Vika Marchuk, who was born with severely disabled arms, was abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage, suffering a hard life before being discovered by taekwondo coach Yuliya Volkova. Marchuk, then 22-years-old and previously a track and field athlete, was raised to championship level by Volkova’s patient coaching.
In 2012 it all came together. Marchuk – better known simply as Vika - grabbed gold at the 3rd WTF World Para-taekwondo Championships in Santa Cruz, Aruba, that year. In 2013, she repeated the feat at the 4th championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Marchuk’s story – a combination of tough life, fairy godmother coach and bravura performance in elite global competition - captured the hearts of the global taekwondo community. So, what was the legacy of those championship wins?
“I think my success in the world championships showed other people that regardless of whether you are healthy or have a disability, you can have success if you work hard,” said Marchuk, who also received an apartment and a small stipend from a grateful government.
For Moscow 2014, Ukraine is fielding a five-strong team, and some of the athletes admit that the smiling teammate they train alongside is an inspiration.
“I am in training together with Vika – the same dojang, the same coach,” said 15-year-old Oksana Hrankina. “I see how big and how strong her spirit is; it is a big motivation for me to get stronger to get the same success.”
It is not just athletes who learned of Vika’s story and took action.
“In our country, people with disabilities are not like others, they are second- class citizens,” said Team Ukraine’s male team coach Serhiy Brushnitskyy. “I was thinking of working with such people after Vika’s success. People with disabilities are strong enough; I am proud to work with people with disabilities in the Ukraine.”
And however serious social prejudices against the disabled may be in Ukraine, being a world-class para-athlete has granted many a sense of self-worth and dignity.
“I know that some people in our country consider the disabled second- class citizens, but I don’t think I am,” said Mykola Nabyt, 31. “I try to do my best to reach my goal, to be successful, to lead a full life.”
He added, “I find that sometimes I do better than able-bodied people!” The Ukrainians will be competing against a background of political turmoil roiling their country, but are not letting that adjust their focus on the competition.
“I think politics and sport must be kept differentiated,” said Lyudmyla Lebyedyeva, 32 - but stated how proud she is to represent her nation. ”I hope to see the Ukrainian flag rise high as often as possible!”
To return to Marchuk: How has she been preparing to defend her title?
In the run up to Moscow, she has added a new kick to her arsenal, trained power and stamina with field and track work, and been strengthening her key weapons – her legs – with weight training. “I am nervous, but that is usual for every athlete,” she said. “I am going to win; I am confident enough.”
Underpinning her confidence is not just skill and experience, but the influence of the mentor who introduced her to taekwondo – Yuliya Volkova.
“I am so happy that Yuliya found me a couple of years ago,” Marchuk said. “It is very hard to work with disabled people, so I am very appreciative that she believes in me.”
Other members of the team share Marchuk’s affection for their coach.
“Yuliya is like a second mom to me,” said Lebyedyeva. “She supports me all the time, in every way and at every moment.”
Appropriately, Volkova’s position as the founding mother of para-taekwondo in Ukraine is being set in concrete. Two days before the kick-off of the Moscow championship, a Ukrainian para-taekwondo association was established with Volkova as secretary general.