Ukrainian Paralympian escapes Russian-held town to safety | More sports news

ZAPORIZHZHIA: With her wheelchair perched on her lap, Ukrainian powerlifting world champion Raisa Toporkova escaped with friends from the occupied town of Enerhodar where Russian forces were bombing Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
They had lost their homes, but not their sense of humor.
“If the Russians came after us, at least we have our sticks to defend ourselves,” joked Yevhenii Razikov, who has cerebral palsy and shared the perilous journey to safety.
Crammed into a car with several other people with special needs, Toporkova spent 12 hours negotiating a series of checkpoints to flee the southern Ukrainian town.
“It would be impossible to get out of the car if something happened,” Toporkova, fifth at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo last year, told AFP in the regional capital Zaporizhzhia.
“My wheelchair was on top of me and two of the others need a stick to walk on.”
More than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes since Russia invaded on February 24, but for people with disabilities the often long and arduous journey can be an almost impossible undertaking.
In early March, Russian troops bombed Enerhodar, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, causing a fire, which was eventually extinguished.
The attack sparked international outrage with memories still fresh of the 1986 explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor, the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Toporkova, who has spent most of her life in a wheelchair due to a musculoskeletal growth disorder, said the situation was rapidly deteriorating at Enerhodar after a month under Russian control.
She could barely get out, and her first floor house had no basement to shelter from the many explosions.
Food supplies are dwindling and prices have risen up to four times. Pharmacies ran out of life-saving prescription drugs.
Another spike in violence at the nuclear power plant could mean a deadly radioactive leak.
Fearing that the opportunity to leave was closing in, Toporkova fled on Monday with her husband Anton Vavryshchuk, 37, who is also physically disabled.
They were joined by their friends, Razikov and his wife, who did not want to be identified. Both suffer from cerebral palsy.
“My wheelchair was on our knees and there was constant shelling. We were afraid of being killed there and the explosions intensified even further when we reached the checkpoint,” Toporkova said.
After their minibus broke down on the outskirts of town, they feared their chance was lost, but a Red Cross volunteer managed to transfer them to a car.
Yet at a checkpoint they were held for seven hours.
The wait was long and painful for the group, whose physical difficulties were exacerbated by long periods of time sitting in a car.
There are more than seven million people aged 60 or over in Ukraine and 2.7 million people with disabilities, according to the European Disability Forum.
Advocacy groups have warned that many will not be able to escape or seek shelter due to lack of mobility.
Out of a column of more than 100 cars, the group said they were ultimately one of only two vehicles allowed through. The journey took 12 hours instead of the usual two due to difficulties at checkpoints.
“There were three possible outcomes: one is that we got hit by shelling, another is that we got stuck and then who could save us. The third is that we got out, and luckily that’s what happened,” Razikov said.
Toporkova started powerlifting 19 years ago and is a two-time world champion.
She has not been able to train since the start of the war at the end of February and the closing of the gymnasiums. She also risked losing her job and her means of earning a living if she stayed. She used to do three two-hour sessions a week.
“If I don’t train for a week it’s fine, but two weeks is terrible,” she said. “Let’s say I could lift 100 kg before, after that I could only lift 80 kg.”
“I lose results if I don’t train and I won’t be invited to international competitions anymore.”
Now she’s heading to Lviv in western Ukraine and hopes she can get back to the gym.
“I can’t wait to get back to training.”

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