Blake Ellis/Local Journalism Initiative
More than a year ago, 15 year-old Yarko Zelenchuk fled war-torn Ukraine with his family. Today, the Grade 10 student at LCCVI is excelling on the tennis court.
Zelenchuk captured second place in the boys’ singles SWOSSAA championships in Chatham Oct. 18, falling to Chimnay Damani of Sarnia’s Northern Collegiate.
The win was a world away from where Zelenchuk was just 17 months ago – living with his family in Lviv, one of the largest cities in Ukraine.
Russia invaded the Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 and by June 2022, the same month the Zelenchuk family arrived in Canada, Russian forces had occupied 20 percent of the Ukraine. By April 2023, an estimated eight million Ukrainians have been displaced inside Ukraine and more than 8.2 million fled the country.
Zelenchuk arrived in Canada on June 1, 2022, with his mother, Natalia, and younger brother, Darii, a Grade 6 student at St. Philip Catholic School in Petrolia. His father, Adrian, joined the family a short time later. His sister, Myroslava attends the University of Tulsa, where she also plays tennis.
Zelenchuk has relatives in the United States, but the family came to Canada because it was easier to obtain a visa. They came to the Petrolia area because a host family was found near Petrolia on a farm. The Zelenchuks stayed there a few months until they found accommodations in Petrolia.
The Zelenchuks lived in Lviv, a city 70 kilometres from the Polish border. It hasn’t been touched much by the war so far, as the war is mostly on the western part of the country near the Russian border.
Zelenchuk said Lviv is double the size of London, Ontario. You can sometimes hear a bomb burst in the distance, he said.
He still has relatives in Ukraine, as his uncle and his 19 year-old cousin are in the Ukraine army. His grandmother also remains in the country, not wanting to leave her home or any of her family members who are fighting the Russians.
That means he will be separated from his extended family for some time. Zelenchuk believes the war will drag and even then he doubts he will return since the bombing has devastated much of the country, he said.
For now he is concentrating on tennis.
His father introduced him to the sport when he was a child. His sister Myroslava also helps him to improve when she stays with the family in Petrolia when she is not at university.
Zelenchuk credits Coach Pete Mueller and his son, Matt, with helping him to improve.
Matt, a Western University student who has been playing since he was a teen, made his comeback in tennis this summer by winning the Ontario Tennis Association’s Men’s Open 350 tournament in St. Thomas, after recovering from a car accident.
Coach Mueller met the Zelenchuks when they first arrived. Myroslava needed someone to hit tennis balls with, so his son, Matt, stepped up.
Zelenchuk was also playing and was getting some coaching. Mueller says Myroslava was translating for him at the time, so Mueller says, the teen has come a long way with his English. He then joined the high school’s tennis program in September.
“I am so proud of Yarko,” said Coach Mueller, saying Zelenchuk is the first to make it to OFSAA in tennis since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
It is quite difficult to make it to OFSAA, said Mueller as it involves winning a series of tournaments.
In the first two tournaments, you must place in the top four to advance to the next level, with SWOSSAA having only the top two advance.
“I am just trying to prove myself,” he said, as Zelenchuk looks to the upcoming OFSAA championship. He has never competed at this level before, so he is sure he will be nervous heading into competition. He has no expectations about how he will do but can gain experience and use it as a springboard as he looks to return to the provincial competition in later years.
He would love to continue to play tennis at the university level and hopefully play professionally in the future.
But first, to OFSAA after his second place finish at SWOSSAA. And that will take some work, the teen says after losing twice to Damani – including in the final.
“I lost to him mentally,” said Zelenchuk. He was winning early in the final, but it began to rain, which threw him off, he says.
The top two advance to OFSAA in June 2024, which may give Zelenchuk another chance to face Damani.
His mental game is something Zelenchuk says he needs to work on as he prepares over the next few months.
For now, Zelenchuk is enjoying Petrolia saying people are friendly and the community is quiet and clean. And being part of the tennis team has helped him overcome his shyness.
Zelenchuk is also enjoying his time at LCCVI. “I never thought school could be so enjoyable,’ said Zelenchuk.
- The Independent