Ukrainian boxer sacrificed Olympic dreams to fight Russia’s invasion

by Vern Evans

Maksym Halinichev won silver at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in a match described at the time as “two of the best young fighters going for glory.” He considered the bout a loss — it wasn’t gold, after all — but it gave him a map for the future.

So Halinichev made plans: He would defeat that boxer the next time around. He would teach his daughter the basics of his sport so she could defend herself. And he would win a medal for Ukraine at the Paris Olympics.

Halinchev outlined those ambitions as an athlete in an interview for the Ukraine Boxing Federation website in December 2021, as Russian troops were already massing at Ukraine’s borders.

Asked if he was afraid before a fight, he described his thinking.

“Fear can influence people in various ways. Some people are paralyzed by it. Some react by becoming more liberated,” he said then. “If you can control yourself and your body and if you can set yourself the right way, then the fear will retreat.”

He’ll not get to prove that philosophy in the Olympic ring in Paris.

Halinichev signed up as a soldier and was killed at the front in March 2023 at age 22, one of more than 400 athletes killed since the outbreak of the war. His body has yet to be recovered.

As one of Ukraine’s most promising boxing prospects, Halinichev could have been shielded from the war. Ukraine has sent many of its Olympic hopefuls to train abroad ahead of the Summer Games. But not everyone wants to be saved. Some choose to defend their country’s honor on the battlefield instead of the sports arena.

Halinichev’s attitude toward fear remained intact after the full-scale Russian invasion, but his priorities changed.

It happened during a drive in April 2022 from his home region of Sumy to Kyiv, where he had planned to train for the next European championship. Russia had just retreated from the region, and all along the highway, he saw towns and villages ripped apart by Russian troops during their brief occupation, said his coach Bohdan Dmytrenko.

“I have a little child. I don’t want her to live in occupation among the aggressor, among the Russians,” Halinichev told another of his coaches, Volodymyr Vinnikov.

“I said, ‘Maksym, please listen to me, you are still a representative of Ukrainian boxing, you also defend the honor of Ukraine. The flag, the anthem — it’s also very important,’” Vinnikov recounted.

“You won’t convince me. I’ve made this decision. I will learn to shoot,” Halinichev told him.

Boxing was still important to him, but he wanted more, said his life partner, Polina Ihrak. Sumy, a border region, was still under attack despite the Russian withdrawal. Kherson, where he trained, was under Russian occupation and reports of the suffering of Ukrainians there were trickling back.

“He couldn’t understand how his friends, coaches who were in Kherson, were left without the ability to live, let alone train, and he would go somewhere in Europe,” Ihrak said. “He couldn’t let himself do it. It mattered to him.”

In May 2022, at 21 years old, Halinichev joined the airborne assault troops, according to Ukraine’s Boxing Federation. He was wounded before the year ended near Bakhmut, with an injury to his foot and shrapnel embedded so deeply in his leg that doctors couldn’t remove it.

While recovering, Halinichev spent time with his coach but avoided discussing what he saw in the war. Everyone hoped he would quit the army, but Halinichev returned to the battlefield with his wounds unhealed.

“He believed he had to return to his brothers in arms because he was needed,” said Ihrak, the mother of their daughter, Vasilisa.

Halinichev and Ihrak last spoke by video call on March 9, 2023. Days without contact became weeks. She tried calling Halinichev and his commander. Neither answered.

She took to scrolling through Russian Telegram channels, looking for his face among battlefield photos of the dead and injured. One photo stood out, of a body in the forest.

“His mom recognized him immediately, but I didn’t because I guess I refused to acknowledge it,” Ihrak said. He was killed on March 10, 2023, in Luhansk, a region now almost entirely under Russian control.

At a recent commemoration for her father in the gym where he used to train, the 4-year-old Vasilisa bounced joyfully around the boxing ring, wearing oversized gloves that dwarfed her small hands.

It will not be her father who teaches her how to fight, but Ihrak couldn’t imagine Halinichev would do anything differently.

“People go there (to the front) not to regret but to change something,” Ihrak said. “He went back without any doubt.”

Among others who died fighting for Ukraine: pistol shooters Ivan Bidnyak, who won silver at the European Championships, and Yehor Kihitov, a member of Ukraine’s national team; Stanislav Hulenkov, a 22-year-old judoka whose body was identified 10 months after he was killed; and weightlifter Oleksandr Pielieshenko, who represented Ukraine at the Rio Olympics in 2016. A Russian missile strike on Dnipro killed acrobatics coach Anastasia Ihnatenko, her husband and their 18-month-old son.

Vinnikov, who coached Halinichev in 2017, has no doubt that the young man would be representing his country at the Paris Games that open July 26 had the invasion not derailed his plans.

“He would have won a medal for his country,” the coach said emphatically.

He had huge potential: gold medal at the 2017 European Youth Championships, silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, silver medal at the 2021 European Under-22 Championships.

In his empty apartment in the town of Shostka, his parents have filled a room with proof of what he’d already achieved: trophies and medals from 2010 to 2021, neatly arranged on a shelf.

His photograph stands in the corner along with a candle, his childhood pictures, a religious icon and flowers. His boxing gloves rest nearby.

But Halinichev’s parents don’t live there anymore. Since the war, they’ve remade their lives in the Czech Republic. Ihrak is contemplating a move to Germany.

Dmytrenko, his coach, keeps his photos of Halinichev neatly arranged in folders and still has the archive of their messages to each other. He recalled a moment just before the war where he was praising Halinichev’s achievements.

Halinichev simply replied: “Everything is still ahead.”

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