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Weighed down by news from home, Ukrainian athletes soldier on to Paralympic medals

Delegation overcomes heartbreak to win 6 golds and 17 other medals so far; one competitor pulls out of event after learning her father was captured and beaten, coach’s home bombed

Ukraine's winners, gold medalist Iryna Bui, center, silver medalist Oleksandra Kononova, left, and bronze medalist Liudmyla Liashenko celebrate after the women's middle distance standing event at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, March 8, 2022. (Shuji Kajiama/AP)
Ukraine's winners, gold medalist Iryna Bui, center, silver medalist Oleksandra Kononova, left, and bronze medalist Liudmyla Liashenko celebrate after the women's middle distance standing event at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, March 8, 2022. (Shuji Kajiama/AP)

ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AFP) — It was a bittersweet day for Ukraine at the Winter Paralympics with nine medals and a clean sweep of two biathlon events Tuesday — just as one athlete learned her father had been taken prisoner by Russian troops.

Despite grappling with heartbreak following Russia’s invasion of their homeland, the yellow and blue team dug deep to net two golds, four silver and three bronze medals on day four in Beijing.

In a show of girl power on international women’s day, Iryna Bui achieved her lifetime dream of Paralympic gold, sharing the podium with teammates Oleksandra Kononova and Liudmyla Liashenko in the standing middle distance biathlon race.

“We are here to fight for Ukraine, with Ukraine and in the name of Ukraine,” the 26-year-old Bui told reporters.

Kononova said that even though she is physically in China competing, mentally she is still back home.

“All my thoughts, my heart and my soul is with my family and with my child,” the 31-year-old said.

“Emotionally it’s very difficult to focus and to concentrate on the race and the competition, so this is the most difficult Paralympic Games for me.”

Ukraine’s Oleksandra Kononova collapses after crossing the finish line during the women’s middle distance standing event at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, March 8, 2022. (Shuji Kajiama/AP)

Liashenko’s home in Kharkiv, which is under heavy bombing, was destroyed Monday which caused her to pull out of her cross-country race, team spokeswoman Nataliia Harach said.

The United Nations estimates 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country as part of the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.

Anastasiia Laletina, 19, pulled out of her biathlon middle distance sitting race on Tuesday morning after receiving bad news from home, Harach said.

“Her father is a soldier in the Ukrainian army and (was taken) prisoner by Russian soldiers. They beat him,” Harach said.

“She was very upset and couldn’t take part in the race.”

Harach added that Laletina was resting and receiving support from the team’s doctor.

She added a Ukraine team coach’s home in Kharkiv had also been bombed in recent days.

‘I am shaking’

Ukraine’s athletes at the Paralympics have excelled despite the uncertainty and destruction back home.

In Tuesday’s men’s visually impaired biathlon race, Ukrainians took all three medals, led by winner Vitalii Lukianenko, 43.

Also in biathlon, Grygorii Vovchynskyi nailed silver in the men’s standing final after winning gold in the sprint event earlier in these Paralympics.

Canada’s Mark Arendz, center, jumps during a ceremony for the men’s middle distance standing event. Arendz won the gold, Grygorii Vovchynskyi, left, of Ukraine silver, and Alexandr Gerlits of Kazakshstan bronze, at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, in Zhangjiakou, China, March 8, 2022. (Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

In the men’s sitting event, Taras Rad added a bronze medal to his silver from Saturday.

“I’m always thinking about my family and friends when I am staying at the hotel… but right now talking about them I am shaking, I worry a lot about them,” he said through an interpreter.

The Ukraine team are second in the medals table, with six golds and 17 medals in all. Hosts China are top with eight golds.

Ukraine have more medal chances in cross-country sprint races Wednesday and further biathlon events Friday.

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