The squeak of their shoes and the pounding of the ball on the pitch seemed normal to Vika Kovalevska and Vlada Hozalova.
Basketball provided a brief refuge from the unrelenting tension they felt over what was happening domestically in Ukraine.
The circle also helps them in their new life in Alberta, where they play basketball for Lethbridge Pronghorns University.
“Basketball helps distract from everything that’s going on around you,” Kovalevska told The Canadian Press.
“I’m just trying to focus on training, shut off my brain and immerse myself in the fast-paced and dynamic world of the game, where there’s no time to think about anything else.”
‘The scariest moment of my life’
Kovalevska and Hozalova are friends who have played internationally for the Ukraine women’s Under-20 team. The two guards arrived in Canada in May.
Kovalevska, 23, is enrolled in business studies in Lethbridge and will play in Canada West this season.
Hozalova, 24, must complete an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) at university before she becomes academically eligible to play conference games.
He could still train with the Pronghorns and play exhibition games.
Hozalova wrote her answer to The Canadian Press in an email.
The southeastern city of Berdyansk, now under Russian occupation, was bombed in February. Hozalova came out as the humanitarian corridor opened.
He still had to pass several Russian checkpoints and said he had a tense interrogation at one checkpoint.
“It was the scariest time of my life. I thought for a moment that I might not make it out alive,” wrote Hozalova.
“Every day I start with the fact that I watch the news and, unfortunately, a few days ago, Russia announced that my city is already (in) Russia. I am homeless and have nowhere to go.”
Hozalova’s mother and 17-year-old brother fled to Germany. Kovalevska’s parents and brother are in a relatively safer area of northwestern Ukraine, but uncertainty weighs on her.
“I worry about my family. I feel anxious,” said Kovalevska.
“I am nervous because many bombs are arriving on Ukrainian territory every day. Innocent people are dying. You cannot predict which city is today or tomorrow.”
They had not heard from their friend Sergei, who served in the Ukrainian armed forces, for six months.
Hozalova said she was taken prisoner while defending the Mariupol steel mill.
“We hope he is still alive,” said Kovalevska.
Seeking to escape the conflict, the two women obtain their Canadian visas. Using Facebook, they are looking for volunteers in Canada who can help them.
After it became clear they were headed to Calgary, their contacts there emailed requests to Alberta universities and colleges about basketball.
Pronghorns coach, Dave Waknuk, immediately responded enthusiastically.
A few days after their arrival, Hozalova and Kovalevska toured the Lethbridge campus and met with prospective teammates and university administration.
The university that has established emergency scholarships for current and new Ukrainian students is a coincidence.
“When the conflict broke out, we had some students who were already studying here at Lethbridge University,” said international executive director Paul Pan. “Because of the conflict, they cannot receive money from home to support themselves. They worry that their parents will lose their jobs because of the conflict.
“We can offer four scholarships for returning students and four scholarships for new students.”
‘Thanks to sport, I’m here now’
Kovalevska and Hozalova were approved for scholarships covering on-campus life and tuition fees for two semesters.
“It’s not specifically regulated for either of them,” Pan said. “The timing is perfect for them.”
Before moving to Lethbridge, the two women lived with a Russian woman in Calgary.
“He’s been living in Calgary for 10 years,” said Kovalevska. “A lot of the volunteers here, Russians who have lived in Canada for many years, they are really trying to help Ukrainians.”
Kovalevska and Hozalova play on the professional women’s basketball circuit of eight Ukrainian teams.
U Sport rules allow three international players on a single roster. Under basketball eligibility rules, schools can bring players with pro experience on the women’s rosters, but not on their men’s teams.
“Why that is, I don’t know, but the rules of professional players are different on the women’s side than on the men’s,” said Waknuk.
“Both players carry such a high basketball IQ. They understand the game because of their experience playing at a high level. Both are very competitive, very skilled.
“Their conditioning took a bit of time to catch up with them, but once that happened, the skills, the knowledge, the things that separated them, had come out.”
Off the field, the two women adjust to life as student athletes in southern Alberta.
“Thanks to sport, I’m here now, and basketball is a part of my life,” wrote Hozalova. “I’m grateful to everyone around me who supported and allowed me to do what I love and was safe.”
“Coffee enthusiast. Hipster-friendly social media fanatic. Certified zombie expert. Problem solver.”