At the 2023 European Children and Junior Riders Championships, the first half of the juniors will compete in the individual classification today at the Schafhof in Kronberg. Among them are Yeva Stolnikova and Danylo Konovalov from Ukraine, tomorrow it will be the turn of team mate Viktoriia German. For the riders from Ukraine it's not about medals, of course it's about the sport, but the focus for them is something completely different...
Tearful Opening Ceremony
The Kronberg marketplace was full of cheers that did not end. The crowd waved blue-yellow flags and clapped as the Ukrainian team drove up in the carriage to welcome the nations. The national anthem was played on stage - as it is for all teams - and tears were running down the eyes of team captain Maria Dzhumadzhuk.
"It was a very emotional moment," Maria admits. "We felt the great support of the people. It was wonderful. I am very proud that we can be here, and I feel it is a great honour."
Fleeing Ukraine for a New Life
Many Ukrainian riders left the country when the war began in March 2022, including the three juniors competing at the European Championships in Kronberg: Viktoriia German, Danylo Konovalov and Yeva Stolnikova.
It was very difficult to put together a team for the European Championships, Mariia explains. "Our riders are spread all over Europe." The 16-year-old Viktoriia German has lived with her family in Portugal since the war began. She borrowed a horse there, the now 15-year-old Dom Rico, which she brought to Schafhof.
Danylo Konovalov has been living with his two siblings and his family in Germany, near Osnabrück, since March 2022. The 18-year-old was able to take his long-time successful partner with him from the Ukraine. With the 11-year-old Holsteiner Concetti, Danylo already competed at the Children's European Championships in 2018, when Concetti was sixth. This year the pair will be competing at the European Championships for the sixth time, and for the fourth time in the junior camp.
Yeva Stolnikova and her family moved to southern Spain, near Valencia, at the beginning of the war. Yeva also took her own horse with her from Ukraine and is competing at the Schafhof with the 13-year-old KWPN gelding, significantly named Freedom. The two have been competing on the international junior circuit for the past two years, but this year they are members of a championship team for the first time.
"We have a total of six riders who qualified for the Junior European Championships this year," Maria explained, "but our best junior has final school exams during the Championships. She's also been living outside Ukraine since the war, in Belgium, and only traveled back to Ukraine for her exams."
For two of the six riders, the trip to Kronberg was not possible for various reasons, Maria continues, so it came down to the three rider-horse pairs mentioned above. "It's not our top three juniors, but it's the three that it was possible for to come here."
The team leader herself has remained in Ukraine, living in Kiev. "At the beginning of the war it was really terrible and dangerous, but now - a big thank you to our European friends - Kiev has become a safe city again. We have military equipment to protect us." For her, she says, the days in Kronberg are like another life, like an island where she can be happy.
In the months leading up to the European Championships, Maria either watched her protégés at competitions via live streams or they sent her training videos. "Two of the three I know very well," Mariia says. "Yeva and Danylo I have known for a long time, but Viktoriia was a 'wild card' for me. I've only seen her ride as a kid, so she was a big surprise for me at the prep test, which was really good."
"We Can Still Laugh"
The team met only directly at the Schafhof, one day before the start of the European Championships: the three riders arrived from their different parts of Europe, Mariia directly from Kiev. All three have their own trainers, who also traveled with them to Kronberg. Danylo trains with his mother, Yeva has her trainer who emigrated with her to Spain, and Viktoriia has found a trainer in Portugal.
"For us, the sport is important, of course, but even more important at the moment is the sign we send out when we can compete here. A sign to the whole world: 'We are still alive, we can still laugh and we are still happy people."
On Sunday, Mariia will get back on the plane and fly back to Kiev - the days in Kronberg and the carefree European Championship experiences in her 'luggage'.
-- Press release by KiK for Schafhof, edited by Eurodressage
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Eurodressage Coverage of the 2023 European Children / Junior Riders Championships