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With Her ‘Heart on Fire,’ Ukrainian Olympian Sets Eyes on 2023 Head of the Charles

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“My heart is on fire.”

That’s what 2012 Olympic gold-medalist and European champion Natliia Dovgodko described when asked how she feels heading into the 2023 Head of the Charles Regatta to represent her home country, Ukraine.

The historic Head of the Charles Regatta — the world’s largest two-day rowing event — has made a name for itself by drawing in talented athletes from every corner of the globe. It doesn’t discriminate against collegiate, club, Olympic, or youth teams alike, giving a chance to all rowers to break water with the best of the best.

Dovgodko, an experienced rower in the Women’s Quadruple Sculls Race, is not new to top-level international competition. At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, she, alongside Ukrainian rowers Kateryna Tarasenko, Anastasiia Kozhenkova, and Yana Dementieva, made history by claiming the country’s first gold medal in rowing. The same year, she raced in a women’s Ukrainian boat of four in the European Championships to take first place with an impressive time of 6:26.04.

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At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, her team took fourth place in the women’s coxless four race behind Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. Most recently, the National Team traveled to North Carolina for the High Point Autumn Rowing Festival on Oct. 8, facing Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) teams like Duke and Clemson. For some members, it was their first time traveling to the United States.

“For most of us, it’s the first time we have come to America, we feel how deeply Americans support our country,” Dovgodko reflected. “We want to say thank you to all the people of America, it's great — we see how you gathered and want to help us, and we feel it, we feel it too in your eyes and your doings.”

For her and her team, the world-renowned race is not just about the competition, but an opportunity to wear their country’s name with pride and thank those who have helped them along the way in what Dovgodko called “the city of rowing,” where, “there are a lot of masters” and “rowing is their heart.”

“It’s important to race here because your city, Boston, is the city of rowing. We’re happy to see so many people rowing, you have a lot of clubs, it's great to see this because in Ukraine now, so little children or masters come to train,” the Olympian reported. “Some where have no boats, because of the damages of Russian soldiers – it's hard… it's different.”

“I want to see our country like your country, like in Boston — all people happy, there are sports, they do their hobbies, they can work, they can learn, it’s great, it's really great,” she added.

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Training in Ukraine amid the war with Russia has been painstakingly difficult. It caused the team to be displaced into nearby countries like Bulgaria and Italy to prepare for the summer competition. In late 2022, Russian officials intensified their attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid, forcing many to live without power for days — all while in the dead of the winter.

“This winter was so hard because of Russian aggression,” Dovgodko explained. “They bump our electric stations, and sometimes we have for two days no electricity in our apartments.”

“My flat apartment in the building on the 25th floor, so I had training after training,” she joked.

Dovgodko and other Ukrainians were in crisis when it came to basic necessities like food, heat, and medical care in clinics.

“We don’t cook but we warm our meal by candles, sometimes with my husband. We had no electricity so we do what we can,” Dovgodko recounted.

For the team, the Head of the Charles is all the more bittersweet. While the worry of loved ones’ wellbeing does not fade, feeling the support of those who watch on the banks of the crowd gives the rowers a sense of hope.

“It's hard to be not in country, everybody worried about our people, our families, but we want to go to different competitions,” Dovgodko said. “We want to train and speak with other people and say thank you because all of the world now is helping us, and it's really important for us.”

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At last year’s regatta, the Head of the Charles worked with Simmons University head crew coach and former Ukrainian National Team member Andrii Ivanchuk to sponsor the 28 National Team rowers to compete in Cambridge. The men’s and women’s rowers competed in the Championship Eights, taking twelfth and ninth place, respectively.

“Last year we were in shock because we saw a lot of people who were cheering and come to see this competition,” Dovgodko remembered. “There are a lot of rowers who want to row, a lot of competition, a lot of different types of ages of rowers.”

The team traveled to Boston following its trip to High Point University and has been training for the regatta for over a week. They will compete on both days of the race in the Women’s Four, the Men’s Championship Eight, the Women’s Single, and both a Men’s and Youth’s Pair.

More than 600 days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s no doubt that this year’s race will make for another opportunity to represent Ukrainians near and far and renew hope in Dovgodko and her team once again.

Dovgodko concluded tearfully, “I’m proud to row for the Ukrainian National Team.”

— Staff writer Mairead B. Baker can be reached at mairead.baker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @baker_mairead.

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