Kateryna (Katya) Panasenko and Polina Shovkova enjoying some downtime during the FEI Vaulting World Championships in Flyinge (SWE). Photo credit: FEI/Liz Gregg
Polina Shovkova and Kateryna (Katya) Panasenko fulfilled a dream they have been working towards for some time now: to represent Ukraine at the FEI Vaulting World Championship for Juniors currently taking place in Flyinge (SWE). But the journey to Flyinge has not been without its challenges for the 15-year-old Ukrainian Vaulters.
Along with three other members of their Vaulting team, the girls first left their hometown of Poltova in March 2022 to escape the war that has upturned the lives of millions of Ukrainians. They lived and trained in Bernolákovo, a suburb of Bratislava (SVK), for many months, where they were welcomed by members of the local Vaulting community and supported financially by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Solidarity Relief Fund.
By May 2022, this team of five young women was setting a new record, becoming the first team to ever represent Ukraine in international Vaulting when they participated in a one-star competition in Kaposvár (HUN). Since then, it has been Polina and Katya who have been flying the yellow and blue flag high, progressing from one and two-star national events to victories at the international level.
At the CVIJ1* in Samorin (SVK) in June 2023, Polina and Katya both finished on the podium, their first key milestone on their road to the World Championships in Flyinge (SWE). It was also the first time that the Ukrainian anthem was played at an international Vaulting prize giving ceremony.
In the lead up to the World Championships, the Vaulters trained near Milan (ITA) with former World Champion from France Anthony Bro-Petit. Polina, who has made incredible progress in her English language skills over the past year, spoke for herself and Katya.
“We have been doing a lot of training on our horse in Poltava as we do not have a gym to train in back home,” Polina explained. “We had some intense training clinics with our coach Anthony in Slovakia and then near Milan. It was very hot in Italy and it was hard work. But the good thing is that we are now comfortable competing on any horse.
“Our first days here in Flyinge were stressful for us. There were so many people and we were speechless as we got to see some of our heroes like Manon Moutinho, Quentin Jabet, and Lambert Leclezio from France in real life instead of just on Instagram!
“We only started to become calm when we started training and it helped us to focus. This whole experience has been good for us because we are also now less afraid to talk to other people.”
In their first major international outing, the Vaulters have come away with a 23rd place finish for Polina and the 53rd spot going to Katya in the Junior Vaulters category. But it is the personal experiences that have been the most valuable to the girls according to their coach.
“At 15, Polina and Kateryna have been required to show tremendous resilience and mental power to push everything that is happening back in Ukraine and concentrate on their training, which has been anything but consistent,” Anthony Bro-Petit explained.
“In essence they have been training themselves when they are back in their hometown of Poltova. Internet connection is irregular, so having online training sessions just hasn’t worked.
“However, Polina’s and Katya’s training sessions in Bratislava and Milan have been intense and focused, and they have definitely raised their Vaulting level. Being here in Fylinge to watch the Senior level championship has given them a taste of what the next level looks like and what they need to work towards.
“But this whole project of training for the World Championships has also been a personal growth experience for them, as they have had to deal with homesickness and culture shock. While this has added an extra layer of difficulty, they have pushed through and come away stronger from the experience.”
Accompanying the girls on this journey is Polina’s mother Ekaterina Shabelnikova. “When the war first started, it shook our confidence, and we were all afraid and stressed out with the whole situation,” Ekaterina said. “But having the girls train for the World Championships has been important because it has given us all a goal to work towards. I cannot control the war, but I can do something now to help Polina and Katya progress in this sport.
“We have been touched by the support we have received from FEI Director of Solidarity Jean-Philippe Camboulives and the Secretary General of the Slovak Federation Zuzana Baciak Masarykova. They have helped us focus on something else besides the war and we are very grateful to them for this.”
And the girls could not have asked for a more iconic venue to make their Junior World Championship debut. “Flyinge is steeped in equestrian history and tradition and we are so pleased that Polina and Katya were able to make their World Championship debut for Ukraine here,” President of the Organising Committee Ted Velander said. “We have been impressed with their performance at the Championship, especially knowing how hard they have had to work to get here. We hope that the experience they have gained here will take them far in their sporting careers.”
FEI President and Chair of the FEI Solidarity Committee Ingmar De Vos said, “I am immensely proud to witness the dedication and unwavering perseverance displayed by Polina and Katya during the FEI Vaulting World Championship for Juniors. They have made their country proud, and we are honoured to accompany them on this journey and provide them with the necessary support to help them achieve their dreams. We hope that they continue to believe in their immense potential and that they dig deep within themselves to excel as Vaulters.”