor also saw a mentorship opportunity for Repina, 20, a redshirt senior who is more experienced than Zhytelna, 18, a freshman. So, in addition to having the two play together, the coach also allowed them to make room together on the road.
They have become inseparable.
“Kat can be a big sister to Yuliia and show her the ropes of college tennis,” he said. “And they get along very well.”
Now they lean on each other like never before.
Hours after the Kyiv bombing began, Repina and Zhytelna stumbled to a doubles loss to Sacramento State, so they did not play in Northridge’s loss to UC Davis the following day.
But they were talking, crying and hugging.
“The [Russians] were trying to attack the capital and I was on the phone with my family,” Zhytelna said. “I couldn’t play. I just felt like I needed to be with them.
Victor added, “We went through emotional stuff, family stuff, but nothing with that genre. If they want distraction, we’d love to have them there. But if they can’t handle it right now, we have to do what’s best for their sanity. »
Zhytelna, whose bright smile is normally as big as her service, admits that she can only think about the war and her family now.
“The truth is, I’m not strong,” she said between tears. “I cried three days in a row.”
The war is less than a week old, but it has already killed hundreds, displaced thousands and sent tens of thousands fleeing Ukraine’s borders as refugees. Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear force on high alert as troops advance on Kyiv, where Zhytelna’s family have hunkered down, unsure of what to do next.
“I just talked to them,” she said between tears on Sunday morning. “They had four air hazard sirens. And they were arguing, like, should they go to the bomb shelter? Or just stay home?
“My sister is really angry because my parents don’t want to leave the house.”
Northridge professors asked Zhytelna, an audio-visual communications specialist, to lecture on the situation at home; others allowed him to defer homework and tests.
“I have friends in Russia. I have no problem with Russians. But I really hope they don’t go to our country.
— Yulia Zhytelna
Homework, tennis, sleep, all that is a luxury for another day.
“I couldn’t sleep for three days in a row. Because I was afraid that I would close my eyes and wake up at 6 a.m. and my mother would be like, ‘Oh, you don’t have a home anymore,’” she said. “It actually happened today with my friend. They woke up, they had no home.
In the meantime, Zhytelna said she is trying to educate others. She is helping organize a campus vigil later this week and is becoming an expert in military tactics, saying NATO and the US could help Ukraine by closing the airspace over the country, denying it to Russian warplanes.
Meanwhile, Zhytelna, who speaks English as a third language, continues to confide, confess and cry with the teammate whose country is at war with hers. With the teammate with whom she shares a competition court and a hotel room on the road.
“We speak one language,” she said of Repina, “and it’s easier to express your emotion. She really supported me.
Ukraine’s conflict, after all, is not with the Russian people. It is with the Russian government. And that makes her relationship with Repina both an act of defiance and an example of how the two countries can come together again when filming comes to a halt.
“I have friends in Russia. I don’t have a problem with Russians,” she said. “But I really hope they don’t go to our country.”