Xia Lian Ni: Age no obstacle on road to Tokyo 2020

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

Xia Lian Ni was one of six table tennis players competing at the European Games Minsk 2019 to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The EOC spoke to the China-born Luxembourger who claimed the first European Games medal for her adopted homeland.

When 55-year-old Xia Lian Ni took bronze at the European Games Minsk 2019 earlier this week at the Tennis Olympic Centre, she also booked a direct ticket to the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. She defeated Monaco’s Yang Xiaoxin in the women’s singles, dominating the match four games to six.

“I can’t describe how happy I am at this point. I did not realise it would mean so much to me. I have won many titles, including World and European competitions, but this is just different. It makes me the happiest, because [the match] was the hardest of all,” said Ni, who won her first World Championship in 1983.

Coincidentally, the 1983 World Table Tennis Championships were held in Tokyo, meaning that Ni will be returning to the Japanese capital 37 years later to compete for an Olympic title. The four-time Olympian made her Olympic debut at the Sydney 2000 Games, followed by Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, during which she was the flag bearer for Luxembourg at the Closing Ceremony.

By her own admission, Ni has dedicated her whole life to table tennis. She started playing the sport at age 7 and gradually became more and more infatuated with it throughout the years, primarily for its inclusivity.

“Young or old, men or women, disabled or not, for fun or professionally, indoors or outdoors – you name it! Our community is like a big family, and I have learned so much from my sport,” she said.

Ni’s coach is her Swedish-born husband Tommy Danielsson, a “world-class player himself,” who first started coaching in the 1990s. Ni, a three-time European champion who emigrated to the continent in 1989, credits him in no small part for her longevity and success.

“He understands the game better than most people, but he also understands me as well. Without our cooperation, it would not have been possible for me to be where I am today,” she explained.

The table-tennis legend has indeed had a remarkable career, one spanning four decades during which she has claimed hundreds of titles. Now that she is set to become the oldest Olympic athlete to represent her sport at Tokyo 2020, Ni strives to become a role model for people of all ages.

“I know I am not the youngest, but I always say: ‘Today I am younger than tomorrow.’ If you set your mind on something, age will not be an obstacle,” she said, quick to credit her friends and team, including the International Table Tennis Federation and the National Olympic Committee of Luxembourg for their continuous support.

“I think I represent all [people], no matter the age, colour or religion. Sometimes you can make the impossible possible,” she said, referring to a variety of disadvantages she has had to overcome on her path to becoming a champion.

“I am short, I am old, I have an old-fashioned style of playing, but I believe I have a good attitude, which helped me to get this far.”

Ni had a great European Games here in Minsk, claiming the first out of two medals for Luxembourg (archer Seywert Gilles won a silver), the country she has been representing since 1991. She also took the time to praise the organisers of the Games, congratulating them on the successful execution of the event.

“I have no complaints, and I have not heard any from anyone else either,” she said. “I am impressed with what Belarus put together – chapeau!”

Before the 2020 Olympic Games, Ni plans to participate in numerous tournaments, including the 2019 European Table Tennis Championship taking place in September in Nantes, the Swedish Open in Stockholm in November, and the European Top 16 in Switzerland.

“The Future of Athletics” – DNA’s Golden Debut

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

As International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach once said, “To change or to be changed, that is the question. If you wait too long, you will be changed.”

In line with Bach’s approach, innovation has been at the forefront of European Athletics’ newest team format, Dynamic New Athletics (DNA) – an action-packed concept that saw its debut at the European Games Minsk 2019.

With the last DNA competition taking place last night inside a packed Dinamo Stadium in front of a roaring crowd, the overall response to the new strategy has been overwhelmingly positive, leaving the creators behind the idea thrilled with the outcome.

“It’s been an incredible journey for Dynamic New Athletics over the past three years,” said European Athletics Vice President Libor Varhaník, the Council Member in charge of the project.

“The mission was to deliver an entertaining, TV friendly, short form, team-based event, which could help us engage a younger audience and could complement the classical version of athletics, and we feel we have succeeded. After everything we have seen here at the European Games in Minsk, we firmly believe that DNA has a very bright future.”

Plenty of athletes indeed embraced the new concept, including team captain of Team Ireland Sarah Lavin, who crossed the finish line second in the 100m hurdles event during the qualification round on 23 June.

“You go into it not knowing what to expect because the individual events are slightly different,” she explained.

Athletics is primarily an individual sport, but according to Lavin, the team aspect pushes you to do better individually.

“Your performance contributes to the team’s performance. In some ways, you prepare the exact same way, but you run a little bit faster because you are doing it for everybody else as well,” Lavin said.

Zoya Naumov of Spain, who ran the concluding event known as The Hunt – a distance-medley race where the teams that performed best in the first eight events get a proportionate head start – shares Lavin’s excitement about DNA’s debut at the Minsk 2019 Games.

“We enjoyed it so much because we felt this sensation between everyone in the team,” she said. “I think it is a good way to entertain the audience and to see athletics [in a different light].”

It is universally known that people are creatures of habit, but it seems that coach of Team Italy, Giulio Ciotti, has changed his tune after initially being sceptical about the DNA format.

“For a 45-year-old man like me, [DNA] was a bit difficult to understand at the beginning. But seeing the competition live and living it myself was incredibly fun, and all our athletes, so they said, thrived in the collaborative environment,” Ciotti said.

The atmosphere behind the scenes was filled with just as much energy and excitement for the entire duration of the Games. Sports commentator for the Belarusian Channel 5 Siarhei Matskevich, who has been commentating on athletics since the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Republic of Korea, said that following the new format as it was happening was a highly rewarding experience.

“Change is good and interesting, and I am always up for it,” he said. “Also, the Belarusians were absolutely amazing, so for me it was twice as fun.

“We’ve had a few challenges commentating on the high jump, which needs to be improved, but overall it is a great foundation to start with. All in all, each individual discipline has definitely been upgraded. Also, I think, the spectators really enjoyed it, because they felt engaged, which, at the end, is the most important thing.”

The audience was indeed cheering loudly throughout the week, even more so during yesterday’s finale, where host Belarus, after winning five of the eight preceding events, secured a silver medal, losing to Ukraine by only a fraction of a second.

Physical education teacher Nikolai Petrovskiy made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Gomel just to experience the spectacular ending live, which exceeded his expectations.

“It’s a very bright competition,” he said. “The atmosphere here at the Dinamo was incredible. People were screaming and cheering, which made it instantly more fun. I am very proud of our athletes and how much they have achieved. DNA is definitely more modern and approachable for a younger audience. I would even say that it is the future of athletics.”

Petrovskiy expects the format to become popular worldwide, with Europe leading the way and other continents jumping on board soon after.

At the end of the two-hour adrenaline-packed match last night, Germany took home bronze, beating fourth-place Czech Republic by 0.19 seconds. France came fifth in 4:38.28, with Italy finishing sixth in 4:44.90.

Friendship Fuels Rise of Estonian Badminton Duo

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

Badminton players Kati-Kreet Marran and Helina Ruutel of Estonia are through to the quarterfinals at the European Games Minsk 2019, taking place this evening at the Falcon Club. The EOC spoke to the pair about starting their sporting journey, their rituals before the match, and a long friendship being the secret to their accomplishments.

Kati-Kreet Marran and Helina Ruutel form the best badminton duo in Estonia. This is all the more impressive given that they’ve only played together for eight months, starting in November of last year. Their friend, Kristin Kuuba, who used to be Ruutel’s partner, decided to embark on a single’s career, which encouraged the two to build a team of their own.

“Our team dynamic hasn’t really changed,” admits Helina, when asked what the adjustment process has been like.

“We have trained with each other since we were 8 years old, so it wasn’t difficult.” Ruutel and Marran know each other well on and off the court, having started playing badminton after joining Kuuba at a training session ten years ago. They say they fell instantly in love with the sport. Marran was learning the piano in music school at the time, but quickly realised that badminton was the career to go for.

The badminton community in Estonia is quite small, they say, with around 30 people playing in their village and approximately 500 in the whole of Estonia. As a result, the two are particularly impressed with the spectators at the European Games in Minsk so far. “It’s the biggest crowd I’ve had support me in my entire sporting career,” admits the 21-year-old Ruutel.

Marran shares her partner’s sentiments, admitting that she appreciates having Estonians cheering them on in the audience. “There are a lot of [them] here, and it’s really nice to hear their voices,” explains the 20-year-old. “It gives us motivation, and you know that you have to play well for yourself, but for them as well.”

“The European Games are a dream come true. We’ve had a difficult road to get here, many competitions and tournaments. We played well, and now we are really happy that we made it this far.”

After losing their first match against Lefel Emilie and Tran Annie of France, who were awarded the silver medal at the European Badminton Championships last year, the Estonian athletes won their two following competitions here in Minsk, securing a spot in the quarterfinals. How will they prepare for the game this evening?

“Positivity is the key to every match. We will watch some games ahead of the quarterfinals, but we are going to do our best,” says Ruutel. “Before we play, we don’t think about winning or losing, we just enjoy the game and see what happens.”

Like most athletes, it seems, the two have their share of rituals they rigorously follow before entering the court. Besides the usual warm-up exercises and a word of encouragement from their coach, their routine includes a few superstitious traditions.

While Helina insists on taking two sips of her drink before she enters the court, Kati tightens the shoe laces on her right shoe, even if they’re not loose.

“We won the Latvian Badminton International this year, and I did that every time before we played,” says Marran.

Their quick rise to the top is undoubtedly due in no small part to their authentic team dynamic, but would they ever consider going solo?

“I’ve always preferred doubles,” explains Ruutel. “I am left-handed and Kati is right-handed, which is an advantage for us. I also like to be at the front.”

“…and I’m the smasher!” Marran says with a laugh. “Since I started playing with Helina, I’ve realised [doubles] is way more my style.”

Winning a gold medal is every athlete’s dream, but the two girls say they are taking everything one step at a time. After the European Games, the World Championships are on the horizon, but they also hope to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next year.

Ruutel and Marran play against Ekaterina Bolotova and Alina Davletova today at 7:15 p.m. at the Falcon Club.

European Games Volunteers – the Unsung Heroes

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

With hundreds of sports competitions under their belt, Anatoli Yanochkin from Russia and Judith Gunion from Great Britain are two of the most experienced individuals among the 7,800 volunteers at the European Games Minsk 2019. They spoke to the EOC about what drives them and the positives of being a crucial component to organising a sports event.

Needless to say, 80-year-old Anatoli Yanochkin and 72-year-old Judith Gunion are no typical retirees. These days, they dedicate most of their time to volunteering, and it appears they are not planning on slowing down any time soon.

A former engineer, Yanochkin made his volunteering debut in 2012, when he started his training for the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. He says he was intrigued by an advertisement he saw on TV and immediately felt persuaded to apply for the role.

“I went online and searched for the correct website to register. Then I passed all the [necessary] language tests and worked several hours at the volunteering centre in Moscow prior to the 2014 Olympic Games,” he explains.

Since then, Yanochkin has been volunteering at various sports events 15 to 20 times per year. His repertoire includes sports competitions of the highest calibre, such as the Formula 1 in Sochi, 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 as well as countless other national sports competitions.

His motivation behind volunteering is simple: “I enjoy being part of events that a person wouldn’t normally be able to attend,” he explains.

“As a spectator, you buy a ticket and visit one event, but as a volunteer you get to spend [more time] there and see all the behind-the-scenes things.”

Having witnessed a variety of sports competitions, Yanochkin, who is working with the anti-doping control team, is impressed with the execution of the European Games in Minsk so far. The level of organisation, he admits, is just as good as any other big sports competition.

Former journalist and sports massage therapist Judith Gunion is no newbie to the sports world either. A mixed-zone specialist here in Minsk, she has been enjoying being close to the action at the European Games, and hopes that they will continue on in the future.

“I’d never been to Minsk, and I don’t speak Russian, but I am able to talk to people. I’m loving the whole atmosphere of it.”

Gunion’s first volunteering job was at the Olympic Games London 2012, followed by countless World Championships and the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Having been diagnosed with breast cancer three times since 2000, there are no more plan Bs for the 72-year-old.

“I’ve got the spirit, I’ve got the desire,” she says enthusiastically. “I get tired, obviously, I’m the first to admit it. When I go home after this, I will be tired for a couple of days, but that’s what happens. I get over it, and I am ready for the next [day].”

Just like Gunion, Yanochkin has always had a tendency to be active, refusing to spend his time “playing cards or gardening.”

An accomplished alpinist, Yanochkin used to organise expeditions all over the former Soviet Union and worked as a ski instructor for many years. His profession allowed him to see the world, bringing him to the most remote places, including Antarctica, where he spent two and a half years researching at a Soviet meteorological station. Years of travelling have filled his life with countless adventures, but also unavoidable moments of terror.

“In 1981, I went on an expedition to the Arctic, and our plane crashed while landing, leaving two out of 12 people dead,” he remembers. Ironically, Yanochkin survived because he was not wearing a seat belt.

“The two people sitting next to me were smothered to death, and I was thrown in the air from my seat and broke both legs,” he explains. Since then, Yanochkin has been walking with a limp. Decades after the accident, the effects of the crash still linger, but the physical setback does not hold him back.

“All sportsmen have some sort of trauma, but what to do? We keep on living!”

After the European Games, Yanochkin plans to steer his attention towards local events in Moscow later this year, such as the Moscow Urban Forum, which features panel discussions with architects and urban managers from all over the world.

Judith, on the other hand, will be en route to Peru next month to volunteer at the Pan American Games 2019. “I’ve never been to Peru, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to do something like this,” she says.

After years of valuable hands-on experience, one question remains: What makes a good volunteer? “You have to be kind, polite and ready to face any unexpected circumstances,” says Yanochkin. Gunion only echoes his words, while emphasising the importance of team spirit.

“I just want to be part of a team. I want the athletes and the spectators to go home thinking they had a great time.”

Majlinda Kelmendi’s Golden Comeback

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

World No. 1 judoka Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo is back on the mat following a year away from competition recovering from back and knee injuries. She spoke to the EOC about her fantastic return to medal-winning form at the European Games Minsk 2019, where she won gold in the under -52kg category on Saturday.

Kosovan legend Majlinda Kelmendi was an unbeatable force in the world of judo until severe injury forced her onto the sidelines following the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where she became the first Kosovar athlete to win an Olympic (gold) medal.

Having not fought in a championship since 2017, she was hungry to be victorious in Minsk this year, and her determination definitely paid off.

“It was a long, tough day, but I just wanted to win and show that I’m back,” said Kelmendi, who was crowned European Games champion with a victory over Baku 2015 bronze medallist Natalia Kuziutina of Russia on 22 June at the Chizhovka Arena.

“Honestly, it was not easy at all, but in the end I won the gold, and it’s the first medal for me at the European Games,” she added.

Getting back in the game after a physical setback was not easy, she confided, referring to the mental pressure she was under. “You can get healthy and strong, but if you’re not healthy in your head, it’s even harder.”

Kelmendi, who was injured during the inaugural European Games in Baku, was excited to be competing at Minsk 2019, and the crowd did not disappoint, cheering on Kosovo’s most beloved athlete with every throw.

“We had a lot of people here supporting me and my teammates,” the 28-year-old said. “It was a good atmosphere, and we could feel their support. I am happy I did not disappoint them.”

Since winning gold as an 18 year old at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Paris, Kelmendi’s career took off astronomically, winning two World Championships, four European Championships and countless other medals en route to becoming Olympic champion in 2016. But getting to where she is now wasn’t all plain sailing.

“I had many problems during my career. Many things and people that tried to stop me. When you are successful, not everybody likes you, not everybody supports you,” she said. “There will always be somebody who will try to ruin your reputation, so it was not easy, but I am happy with what I have achieved.”

Kosovo’s biggest sporting icon started practicing judo at 8 years old in her hometown of Peja, right after the Kosovo war had ended. Practicing judo helped her to “become somebody,” and gave her the opportunity to support her parents, who lost their jobs after the negative effects of the war led to a closing of factories in the country.

Kelmendi’s triumphant success has turned judo into the most popular individual sport in Kosovo, which is in no small part thanks to her mentor and coach Driton Kuka. Kuka was one of the most promising judo talents in his country when he was a teenager, but the Yugoslav war forced him to end his own sporting career at just 19 years old.

His athletic ambition was instilled into Kelmendi, who, since becoming the first Kosovar Olympic champion, is seen as a heroine in her country. For this reason, she strives to be a role model for aspiring athletes, encouraging them to aim high in the sporting world.

“Starting in a small city, I have now become the best in the world,” she said. “So if you want something, you have to work really hard for it, and believe in yourself. That’s all I did, and it brought me to where I am today.”

Staying disciplined is part of being a successful sportswoman, but even the world’s most accomplished athlete needs a word of encouragement from time to time. “[People] think because you are an Olympian, you don’t need it, but honestly, I need it. If you are good, sometimes you need to hear that you are strong, and that you can do it.”

To ensure that she brings the right mindset to the mat, Kelmendi tries to stay positive and acknowledge the hard work she’s put into her achievements. “All I think about [before the fight] is that I’m the best, and I work really hard, that I am strong enough, and that I can do it.”

After a successful outcome at this year’s European Games, the two-time world champion would like nothing more than to get some deserved rest, but a holiday is unfortunately not on the horizon.

“I can relax [for a couple of days], but then I have to train again. In three weeks, I am competing at the Budapest Grand Prix 2019, but the main goal for this year will be the World Judo Championships in Tokyo this August. I hope – and I believe – that I will be in great shape,” she said.

After the World Championships are over, Kelmendi is ready to start her training for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, proving that her drive to retain her crown as the world’s most fearless and deserving champion knows no bounds.

Sambo’s Journey to Global Participation

This article was originally published on the EOC website during the European Games Minsk 2019.

After being part of the inaugural European Games Baku 2015, sambo is back stronger than ever at this year’s European Games in Minsk. Ahead of the sold-out preliminary round today at the Sports Palace, the EOC spoke to some of the athletes about their fighting experiences so far as well as ways they are increasing the sport’s popularity in their home countries.

Sambo came into being in the 1920s as part of the hand-to-hand training regimen created for the Soviet Union’s Red Army, and has a long tradition in Eastern Europe.

However, since being granted provisional International Olympic Committee recognition last year, sambo is becoming more and more popular in other places around Europe.

Ferenc Siranko is one of about 100 sambo fighters in Hungary. He says it is “fantastic” to represent his country at the European Games Minsk 2019. “This is a big thing for me and my coach, and we are happy about what we’ve accomplished so far.”

Siranko’s coach, Imre Papp, is the founder and President of the Hungarian Sambo Federation and the very first person to introduce the sport in the country. After witnessing one of the matches, he became fascinated with sambo, and has since made it a priority to grow its popularity in his homeland.

“In 2007, I had a dream,” Papp says. “At the time, I was a professional Muay Thai fighter, but I wanted to know how to become a sambist. That’s why I went to Ukraine and Russia to learn, so I could teach the sport to my boys – and girls – [in Hungary]. It’s like a mission.”

Papp has been undeniably successful in his endeavour so far, given that sambo history was made in Hungary with the staging of the first ever Budapest International Grand Prix on 26 May 2019. The day also coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Hungarian Sambo Federation.

What makes the martial art so unique, Papp says, is the physical and mental focus that is required from the fighters. “Sambo is complex. Everything that you need to fight, you have inside of you.”

The European Games Minsk 2019 are part of Papp’s ongoing mission to spread awareness about sambo. Connecting with other teams around the world, he says, is key for improving and developing your fighting skills, no matter the outcome.

“Attending as many Games as possible is the most important thing. I have been to Belarus before, mainly for the sambo tournaments, and we also have great connections to the Belarusian team. I love Belarus and its people.”

According to his coach, Siranko is one of the best Hungarian sambists in his category (100kg). Despite having lost his two matches today and admitting to being in awe of his opponents’ prowess, he says he remains positive about getting better in the future.

“My first competitor, Viktors Resko from Latvia, was very strong. He is a wonderful fighter, and I have great respect for him,” he says.

Siranko described the competition here in Minsk as “brutal,” which is not all that surprising given the physical pressure the fighters are under.

Unlike some other martial arts, there are fewer rules and restrictions in sambo, allowing a sambist, for example, to lift the opponent’s legs and arms to throw them to the ground. One way of instantly winning a fight is to throw the opponent to the mat on his or her back.

“The most important thing when doing so is to remain standing,” says German sambist Jule Horn. “If you fall, you only receive additional points.”

“The fight is officially won when a sambist is eight points ahead of her opponent,” she adds.

Fewer rules and more freedom is what Frenchwoman Tiphaine Le Gall finds to be the most appealing aspect about the sport. Also a practitioner of judo and Celtic wrestling, Le Gall is no newbie to martial arts, but prefers sambo over the others.

“Sambo is more fun. In judo, there are more restrictions, but in sambo you have the freedom to do whatever you want.”

Le Gall first started her sambo career 11 years ago, and has been particularly excited to showcase her skills for the first time at a European Games.

“I’m very impressed with the European Games so far. The Olympic Village is absolutely fantastic and the Opening Ceremony was just mind-blowing.”

Le Gall’s dream is to represent France in sambo at the Olympic Games, but she assumes she will be too old to participate if it ever makes the cut.

Le Gall competes tomorrow in the quarterfinals of the -68 kg category against Serbian Jandric Ivana. A total of 144 European sambists are in Minsk this week, hoping to win a medal for their country, and therefore become a deserving ambassador of the sport.

Growth

When I was younger, home was where my mum was. Home were the summers spent mushroom foraging in a forest with my grandmother. Home were birthday parties and chocolate cream cakes and dancing until I broke out in sweat. Home were my two best friends across the road and movie nights we spent together laughing.

When I grew older, home became complicated, scattered, rootless. What once was a clear image filled with light, turned into an echo of doubtful thinking, a cloud of question marks and countless moments of racing heartbeat. Home became a concept for children, and those who were too weak to live life on their own, needless of help of others. Home was for those who cried, who were not strong enough to cope. Home was for the frail.

Today, home is the silent safety that I feel within. Home is who I share my bed with at night. Home is my rootless heart, the freedom of my mind, the spontaneity of my words. Home is the deep laughter, the foggy brain after a glass of wine. Home is how much I miss those who are close to me, the salty waters and the warmth of the Californian coast. Home is how I am slowly learning to love myself unconditionally, how I build up confidence, how I grow to trust. Home is how my body is slowly turning into what I always desired it to be. Home is switching off the need to compare myself to others and living in the moment. Home is the coldness of gin on the tip of my tongue. Home is sleeping in and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Home is what I feel in this moment as I write. Home is me, all of it.

When Childhood Resists to Define

As a child, identity was never a conscious concept for me. Being was it and it was enough. “Who am I?”, however, became a question of adulthood.

I don’t remember who I was when I was younger. I struggle to think of valuable and defining moments of my identity. Facts, the usual suspects, come to mind whenever I try to carve out a piece of my memory. I grew up in Grodno, a Belarusian town close to the Polish border. Summers where spent at my grandmother’s tiny flat, in a town called Mosty, an hour away from where my mother and I lived. I filled my days playing with neighbour’s children, licking vanilla ice creams, watching American teen films and playing cards. On an occasional weekend we would have barbecues at my grandma’s dacha, a holiday cottage just outside of town. Life was easy, light and care-free. And if there was any struggle, my mother never passed it on to me. I never felt the need to define who I was, I lived my easiest life and was as happy as a child could be.

We didn’t have much money, but with my father working abroad, we were becoming more comfortable. In other words, I never felt that I was lacking materialistic satisfaction. If anything, I valued any item I’d received. Early on I realised that shopping wasn’t a pastime, but my mother managed to create the perfect balance of providing me with everything that I needed, and me feeling spoiled by my parents. We would shop consciously for clothes and I was taught to treasure each item and take good care of it. But shopping was still fun, a well-deserved reward for receiving good grades and being a well-behaved daughter.

As a child, I never felt the need to define who I was. I lived my easiest life and was as happy as a child could be.

I have few memories of my parents being together. My father moved to Chicago when I was four to earn money as a truck driver and only returned once when I was around eight. He wasn’t a present figure in my life, but my grandmother was a constant companion and a significant addition to my upbringing. When I was four, she taught me how to read, and it is because of her that I’ve learned to treasure books at a young age.  She would patiently sit through my maths homework with me, do spelling and grammar exercises and help me memorise poems for school recitals. When my grandfather died (I was also four), she dedicated herself to raising me full-time. My mother, who was a kindergarten teacher at the time, enroled at a university in Minsk to study psychology. During the week my grandmother would take care of me and on the weekends my mother would take over.

I grew up surrounded by strong and independent women, there were no male role models to look up to. Besides my uncle, my mother’s sister’s husband, I didn’t know any men who contributed any significance to their children’s lives. In retrospect, the lack of male presence surely influenced the way I approached romantic relationships as an adult. Trust was an obvious issue and a quality I had to learn how to gain. But I never had the feeling that being raised by two women affected me in a negative way. At least, I don’t remember that it would. I had everything that I needed, I was loved and cared for. I just happed to not have a dad around.

When I entered first grade, my mother got me a private English tutor to ensure I was taking advantage of my linguistic potential. Writing was my favourite activity. Be it a story, a diary entry or a letter, if I wasn’t reading, I was writing. Books and writing were constants of my personality, part of my identity, but I never viewed them as such. There were just there and I never had the urge to question why. I was also always told that there was nothing that I couldn’t do. I was encouraged to follow my creative urges, but my mother would’ve been just as happy if I became a doctor. What parent wouldn’t?

I had everything that I needed, I was loved and cared for. I just happed to not have a dad around.

At age 13, my mother and I moved countries. We packed our bags and took on the adventure of moving to Austria where I would soon enrol at a new school, be confronted with a new language, deal with cultural differences and loss.

The only thing I knew about myself as a teenager prior to us moving to Austria, was the fact that I was a sensitive person. I would always worry about being misunderstood and therefore excluded. I would apologise for things I wasn’t to blame and would do anything to be liked. But these weren’t necessarily aspects of my identity, just qualities I needed to work on, or insecurities that would naturally disappear when I’d grow older.

In Austria, however, I was suddenly flooded with questions about my personality that weren’t necessarily coming from my new classmates. They were coming from me.
“Why does my last name sound so random in the classbook? Why do teachers keep stumbling upon its pronounciation? Why does my passport cause so many inconveniences? Will I ever learn German? Am I not good enough to learn it? Why am I different and will I ever be accepted? Why can I not ski when everyone else can?”

The most obvious explanations for all these questions may be clear, for example, I couldn’t ski because I didn’t grow up in a mountanious country, or my name was different because it was foreign. Being put in an environment where my normal became the exception, I was suddenly flooded with doubts about concepts I’d never thought of before.

Doubts ignited more self-observation, which opened the door to a whole new palette of uncertainties. The realisation of my being different stimulated the need to make decisions on how to live daily life without drawing more attention to my identity. I believe the moment when I questioned my identity and made a conscious decision to not stand out, was ultimately when I grew up. Gone was the world of carefree living. I grew up when I became aware of my identity, or lack thereof. I suppose questioning your identity is a natural process of growing up and is not bound to a specific place. But moving countries at a young age certainly accelerated the process.  I became less of an actor and more of an observer.

The moment when I questioned my identity and made a conscious decision to not stand out, was ultimately when I grew up.

When people ask me today what it was like back then, I rarely have a satisfying answer. I hardly remember anything, but a deep worry inside my chest that I hadn’t been familiar with before. I faced sudden expectations and got sucked up in responsibilities while feeling the weight of the world. I started defining who I was by the validation I’d receive from people who gave themselves the power to assess. More often now than ever, I crave the days I spent not worrying as a child. It is a constant learning process for many to leave our internal demons behind and reach the nirvana – a place where we simply are, who we were before life happened, who we were as children – where we come to ease.