Ukrainian swimmer Nikita Terentiev at the RealClub Mediterráneo facilities. / SALVADOR SALAS

Nikita Terentiev: swimming away from the war

The Ukrainian junior prodigy, taken in by a family in Malaga and who trains at the Real Club Mediterráneo, holds the best time of the year in the 50-metre freestyle

PEDRO LUIS ALONSO

Nikita Terentiev's life changed dramatically on 24 February. "Russian planes woke me up at five in the morning," said the 17-year-old swimmer, as he remembered going through the experience in his home city of Zaporizhzhia, in south-east Ukraine.

The city, with close to 700,000 inhabitants, was one of the first to be attacked by Russia and where Malaga's Unicaja basketball team had played just days before the invasion. It didn't take Nikita's family long to make the decision to flee the country, except his father, who remained to fight for Ukraine. They fled to the border with Hungary, over a thousand kilometres away. From there, volunteers took them to Budapest, where they then flew to Barcelona.

It was a three-day, hunger-filled journey. Hotels in Barcelona were full, and so the family decided to fly to Malaga, where they were taken in by Carmen Peña and Ken Hart.

Through one of the executives at the city's Real Club Mediterráneo swimming club, Nikita was put in touch with Guillermo Mediano, a coach who swam in the 2000 Olympics. He was impressed by the talented Ukrainian youngster, especially in freestyle and backstroke.

With his coach in Ukraine enlisted to fight in the war, Nikita has progressed under the guidance of Mediano. On 23 April he swam a 50-metre freestyle in 22.56 seconds at a pool in Fuengirola, a time that put him first in the world ranking for those born in 2005. Additionally, he also swam in a time of 21.91 seconds in Granada, which places him first in the junior category (swimmers born in 2004 and 2005).

A genuine prodigy

Both times would be new records in Spain and Ukraine, but here it's necessary to have been a resident for one year for it to count officially. Paradoxically, this means that the Real Club Mediterráneo's club record is better than the national one.

Nikita is now preparing for the European junior championships (in Romania, 5-10 July) and he will take part in three events (50 and 100-metre freestyle and 50-metre backstroke) arousing great expectation.

"If he's doing those times, that means that he's ahead of the rest. The normal thing would be to get there when you have more experience. A swimmer's prime is between 24 and 28 years old. That time isn't normal for someone his age," Mediano admitted. "He's a physical prodigy, and he still has more to grow. He's strong and powerful, though he's not a body-builder," he added, without denying that he's enjoying the "gift" that he's been tasked to manage.

Even though this lifestyle change hasn't been easy for Nikita, swimming is a type to therapy that allows him to forget the war for a few hours. He came to Malaga with a bag, nothing more. His swimming gear is on loan, but those around him are seeking commitment from institutions or sponsors to help fund his trips and his career during such a complicated time of his life.

There's no doubt that Nikita is a swimming prodigy, but he's also a human being who suffers. "It's hard to stay clear of the war. I read the daily news about it and it affects me," he admitted, without wanting to bring up the past too much. "I talk to my father who's on the frontline nearly every day," he said.

Happy with the sun and sea

Fate has brought Nikita to Malaga, where he values what he has every day. "I'm adapting to the culture here. I like that city a lot. It's impressive," he said.

Despite his pale skin, he loves the sun and the sea, though in the medium term he wants to continue his training in the United States, one of swimming's epicentres.

"I'm fluent in English and there I could get a degree more easily," he said, though he's still some months away from that happening. His current coach has already spoken to some of his contacts from his time there.

Meanwhile, Nikita Terentiev concentrates on his swimming. And he's soaking up every lesson he receives, which is what makes the very best stand out.

"There are technical corrections that an athlete struggles with, but he picks them up immediately, such as his hand positioning at the start line; what we told him about the final 15 metres..."

A balancing act

And how does the Ukrainian youngster handle his enormous talent? Is he fazed at being number one in his age group?

"In swimming, nothing is ever expected, especially in freestyle. You shouldn't be over analysing the event; it's more of a balance between relaxation and concentration," he explained.

Nikita is a boy of fixed habits, such as eating eight eggs every day, a huge protein intake. And he hasn't set himself simple objectives. "I'd like to break the 50-metre world record, more than winning an Olympic medal," he claimed, as he admitted that his idol is his countryman, Mijailo Romanchuk, who won silver at the 2020 Olympics.

Nikita is more than happy with the facilities he uses at the Real Club Mediterráneo, with the exception of the heat from the covered pool. That and the bullets of war. A concept that's hard to grasp in the 21st century.