Valentyna Zolotarova was born in Ukraine, but competes for the Jamaican national team in addition to coaching and training in Vancouver.
A Ukrainian woman living in Vancouver is trying to grow the sport of karate in her husband’s birth nation of Jamaica but has had to put those plans on hold as the war in her home country rages on.
She tells Global News her focus is on friends and family directly impacted by the Russian invasion.
“When I first started the fundraiser I had a lot of confidence that I would be able to put all my energy into meeting the demand of it,” Zolotarova said.
“My heart broke into a million pieces on February 24th. I have continued all my responsibilities with the focus of a zombie over the past few weeks while worrying for my loved ones back home,” she said.
Some of her family have managed to cross the border into other countries, which has been a small source of comfort.
However, Zolotarova said there are other athletes she knows who have remained behind — many of them involved in the army or trying to help in other ways.
“We always say politics should be out of sport but at the same time, there are situations in life where athletes have no choice but to be involved. Even if you choose to do or say nothing, it has consequences,” she said.
While the cause has taken a backseat, it remains close to her heart as she is a Jamaican citizen by marriage as well.
“As the mother of three young mixed-race boys, it’s really important to show them pride, that even their Ukrainian mom has chosen to represent Jamaica. They really need to be proud of their Jamaican heritage,” she explained.
“Hopefully it (the campaign) will have a positive impact on the lives of my children as well. Not just in terms of sport, but in how they see and accept their identity.”
The campaign has slowed for Zolotarova, whose karate career has spanned four countries since she began at the age of six, but it is not stopping anytime soon.
“This is my life … it’s my biggest passion,” she said.
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, her father took the family to Cypress, where she continued karate and became the junior children’s national champion.
Not long afterward, she moved to British Columbia and competed for the junior Canadian team for several years, before eventually getting married and starting a family in Jamaica.
She decided to compete for Jamaica at the Olympic qualifier for Tokyo 2020, but the team didn’t end up qualifying as only ten spots are available for athletes in the games.
The mother of three still competes at the senior level but has found a new passion in coaching the next generation of athletes.
“The competition was a lot more fierce, that was my biggest achievement for me personally. As a representative of Jamaica, it’s more now about what it does for the future of Jamaica,” she said.
“So I’m trying to pave a path forward for the younger, up-and-coming athletes within Jamaica and also Jamaicans abroad.”
Karate is still considered a young sport on the international stage, making its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
Zolotarova said the Jamaican Karate Federation has struggled to maintain its status due to a lack of funding.
“In some other countries there are a lot of members and those members pay membership fees which then contribute to the federation fees,” she explained.
“But in Jamaica, the number of karate practitioners is really small still. That’s why I’m trying to assist the federation and put together programs for the youth development.”
There are also significant barriers preventing athletes from gaining international competitive experience, which is required in order to qualify for the Olympics or Pan American Games, she explained.
Zolotarova points to a lack of competitions in North, Central, and South America when compared with Europe, and expensive travel and registration fees.
She has started a GoFundMe to help Jamaica Karate cover its initial federation fees.
But the federation also struggles with attracting new students and practitioners, she said.
More opportunities for young athletes in Jamaica have slowly become available, she said, noting the introduction of funded karate schools, equipment grant programs, travel assistance for competitions, and academic scholarships — but there’s still a long way to go.
“I look back on my own Olympic journey in 2021 and I recall doing crazy things like buying a one-way ticket to reach the tournament because I didn’t have enough money to reach the next from there. Having gone through that, sometimes competing all alone or without a team, I know how difficult that journey can be,” said Zolatorova.
“My Jamaican Karate family has been very supportive and encouraging throughout these difficult few weeks. They feel my pain and they have loved and accepted me as a Jamaican from the very beginning of my karate journey, but they also know I am a Ukrainian girl. The first people to message me when the war in Ukraine started were my Jamaicans. They pray for my family back home,” she said.
Zolotarova hopes to help organize a Caribbean-European-North American training camp in the future.
“The times are difficult, but I also pray we will see better days and peaceful times,” she said.
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