Ukrainian gymnast finds a temporary home with Central Kentuckians

Contributing WriterApril 30, 2014 

Ukrainian gymnast Olga Goroh was performing last year in Moline, Ill., with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when the accident happened.

"There were six girls performing up in the air, each in her plastic sphere," Goroh said.

The spheres were "opening and closing during the show," and at some point, even though she was sure she operated hers properly, Goroh fell 30 feet to the floor.

"The security technician was supposed to assist me, but he wasn't there, and I almost missed the security mat and mostly landed on the hard floor," she said.

But the acceptance and hospitality of Central Kentucky's Ukrainian community helped her mend.

"They call me 'our Olga,'" she said of her new Central Kentucky friends. "I don't know what would have happened to me if it wasn't for their care."

Goroh, now 19, joined the circus because she wanted "something new and exciting in my life. It was a chance for me to see the world." The company held auditions in her hometown, Dnepropetrovsk, the fourth-largest city in Ukraine.

She came to the United States in late July and traveled with the circus as part of its "Dragons" show.

After her injury in Illinois, she received medical help and then traveled — with her right hand in a cast — with the rest of the troupe to Lexington for performances Sept. 6 to 8 at Rupp Arena.

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen, whether I was going home right away or what. I don't remember," she said.

Still in some pain, Goroh was taken to St. Joseph East Hospital. There, it was discovered that her left arm and left foot were broken. She needed surgery, and the medical professionals assisting her told her she couldn't travel.

"At first, I was in the hospital all alone. I couldn't complain about anything, I only knew how to ask for water in English," Goroh said. "Then, one day, Oksana came to my room, and everything was different since then."

Oksana Povroznik, an anesthesiology nurse, had been contacted by Dr. Juan Favetto, Goroh's orthopedist, because he knew that Povroznik spoke Ukrainian. Povroznik visited Goroh every day at the hospital and during her two weeks at Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. Then Povroznik took Goroh home.

Povroznik lives in Nicholasville's Keene Crossing, close to a cluster of homes where many Ukrainians live. They all attend Ukrainian Pentecostal Church on Brannon Road in Nicholasville.

After moving in with the Povrozniks, Goroh started having visitors every day.

"I really didn't want to talk to anyone," she said. "I was very depressed, and I thought, 'I can only be a burden; why would anyone want to have anything to do with me?'"

She stayed with the Povrozniks for a month, then she moved in with Alex Svintozelskiy and Tonya Svintozelskaya, another Ukrainian family.

"At first, she just hid in her room and didn't want to talk to anyone," Alex Svintozelskiy said. But soon, things changed. The couple's 3-year-old daughter, Inessa, helped Goroh come out of her shell.

"She was hugging me and telling me she loved me," Goroh said of Inessa. The girl started mimicking Goroh's stretching exercises.

"In front of the whole family, Inessa would lift her leg really high and say, 'That's what Auntie Olga does,'" Goroh said with a smile.

She also became close friends with the couple's teenage daughters, Lina and Yana.

Goroh's friends insisted on putting her on the church volleyball team.

"I realize I can't do much and I'm just in their way, but that's their way of supporting me," she said.

Fellow Ukrainian Liuda Markovich taught Goroh to bake and decorate cakes.

"Every time we had a baking sale in church, I would say, 'We really need your help,' just to distract her by making her do something," Markovich said. "She became quite an accomplished baker by now."

Also, Markovich said, Goroh "learned how to wear dresses and high heels," as is customary in their church. In Ukraine, Goroh wore blue jeans and tennis shoes, and she went to church only "for Easter and before big competitions," she said.

The Central Kentucky Ukrainian residents learned from Goroh, too, said Markovich's husband, Mykola.

"She's been on her own since an early age and she's been working hard for her entire life," he said. Goroh's gymnastics training took as much as 10 hours a day through most of her life. Also, her parents are divorced, and she had been in a boarding school since she was 13.

"She's used to relying on herself, and it's very different from what our children experience," he said. "My children, when I'm tough on them, can go to their mother, and if she has yelled at them they'd come to me. Olga's had no one to go to. She's been on her own since she was very young."

The local Ukrainian community was amazed by how brave and tough Goroh was, Tonya Svintozelskaya said.

"She's endured a lot, and she's never complained. I can't imagine my child going through hardships like that," she said.

Goroh was deeply touched when Alex Svintozelskiy and Tonya Svintozelskaya offered to adopt her legally.

"It brought tears to my eyes," she said. But it also made her realize that no matter how much she loved them, she needed to go back to Ukraine.

"I need to go back to my normal life. I've been real lazy here. I just need to go back to school and training," she said.

When she announced that she had bought an airplane ticket online, her Ukrainian friends were "in shock," she said.

Mykola Markovich was concerned that Goroh was not well enough to be on her own. He also was worried about the unstable political situation in Ukraine.

"It's not a good time to go there. I wish she at least waits until it settles down," he said, referring to the tension between Ukraine and Russia that has Ukraine on the brink of war.

Before Goroh left April 17, the Markovich family threw a surprise birthday and farewell party for her. She turned 19 on April 18.

"We were still trying to convince her to change her mind and stay longer," Mykola Markovich said at the time.

"I'll miss them terribly, but it's time to go," Goroh said. "No matter how bad it is in Ukraine now, it's still my home."

Goroh hopes to resume her studies in Dnepropetrovsk to become a physical education teacher and will live in the college's dorm. However, because she's dealing with a lot of pain, she's not sure when, if ever, she'll be able to get back to her athletic career.

"I just don't know yet, but ... we say that at home, even walls heal," she said, quoting a Ukrainian proverb.

Zoya Tereshkova is a free-lance photographer and writer who is a native of Ukraine.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service