Nadiia Doloh is a wheelchair fencing champion of Ukraine, Europe and the world – she likes coffee, foils, sport, being a winner, friends and life.  

Her accommodation is situated on the second floor of a dormitory. Going downstairs takes her less than a minute. She does it by herself. Down with her back. As always, smiling and joking. No, there isn’t a lift, there are stairs.

We were invited to her place, she treated us to coffee. For many people who live in the Zakarpattia region, it is an obsession, Nadiia is also crazy about it. Coffee has to be fresh brewed and made in a so-called Moka pot: hot and strong. She does everything by herself and always laughs, “My neighbor and friend Vadim makes it better – we do it in turns – but he doesn’t tell me his secret, I think it is all about proportions.”

We can only imagine what coffee Vadim brews, Nadiia’s one is perfect. She won’t let us help her to get a cup or something else – maybe only a plate for grapes because I am sitting near the cupboard.

“I saw you on TV”, said a counterwoman at the nearest to Nadiia’s dorm market. Nadiia bought grapes from her.

“She is our champion, she’s just come from Italy, where she became a European champion,” I am saying to the woman while Nadiia is choosing the best fruit. The woman asked 50 hryvnias instead of 51 and says “as for you”. She is looking astonishing at how Nadiia is moving further. “Well, yes, the market has many obstacles and challenges, it is difficult,” Nadiia could say. But she doesn’t. She easily got through the counters, found the one she needed among household chemicals and vegetables, and bought Italian coffee beans, “It is my turn, and I choose the best coffee.”

More enthusiastically, Nadiia tells about supermarkets. She says that no supermarket in Uzhhorod is equipped for people in wheelchairs, people with a bad vision also find it difficult to go shopping there. There is no appropriate equipped WC, for example. “You’ve asked about scales in the vegetable section. I just ask people to help me, no problems.”

Nadia is a social worker. She has received her Master’s degree in the Uzhhorod National University this year. So all these issues about free and safe space for the disabled are of more interest for her than just for a person who goes through it every day. “What do I dream about? To build a dormitory, the first comfortable dormitory for disabled people. For different people, not only for those in wheelchairs. There are people, who can’t see, can’t hear… We have no safe space.

We are heading from her sports center to her place, and it is a far journey. At first, we met at the sports center. We didn’t find Nadiia at once, training for wheelchair fencers took place in another room. Now, there is no electricity there, coaches use additional light but there are big windows, graffiti on the walls and special facilities so essential for wheelchair fencers.

While the coach offers to guys who got down from their wheelchairs to do a plank and push-ups, Nadiia and we decided to go for a walk: she can lessen her loads as she has just returned from the Europe Championship in Italy where the Ukrainian team took the third place.

“The bronze medal of the European championship is more important for me than gold ones. It took me much mental and physical strength. It is my key win, perhaps, the most difficult one,” Nadiia says. She devotes her wins to her coach, “I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own.” Nadiia highlights the role of her coach not only in her career but in the Paralympic movement, in a sport for disabled people in general.

«I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. There wouldn’t be enough of my desire, strength, motivation. It is 50 % me and 50% my coach. Mrs. Oksana (Oksana Rapinets is the chief coach of wheelchair fencers in the Zakarpattia region, the level of her teams is impressive, the Championship of Ukraine has recently proved it one more time) has enough expertise and strength needed for progress. We work and the result appears. Of course, we can’t know what God thinks of it all but I have a feeling that I am on the right way, so he will support me, support us.”

She was 25 when she decided not just to change but to reverse her life: to leave a native mountainous village of Tarasivka in the Zakarpattia region for the city of Uzhhorod to enter the university there. Nadiia had no friends or relatives in Uzhhorod and didn’t even imagine what life in a big city was like but anyway she came here. “Frankly speaking, when I was entering the university, I didn’t have enough knowledge. But I had a desire and feeling that I could, that everything would be great. I am thankful to everybody who believed in me and supported. Then I started to study hard to catch up. I think I am a decent student.”

At a coffee shop, surprisingly, she ordered Americano, However, it must have been enough “Zakarpattia” extra strong coffee. “Favourite cafes? No, it’s different for me. I visit those which I can reach, enter. Doorsteps… They are not so important for me because I have strong arms, but for others… WCs, again.” She won’t say a word about conditions at the sports center where she has her training, but I want to say. For now, Zakarpattia wheelchair fencing team is one of the most succeeding sports teams in the region. Officials should really feel not only responsible but happy to create for them the best conditions. I don’t articulate it to Nadia, I have been waiting to meet her for long, I am happy I have managed to meet her in a break from different competitions, we speak about important issues.

“I was 10, I fell down from a cherry tree. It was high, I like to climb trees! I have my thoracic spine injured. There are many athletes whose traumas allow them to do more. And I have to work more. I was even told that I wouldn’t be able to do sports and be successful in this kind of sport. I thought: well, who are you in my life to say this? And I started to work hard,” Nadiia says, not focusing on that fact that she spent all her childhood in hospitals. She is just thankful to her family who made all possible and gave her love.

Nadiia is a powerlifting champion of Ukraine and Hungary. It was her first sport, and it was a success, she took first places, she was competing with healthy athletes despite her disability. She felt she couldn’t progress in powerlifting anymore. She didn’t have any particular plans when she started to do fencing. It worked out at once. “At my first fencing competition, I was the third. But it isn’t appropriate for me! It was like a slap. I have to be the first! I love winning! It became a challenge for me. I started to train harder. Fencing has taught me a lot. It is a great kind of sport. It is not enough to be only strong here. You have to be smart, fast, cunning, to make a strategy… Here, you win not only physically, technically but also psychologically. Fencing builds your character. I have a feeling that when I am done with fencing I will be “titanium”. It brings you up, it does.” Today, Nadiia Doloh is a wheelchair fencing champion of Europe (she fences mostly with foils, and sometimes with a cutlass). She has become a champion of Europe this autumn again. Now she is preparing for the 2020 Paralympics.

“Have I cried at nights? I can’t recall. But I’ve gone through many things. When I moved to the city, absolutely new for me, I was dating a guy, he wasn’t in a wheelchair. But because of studying and sport, I had no time for relationships… I needed to go upstairs and we had just quarreled. And I thought: it is a disaster, I don’t want to depend on you, I don’t want to depend all my life on anybody, 100%, I don’t want, I can’t let it happen! When it is difficult, I don’t cry, I get angry. I knew the theory how to go down and upstairs, I knew people were doing it. I went downstairs. But up? I tried – I failed. I made up a technique, get used to it… That half an hour must have been the worst in my life. My T-shirt was wet, yes, it was difficult. But I did it once and… Sometimes, I happen to go down and upstairs 7-8 times a day, I am an active person, I don’t sit at home. I have lived in the Rome-Catholic Centre’s dormitory for 7 years, and I am very happy, I was helped to move in. It is important that there’s no negative here. People here are good.” Nadiia is also very grateful to people who have helped her in her sports career, “It is very difficult for me to ask for help. But I’ve had to. And sometimes miracles happened. I was supported when I really needed it. It was a big support. Not asking anything back, not even a hint. There was a situation when I thought I couldn’t go to a competition, but I was helped. I remember everybody.”

Sport is life. But with her heart, she is already in her another profession. Even if it has the form of a friend’s support. Now she cares about the guy who found himself in a wheelchair because of a spine trauma, “He got the trauma a year ago, he has a broken spine, harmed spinal cord. He sat in a wheelchair. Doctors should have explained to him: sit in an appropriate wheelchair, neither big nor small, that one which is for you, take a right pillow, it is important not to have bedsores… His trauma is not that grave, he could recover, but he is now healing his wounds instead of working on himself. He needs help. Someone has to say to a person who is in such a situation, what he or she has to do, act, point by point, and that it is not the end of life. We have no such mechanism when doctors, social workers, phycologists cooperate…”

“How do I view it? I managed to leave a village, settle my life but perhaps, not everybody can do that. A person has to get the information: there is a dormitory, university, job opportunities, sport, we will help. But of course, a person has to have a desire. However, I often see people who are not ready to do that: they have a tragedy, they pity themselves, their relatives pity them. The biggest tragedy for me is when I am pitied. I hate being pitied! When I come to my village, I see my classmate, he is 32 like me, he is just sitting, smoking and drinking, he has a wife and children, but he is not happy, his life is grey. And he says, “I am so sorry for you.” But in fact, he looks twice older, he is exhausted, without a “fire”, he’s achieved nothing… I don’t need to be pitied. I have a wonderful life! I am satisfied with that. My dreams come true. And I am going to be a social worker, to help people. To help them to get a chance. If at least one out of ten fulfill his or her ambitions – I will be the happiest person. When I needed it, my friends helped me: Vasylyna Popovych and Khrystyna Baloh. They were explaining me things and then I understood I could do everything by myself. However, I can’t say even now that I don’t need anybody. Of course, I need.

“I was injured when I was a child, so I don’t remember a “vertical” life, I don’t know a different life. My family, my mother, and all my brothers, surrounded me with love, I didn’t feel like I was “broken”… Brothers were taking me to school, for walks, my sister even went to mountains with me, she pulled my wheelchair up on hills… I am used to it. You don’t realize when you wake up, stand on your feet and go to the kitchen to brew coffee, do you? It is the same for me – it is natural for me to wake up, sit in my wheelchair and go to the kitchen to get my coffee. I guess it would be a huge stress for me if I feel my legs and started to go on foot. It would be a disaster!” Nadiia says, smiling as always.

We leave the sports center, where she has training 6 times a week, at least for 4 hours.

I’ve counted 4 doorsteps, and there is a porch ahead. I haven’t paid attention to borders, pavements and even pits. I thought I realized but I didn’t pay attention. Nadiia doesn’t complain.

Later, we will see her arms but now I ask to hear her reaction, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe they all have cars and just don’t see it. Maybe there is nobody who can say it to them. I think a person who sat like me in a wheelchair, would understand what it is like…”

We are heading by her regular route. We choose neither easier nor more challenging one. In general, it takes Nadiia half an hour to get home at quite a fast pace.

“After competitions, our team went for a walk across Rome… Yes, Rome is Rome. In general, in Italy, you don’t have to go to local authorities and tell them about the absence of conditions for the disabled. You can get wherever you want from the railway station. As for Kyiv, I am afraid to touch my wheels not because I am a princess, I am not into manicure stuff or something, but I like when it is clean, and it is very dirty there! I can’t get it why it is so, we have such a wonderful country, unbelievable… I guess it doesn’t depend on authorities, it depends on everybody: I care for that, I don’t toss my garbage, because it is the place where I live. I guess we need a bit more time. On the other hand, if we wait for too long, we can never wait until it happens. We have to make changes!”

“Yeah, somewhere there is an access to pavements, but in general, there are only borders, borders and borders. And pits – the state of pavements is the worst thing. Sometimes I have to go on a road…” our way lies through the Kapushanska Street in Uzhhorod, and photos will tell you better about comfortability of this route for Nadiia.

We should mention: Nadiia has some advantage – she is a professional athlete, she has strong arms, a perfect sense of coordination, maneuvers, and balance. The majority of people in wheelchairs will fail to overcome these obstacles, which can be many centimeters long.

By the way, all the challenging issues we mention concern not only the disabled but, for example, people on bicycles, mothers with baby strollers, people with bad vision. The same catastrophic situation is with passes to the roads.

On our way, we speak about all these terms: special needs, disability… “Disability? I can’t say I am more disabled than any other person. For example, my neighbor. All people are disabled in something. I can’t buy “Lexus”, can’t buy a flat. So can’t my neighbor. “Special needs?” I don’t like this term. I don’t need anything special. I need an equipped space, free access to public transport so I could get to my university, to theatre or cinema, or café, or restaurant. Yes, not all people in wheelchairs can afford a dinner at a restaurant but everybody has special days” Why should I, as I leave my home, plan my route depending on where I can get and not on where I want to get. Why should I ask for help when I can do without it? Ok, for example, the railway station: they made these carriages with lifts… but they don’t work! Why does somebody have to load his back and lift me?” in fact, Nadiia only answers my questions, she highlights other things.

“I grew up in the village, we had no paving asphalt, and the area is mountainous, so borders aren’t a problem for me, I don’t pay attention to them, I am an athlete and I have strong arms. But there are other people. And it is a disaster for them. However, I can compare: I came here in 2012, and much has been done since that. I used to be unable to get from the railway station to the regional hospital but it is not a long distance, it is just one avenue, and not it is easy for me. I mean, something has been done. Though there are some violations. My dream is to say to my friends in wheelchairs “Come to Uzhhorod, we can walk and have a great time here!” We have a wonderful city. I will never move from here. I hope I will see buses with disabled accessibility. Yes, there are a couple of buses with lifts but they aren’t on my way. I have to plan a crazy route to have a pleasure to go 5 minutes by them!” Nadiia says, of course, smiling again. “You know, I think people shouldn’t complain and concentrate on bad things, on what they are lack of, negative sucks you in. We should be optimistic and enjoy our life!”

We are approaching her dorm. So-called “new district” of Uzhhorod and its cozy part, beautifully green. Here, I personally say hello to local authorities, naming the address: 76, Volodymirska Street, the Roman Catholic Church’s dormitory. Every day, Nadiia covers this route, almost always several times a day. We promised to show arms of the champion, here they are. I just want to mention: it wasn’t a rainy day.

“What do I do in my free time? I lie on my sofa and watch films, go out with friends, mostly we walk through the embankment… But mostly Mrs. Oksana gives us such hard training that I have no strength left for anything else… (laughs). In summer, I swim in a pool, we also go on local trips, Zakarpattia is so picturesque, I like the village of Voyevodino, I feel comforted there. Yes, I can cook, sometimes prepare some food, meat is my signature dish. I read a lot, I do love books. Today, I read mostly motivation, philosophical books. Now I read Remark… My favorite books are those which give answers to all questions and you complete a picture… I visit my family, communicate with relatives, I have four brothers, each has a family, they together have many children… The biggest pleasure for me is communicating.”

“Are people from village happy to see me? My mother is proud of me, she is. I don’t know about other fields, but as for sport, nobody from the village has achieved more than me, she is pleased with that. Nobody could hardly expect that because for a village, a person in a wheelchair is a lost person, so I am a good surprise for them. In fact, I have never felt there “lost”, I have been always supported, my family has been doing everything to arrange a comfortable life for me, they even took me in mountains, these are funny stories, it was great! I am very thankful to my family that they haven’t let me feel an “invalid”, as some people call it.

“Is my example inspirational for anybody? It is not my aim, I don’t feel I have a special life. I wanted to be the champion of Europe and the world, I have it, but those are team medals. Now I want to have my personal achievements. It requires much time and work. Yes, I would like to have a success at the Paralympics. Someday, I will reach my finish in the sport. I want to fulfill my ambitions in a social field. Will I manage to do it – we’ll play it by ear. What is the most important? Helping people. As I have been helped. Because I wouldn’t have anything without my friends’ help. What would I do at home? I would help my mother with the household, cook, communicate, have a life, work on a computer, even earn some money… But now I have a wider world. I have always dreamt about doing sports. And having friends, I have wonderful friends. People say that women whose name is Nadiia (means hope in Ukrainian – translator’s note) have a bad luck, but I am happy!”

“Paralympics, sports achievements are rather an aim. And dreams… I dream that once the anthem of Ukraine will play at competitions and I will be sitting in the first place – I couldn’t be happier. Dreams… I dream not to lose my mental path. Not to fail. I would like to live my life without doing nothing bad and be helpful. To live it so I could be proud. Not to miss an opportunity. To do everything I can. As for routine, of course, I dream about my own accommodation, I hope it will happen someday. I want to live in Uzhhorod. I also want to give back what I have been given. My work on myself and my experience are what I can share. Is there my family among my dreams? Honestly: I have never thought about it. I have dreamt about many things but never about a family.”

Getting to her room through the stairs takes Nadiia two minutes. The way she does it can break your heart and inspire you at once. Well, why two minutes? 1 minute 45 seconds.

It is the first time she did it on-the-record. And as always, it all is with her smile and jokes. The positive-girl, the magnet-girl, the energy-girl, a winner, not even taking into account her medals – the day spent with the girl Nadia was one of the best days of my life.

By Alla Haiatova

Photo by Serhii Hudak

P.S. Nadiia Doloh is ready for cooperation with local authorities to improve the accessibility for all people in Uzhhorod. And evidently, not only in Uzhhorod. Instead of P.S., we offer you to watch an amateur video about the importance of implementing construction regulations.

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