row2k Features
Supporting Ukraine from Stroke Seat: WSU's Kate Maistrenko
May 23, 2022
John FX Flynn

Racing the Pac-12 Championship with UKR colors

It has been three months since Russia invaded Kate Maistrenko's homeland, destroying the apartment she once shared with her family in Kyiv, dragging her older brothers into fighting a war, and sending her parents fleeing into the Ukrainian countryside.

Maistrenko, a fifth year senior at Washington State, has watched it all from afar, living and training in Pullman nearly 6000 miles thousand miles away.

Her parents have survived so far: her 72 year-old father, who represented the USSR at the 1972 Olympics before marrying her mother, herself a 1988 Olympian, and becoming a long-time National Team coach, has joined a group of volunteers. He loads trucks and works to bring food and humanitarian aid to older people and children impacted by the fighting.

Maistrenko's brothers are directly involved in the fighting, with her youngest brother serving as a sniper, despite being a 6'7" former rower himself.

She does hear from them intermittently--her father called her from a bunker late at night while her team was racing in Sarasota--and she says that, "whenever I have an opportunity to talk to them, it's always a blessing."

Maistrenko was interviewed by ESPN in late March, near the start of the war, along with five other Ukrainian student-athletes now competing in various sports here in the US.

While the ESPN article talked about the beginning of the war, and how Maistrenko and the others were trying to find ways to cope with the news from home, she knows the war will not be resolved quickly and is preparing to do what she can to support a long effort in Ukraine.

"I knew it was going to last to last a long time because the Ukrainian people are very united and they're not ready to give up their homes. The love [for] our nation is something that we carry through generations in our culture."

As the war has continued, she now knows peers who have been killed in the fighting, including a friend from the training school which her parents run and, while her dad was able to help with the funeral, the loss is hard to grapple with.

"You see these young guys that are 18 or 19, and they rowed yesterday--and they're just gone. There is no way out from that: you just grieve and you live with the thought that they gave their lives, and so they'll be protecting your family and friends and the people who are still alive from the sky, and be the guardian angels."

"That's something that helps me to get through the day," she says.

Those days got busy in the midst of a spring racing season now overshadowed by the conflict. Maistrenko juggled her worries about Ukraine with her studies in her final semester at WSU, her full rowing schedule, and her responsibilities as a SAAC Representative and member of the Pac-12 Conference's Student-Athlete Leadership Team (SALT).

She has given up none of those activities--for which she was recently recognized with both WSU's Presidential Leadership Award and the Cougar Athletics Leadership Award--and has even added projects prompted by the war, like helping to build a secure transaction system for international donations to Ukraine.

"Now I just have to work a bit more, so that I'm able to help my home, on a higher scale, " Maistrenko says. "Everything that I've done is because I I feel like I'm responsible for [helping Ukraine] and paying back on behalf of who I am right now, because if Ukraine hadn't make me a good rower or a smart girl, I wouldn't be here."

Here, that is, where she is an International Business major able to connect with Americans willing to help, which means Maistrenko is uniquely situated to get involved in the war effort in different ways.

To that end, uniting people and making connections that she feels can help her homeland has become Maistrenko's mission ever since the invasion started, from the financial transaction project to using LinkedIn to generate support.

The LinkedIn post she created seeking prayers in the early days of the war generated over 23,000 likes, and hundreds of comments and shares. More importantly, it put her in touch with people who could donate and make a difference.

"It got so shared that people all over the world started messaging me and saying: 'I work at KPMG or I work at Morgan Stanley. I can bring your story and stuff to our e-board, to our executive members. How can we help?'"

"I was able to connect them with our volunteers from [the] army and humanitarian aid, so that they would send, directly, donations to the people in need."

That "more personalized" aid, as she called it, has worked better in her experience: "The National Bank is doing this thing where they divide the money equally for every city, but in every city we have different situations: you never know what cities [the Russians] are going to pick and just ruin completely."

She knew that LinkedIn could help, calling it the best social media platform for fundraising, because it allowed her story to be seen by "a lot of professionals that have already achieved so much."

Her next fundraising focus is now the Ukrainians training for world rowing events later this year--U19s, U23s, and the European and World Championships--and towards Paris in 2024. Many of those athletes have escaped Ukraine and continue to train, in places like Turkey and Germany, but Maistrenko knows that the state support those athletes rely on has been lost due to the war.

"My goal is to raise 10,000 dollars and send them to our national team because I've been communicating a lot [with them] and I want to make sure that they at least going to have some money for the tickets and the hotel. They do have some support from the countries that are able to provide [for] them, so Turkey supports them [for example] and there's some volunteers, but all our budget like is gone, so there's nothing for them to travel with."

Having a Ukrainian team to represent the country on the world stage in this time of war is very important to her, particularly since many of those athletes are friends from the camp where her father coaches: two-time Olympian and Indoor World Champion Olena Buryak and Nataliya Dovgodko, the 2012 Olympic Champion for Ukraine in the Women's Quad, who trained in the pair with Maistrenko last summer.

Before the war, her goal was to follow in the footsteps of these athletes she has always looked up to, hoping to become an Olympian like her parents, representing Ukraine either in Paris 2024 or at the LA Games in 2028. Russia's invasion, however, means she cannot head home to keep rowing after college with her parents and friends: there is no longer a safe training site for her in Ukraine.

Instead, Maistrenko now plans to stay in Washington, training in Seattle at Pocock. She will have the same goals in mind, but will need to work full-time there, both to cover her expenses and to remain eligible for her visa. That in itself will be a big change, since she would likely have been able to count on full state-supported training in Ukraine. What has not changed, however, is her determination to chase her Olympic dreams as a Ukrainian.

"When people say, 'Oh, you just probably can apply for refugee status or maybe switch countries and represent the US,' I was like, 'No, I want to represent Ukraine-that is my home.'"

All spring, rowing with the Washington State team has helped Maistrenko get through.

"Practice started to be my coping mechanism: how to not go crazy when you're alone, when you've lost your home. There is nothing for me to return home [to]."

From day to day, she says, "I don't know if my parents or family is still alive. I don't want to say that other people have less important problems but I just hope that people realize that there's much more than only themselves and if they have any opportunity to actually unite people, that would be incredible."

One of her opportunities to unite people, apart from her fundraising, is right there in the boat with her teammates.

"I've been stroking the eight for quite a while and I feel like the hardest part of being stroke is the creation of the environment that is able to unite people and make these girls pour their hearts for each other."

"We go fast because all of these girls, they're ready to give me their everything, and we have this middle move: Ainsley [Tiernan]- my coxswain, my biggest five foot supporter-says, 'This is for Ukraine. This is for the heroes.'"

Maistrenko actually finds herself listening to recordings of past races for inspiration.

"When she made this calls for the first time, I thought my heart would stop and it just meant so much to me. It helps me to go harder."

And not just in the boat: Maistrenko says the energy from Tiernan's calls for Ukraine's heroes fuels her when she works late into the night on fundraising.

"The people are so united," she says. "My chemistry teachers are making these molotov cocktails at their apartments, and all my classmates, they're collecting bottles with homeless people [for the fight]. I want to make sure that people realize this is an incredible case study of what it's like to be Ukrainian."

"Everyone should be like Ukrainians: heroic people that gave their everything," she says.

Maistrenko mentions her brother, who could have stayed at home running his business away from the conflict zone, but who left that behind to join the fight: "He was like, 'If I need to be there, I'll be there.' And the same is true of all of my classmates and friends."

What she has learned in these past three months, from her teammates and thousands of LinkedIn contacts, is that people will respond and look to help:

"You just have to keep working hard and keep reaching out to people and actually tell them your story. If they're interested, they will always reach out to you and help wherever they can. Just be kind."

"It's something that gives me hope that Ukraine is going to win this war: because the people, they fight for love. It's something that's very hard to describe, but when you see these volunteers, the animal volunteers, going out there in the shelling just to feed the homeless dogs, then you know those are people who just [say], 'Okay, I'm giving my everything.'"

Ultimately, Maistrenko knows she cannot do anything to stop the war by herself:

"It is what it is, but it will get better. Every single night, I go with the thought that it will get better and, no matter our circumstances, we still have to keep trying and keep doing our own job."

There are times, she says, when "I have some thoughts of returning to Ukraine: fly to Poland, walk through the border and help people there. But of course, [my coach] would not let me do [something that dangerous]."

For now, Maistrenko will be staying here in the States, safe herself, getting to work setting up her life in the new circumstances forced by this war, and determined to do whatever she can to generate help and attention for Ukraine.

This spring she has been grateful for her team and the refuge she has found in racing with her closest supporters, doing 10's for Ukraine and thinking about the advice her father, ever the rowing coach, gave her when he called from the bunker in eastern Ukraine: "Make sure you have clean catches, like every stroke is the last stroke of your life."

You can find her fundraiser for the Ukrainian National team on GoFundMe here and connect with her on LinkedIn to follow her efforts.

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