More than 340 sports facilities in Ukraine have been damaged since the start of Russia's invasion, including dojos. Left without training facilities, many athletes have been forced to quit their sports.
Feeling a sense of crisis, the Ukraine Olympic Committee and members of the country's judo community turned to the All Japan Judo Federation for help. The judo federation arranged for the athletes to come to Japan.
"Being able to be in Japan right now is helping to keep the athletes motivated," coach Oleksandra Starkova said. She added that what scared them the most in Ukraine wasn't the missiles but rather not being able to practice.
Losing a loved one
Anastasiia Chyzhevska, a 20-year-old resident of Kyiv, lost far more than judo after the invasion began. Her father, a member of Ukraine's armed forces whose mission was to clear mines, was killed in September 2022.
She had been with the team practicing from morning and remembers sensing something was different that day. That night, her coach told her the tragic news and Chyzhevska broke down in tears.
Going to Japan meant her mother would be alone, but Chyzhevska believed that's what her father would have wanted. After all, he was the one who introduced her to judo.
"Continuing judo is not just my dream, but my family's as well. So there is no stopping me."
Ashamed to leave Ukraine
Denys Tupytskyi, aged 23, is the oldest athlete on the team. Right after the invasion started, he fought on the outskirts of Kyiv. He said his rifle also served as his pillow. Deeply immersed in judo before the invasion, he had never handled a gun before. But he said, "The moment I was handed a gun, I was instantly ready to fight for my country."
About two months later, he was summoned back and given the mission of aiming for the Olympics. He said he feels guilty for being able to practice in a safe environment while people are dying in battle.
He then showed his phone screen, saying, "Yesterday, I got a message saying my best friend's father was killed in battle."
Between practices in Japan, Tupytskyi would go to the sea. And to show his gratitude to his host country, he would clean up the shore. He said, "The view is beautiful, it looks like occupied Crimea."
Tupytskyi found the answer to his inner struggle about practicing judo instead of fighting one day while he was speaking with Japanese high school students.
"How do you guys practice back in Ukraine when a war is happening?" asked one student. Tupytskyi replied, "We live with enormous stress. We're worried about our families and friends facing missile attacks."
He also realized while speaking with the students that competing in judo is not only for himself but a way for the world to learn more about Ukraine.
Returning from Japan
The team's trip to Japan ended after three weeks and each member returned home with a new sense of mission.
Before the team departed, Chyzhevska said, "If I am asked what my dream is, it would definitely be the end of the war. If giving up Olympic medals would make it happen, I would gladly do it."
Tupytskyi agreed, saying, "There is nothing more valuable than life."
Only eight days after returning to Ukraine, an air-raid siren disrupted the team's practice at its damaged dojo. But the young athletes won't let the war stop them from competing for their nation.