With his father fighting for Ukraine’s survival, Mykhailo Romanchuk was reunited with his mother, sister and Olympic coach during the 19th FINA World Championships for the first time since the invasion of his homeland.
When Mykhailo Romanchuk swam to third in a closely-contest 800m freestyle final in Budapest, the night had a special meaning beyond the bronze medal – this was obvious to anyone keenly watching him on the awards podium at Duna Arena.
Standing on the medals podium was something he had done countless times as an age group and junior swimmer – including twice last summer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
It didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t the victor of the 800m, or that it was the American national anthem of 800m winner Bobby Fink that played instead of the Ukrainian anthem during the medal ceremony. On that night of June 21st, Romanchuk savoured the moment for what it meant to his war-torn country.
“This medal is for all Ukrainians, the army, and my father who protects my country,” Romanchuk said.
During the victory ceremony, the newly-minted bronze medallist tapped his heart, bowed his head, and wiped away tears from his eyes. Standing just feet away on the other side of the podium was Florian Wellbrock, the silver medallist from Germany.
Always fierce competitors in the pool, but now here they stood on the podium together as even better friends. Wellbrock, a multiple-time FINA World Champion and Olympic gold medallist, is a man that not only did the right thing, but he may also have helped save the Ukrainian’s life.
In late February of this year just after the invasion of Ukraine and the bombings of Kyiv began, Romanchuk told his family that he needed and also wanted to be on the front lines for his country. The debate between the elite swimmer and his wife and family continued for a few weeks as the war intensified.
Text messages to the famous couple expressed the concerns of friends who regularly extended best wishes. But it was a phone call from Wellbrock that changed everything. His long-time international rival immediately offered help, including an invitation to join him for training in Germany.
“After many discussions with my wife and my family, we decided that I couldn’t do anything with a gun,” admitted Romanchuk.
Wellbrock knew his pool rival well. “Misha (Mykhailo) Romanchuk is a good friend of mine. Everybody understands the situation in Ukraine, so after the war broke out, I immediately invited him to train with me in Germany,” recalled the 24-year-old German.
In March, Romanchuk joined their training group in Magdeburg, about a 90-minute drive from Berlin. Said Romanchuk: “Through swimming, I could tell the world what is happening in Ukraine.”
The training group led by coach Bernd Berkhahn includes Florian and his new wife, Sarah Kohler Wellbrock, the 1500m Olympic bronze medalist from Tokyo as well as Isabel Gose and Lukas Märtens.
“We had great sessions, though, I saw how hard it was for him to focus on swimming when his family was still in Ukraine. Still, I hope to see some good results from him at these FINA World Championships.” Wellbrock recalled.
“Thanks to the Germans because I wouldn’t have been here without them,” said a heartfelt Romanchuk upon arriving in Budapest for the world championships. “My father is fighting for Ukraine in the eastern part of the nation and won’t be in Budapest to see me swim.”
The exact location of the elder Romanchuk is a secret even to the double Olympic medallist, saying: “He’s in a hot spot and it’s a hard time fighting to defend our country.”
Named Mykhailo after his father, Romanchuk won’t call him for fear that his father’s location could be pinpointed and put him at even greater risk.
Wellbrock and Romanchuk performed best with each other in the pool and kept each other in mind. At Duna Arena, they raced in adjacent lanes four times, twice in the heats and twice in the finals. Magdeburg head coach Bernd Berkhan described the relationship as “very intimate and heartfelt.”
“I ran up to Misha and he wanted to hug me when the tears began to fall a little,” Wellbrock said after leaving the pool following the 800m final.
The Ukrainian swimmer’s age group career began at age six and through the next 18 years Misha – as he is known to his family and friends – trained under one swim coach.
On the morning of the 1500m preliminaries, Nahorny Petro arrived in Budapest, temporarily released from military service in Odessa. Petro was no longer Romanchuk’s coach. In fact, he wasn’t a swim coach any longer. After helping Romanchuk achieve two Olympic medals in Tokyo – silver in the 1500m, bronze in the 800m – the two had a difficult conversation this past winter. The coach told Romanchuk that he must continue to swim: “Leaving Ukraine was the only option for someone as talented and dedicated as you are,” said Petro.
Like most young and also middle-aged men, Petro was required by his country and he was expected to train for the unthinkable. The swim coach was asked to take up arms to defend Ukraine. Romanchuk’s coach was soon assigned to Odessa, separated not only from his star athlete but also from his wife and kids.
Nearly four months later Coach Petro was allowed to temporarily leave Odessa to travel to Budapest to watch his star pupil compete thanks to a special permit.
“This was something. It was emotionally inspiring for all of us,” Romanchuk’s German coach Berkhahn said.
Petro recalled a day last summer when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited the swimmer and his coach to the Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv. There the President of Ukraine congratulated the Ukrainians who won the 19 medals at the Tokyo 2020 Games. A photograph of President Zelenskyy with Romanchuk and his two Olympic medals acts as an additional momento to Romanchuk’s two medals from the Games.
While Romanchuk’s wife, Ukrainian long jumper Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk is training in Italy for the World Athletics Championships that get underway this July and thus was not able to travel to Budapest, the swimmer had a devoted cheering squad in the Duna Arena stands. This included his mother Olena, sister Natalia and mother-in-law Alina Bekh. They had not seen Romanchuk since he left to Germany on Wellbrock’s invitation. The group sat behind two Ukrainian flags as they cheered for their son and brother.
If not by phone, Romanchuk hears from his father often, saying “once a day, he sends me a text message that everything is fine,” adding that he hopes to continue to receive these daily messages.
There’s been other firsts – and other moments worth celebrating for Romanchuk from his time in Budapest.
With Wellbrock the defending Olympic champion in the open water marathon, Romanchuk has been training more outside the pool. In Budapest, Romanchuk added open water events to his world championships programme.
Two days after racing to fifth in the 1500m freestyle at Duna Arena in an event won by Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy, Romanchuk was chasing Paltrinieri and Wellbrock in the open water 5km. In the first individual open water event of the championships, Wellbrock won, followed by Paltinieri, with Romanchuk completing the podium. The bronze was Ukraine’s first-ever world championship medal in open water swimming.
After that open water race, Romanchuk was beaming.
"It's the first-ever open water medal for the Ukrainian team and it means a lot for me, especially with the situation in Ukraine,” Romanchuk said. “I think this medal means a lot for the country and I showed that Ukrainians will fight until the end, and it doesn't matter what happens. I will defend our country and my home. I am grateful that my family was in Budapest watching and I wanted to make them happy. This medal means a lot for me and my family.”