First thing each morning, after just a few hours of restless sleep, Anastasiia Kotsyuba tunes in to online news channels to see what has become of her native Ukraine.
Then she reaches out to her parents or older half-brother by phone, text message or email to check on their well-being. She also checks on the safety of dozens of other members of her extended family in Odesa, a port city of more than 1 million that has been targeted by missiles from warships since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began more than eight weeks ago.
While Kotsyuba, 21, is safe and secure in Fort Collins, playing tennis on an athletic scholarship at Colorado State University, her family and friends are living under the constant threat of the kind of all-out aerial assault Russian forces launched on Mariupol, a port city in eastern Ukraine where the mayor estimated 21,000 residents had been killed by Russian forces, according to recent reports by Reuters and the Associated Press.
Her parents, Mariia and Vladymyr, hear explosions every day in Odesa, she said in an interview with the Coloradoan before a late-night indoor practice Wednesday at the Fort Collins Country Club. So far, they have remained safe, as have the numerous cousins that she’s as close to as if they were her own brothers and sisters.
War, though, is literally at their doorstep.
“My parents’ friends’ house got bombed like a week ago, and they live five minutes from my parents’ house,” Kotsyuba said. “They’ve been attacking Odesa from the sea, and their house just got destroyed.”
Her parents’ friends were not injured in the attack. They were hiding in an underground bomb shelter where they had gone when the city’s air raid sirens sounded prior to the attack.
“They were building this house for the last five years, and they had just started living there and it got totally destroyed,” she said. “It’s right by the sea, and I live five minutes away from the sea, so it’s kind of scary, because the biggest chance of attack on Odesa is from the sea.”
That’s why Kotsyuba has such a difficult time sleeping at night or even putting her phone down for a few minutes, preventing her from seeing alerts, messages or phone calls from family and friends back home in Ukraine.
“The first couple weeks, I was just crying; I could not handle it,” she said. “I could not focus and study. I did not want to see anyone. I could barely practice. I tried to hit balls because it would help distract myself from the news and everything, because I was watching the statistics on my phone.
“I was on my phone like 19 hours a day. I wouldn’t sleep. I would not eat.”
Teammates Radka Buzkova, Sarka Richterova and Sarah Weekley saw the toll the war was taking on Kotsyuba and invited her to stay with them for a while so they could prepare her meals, provide emotional support and offer distractions as necessary.
“I remember the first moment when she texted us, ‘They’re bombing my house. My parents are hearing bombs,’ ” Buzkova said. “That was a shock. We didn’t know what to do. She was extremely surprised. It was hard for her for the first few days, and it was getting worse.”
Kotsyuba can’t imagine what she would be like right now without that support. She figures she’s spent only one night in the past month away from them at her own apartment she shares with two students she doesn’t know as well.
“This team, we’re basically together all the time,” Kotsyuba said. “They help distract me from the news. But, of course, I open my phone and computer and check everything and call my friends every time I can.”
Which is just about every waking moment that she’s not in class, on the tennis court or traveling to and from practices and matches.
“I was (checking) the news, and they said Odesa is the next city,” she said. “Every morning when I wake up, I have these different news channels, Ukrainian news channels. The first thing I open is the Odesa news channel, so I make sure they’re safe first thing. Then I have a Ukrainian news channel, so I can see and figure out what’s going there.”
She’s seen pictures and video footage and listened to and read news reports of the destruction of Mariupol, the target of constant bombings and missile attacks from Russian warships and aircraft. The bombed-out remains of apartment and office buildings, and the craters where others once stood, give the once-bustling city an overall post-apocalyptic appearance.
News reports of atrocities that may have been committed by Russian forces during their invasion of Bucha, a suburb on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, hit even closer to home. Kotsyuba used to play in national tennis tournaments in Bucha every summer.
“When I saw the pictures, these places are familiar to me,” she said. “I’ve been there so many times, and so many people died there, so many kids died there. And Mariupol is like six times bigger than Bucha, and it’s been bombed way more frequently than Bucha, so I cannot even imagine what’s happening there.
“I just cry when I watch that. I cannot cope with the emotions.”
Leaving Odesa isn’t really an option for Kotsyuba’s parents, she said. They help care for her mother’s parents, who are too old to travel, as well as others in her extended family, and never even considering fleeing.
Although she feels “helpless” so far from home, Kotsyuba isn’t sure what she’d really be able to do to help if she were back in Ukraine. There are plenty of people in Odesa already volunteering in areas of greater need across the country, she said.
Her father, she said, probably wouldn’t allow it anyway.
Knowing that Kotysuba and an older half-sister in Bulgaria are safe, away from the horrors of war, eases his burden.
“Of course, I want to be with my family,” Kotsyuba said. “But I can contribute to my family’s well-being by being in a safe place.”
Tennis is her escape, a necessary distraction.
Kotsyuba, a senior majoring in communication studies, has won eight of the 14 singles matches she has played in this season and is 3-4 in doubles. She has a “beautiful game,” first-year CSU coach Mai-Ly Tran said, and an amazing ability to change direction and “attack” an opponent’s game.
Off the court, Tran said Kotsyuba is an unusually positive person with a fun personality that is contagious.
“Tennis is a safe place for me,” Kotsyuba said. “I just try to focus on my game because I cannot really influence what’s happening in the world. I can only get information, and when I play tennis, I try not to think about that for at least a couple hours a day.”
And that reprieve allows her to be that positive, fun-loving person that her teammates have grown to love. Even if it’s just for a brief part of her day.
“She said she’s enjoying (tennis) so much, and that makes me happy,” Tran said. “At least there’s something that she can take joy from, and that’s the game itself. I think that helps her a lot, being able to practice and compete and do what she loves.”
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you ‘re a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado State tennis player from Ukraine copes with war from afar