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Seeking Shelter

When violence and unrest forced a West Chester swimmer’s parents to leave Ukraine, the community stepped in to help

An unexpected plus of Yuriy and Lena Grebenyuks’ extended stay in the United States: They get to watch their son compete. In Ukraine, swimming is seldom a spectator sport. Photo credits: Submitted by Bogdan Grebenyuk and West Chester University of Pennsylvania Photo

Three years ago, when Bogdan “Shark” Grebenyuk arrived in the United States and became a Golden Ram at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, the experience was a dream come true.

“I was amazed,” said Grebenyuk, a native of Donetsk, Ukraine. “I was 20 years old. I only saw the U.S. on TV and could only imagine myself living in the United States.”

The idea of pursuing a degree while competing as a swimmer for a Division II college had been beyond his imagination. But not until this summer, when the unrest in his home country forced his parents to seek refuge in the United States, did he come to understand the value of being part of a team.

Over the past year, Donetsk, located in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, has become a flash point of violence and unrest as conflict raged between the Ukranian government and Russian separatists. At one point Grebenyuk’s father, an orthopedic surgeon in Ukraine, was pulled from his car and beaten, a gun fired near his head. The Grebenyuks had planned an upcoming visit to West Chester, so they changed plans and arrived early, finding refuge and hoping the situation cooled in their home country.

The community’s youth swimming program has rallied around the couple, helping them find temporary housing and a place to learn English. “I think Shark has been blown away by the outreach,” said Ken McCormick, the athletics director at West Chester Henderson High School, whose son, David, was Grebenyuk’s teammate.

The Grebenyuks’ visas will allow them to stay until January 2015.

“I’m just a guy who’s happy his parents are alive,” Grebenyuk said. “They are here and they are safe, and that is all I care about at this point.”

Last season, Grebenyuk posted a new conference record in the 100-meter breast stroke, and his team placed fourth at the Division II national championships. He also looks forward to earning his bachelor’s degree in health and physical education and hopes to become a swimming and diving coach.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.