Ukrainian Boxer Sacrificed Olympic Dream to Defend His Country

Maksym Halinichev, a promising Ukrainian boxer who won silver at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, had a clear path ahead of him. He envisioned a future where he would defeat his opponent from that match, teach his daughter the basics of boxing, and win a medal for Ukraine at the Paris Olympics. These dreams were outlined in an interview with the Ukraine Boxing Federation website in December 2021, even as Russian troops were gathering at Ukraine’s borders.

Halinichev, a young man with a clear understanding of the power of fear, believed that it could be controlled. “Fear can influence people in various ways. Some people are paralyzed by it. Some react by becoming more liberated,” he stated. “If you can control yourself and your body and if you can set yourself the right way, then the fear will retreat.” Tragically, he wouldn’t get to prove his philosophy in the Olympic ring. Halinichev enlisted in the Ukrainian army and was killed in March 2023, at the young age of 22, becoming one of over 400 athletes lost in the war. His body has yet to be recovered.

Ukraine, recognizing the potential of its Olympic hopefuls, sent many of them to train abroad. But Halinichev, like others, chose a different path. He opted to defend his country’s honor on the battlefield, his priorities shifting with the outbreak of war. His perspective on fear remained steadfast, but his commitment to his homeland became paramount.

After the Russian withdrawal from his home region of Sumy, Halinichev witnessed the devastation inflicted by the occupying forces during a drive to Kyiv, where he intended to train for the European Championship. The destruction he saw solidified his decision. “I have a little child. I don’t want her to live in occupation among the aggressor, among the Russians,” he told his coach, Volodymyr Vinnikov. He was determined to fight for his daughter’s future, for the freedom of his country.

The news of the suffering in Kherson, where he trained, further solidified his resolve. He couldn’t fathom training in Europe while his friends and coaches in Kherson endured hardship. “He couldn’t understand how his friends, coaches who were in Kherson, were left without the ability to live, let alone train, and he would go somewhere in Europe,” said his partner, Polina Ihrak. “He couldn’t let himself do it. It mattered to him.”

In May 2022, at just 21 years old, Halinichev joined the airborne assault troops, according to the Ukraine Boxing Federation. He was wounded before the year ended near Bakhmut, sustaining an injury to his foot and shrapnel lodged deep in his leg. Despite the pain and recovery process, he chose to return to the front lines. “He believed he had to return to his brothers in arms because he was needed,” said Ihrak, the mother of their daughter, Vasilisa.

Their last conversation, a video call on March 9, 2023, was followed by weeks of silence. Ihrak, desperately searching for news, eventually identified a photo on a Russian Telegram channel, recognizing her beloved Maksym. He had been killed on March 10, 2023, in Luhansk, a region now largely under Russian control.

Today, their daughter, Vasilisa, bounces joyfully around a boxing ring in her father’s honor, wearing oversized gloves. Though she won’t be taught by her father, Ihrak is certain that Halinichev would have approved of her choice to defend her country. “People go there (to the front) not to regret but to change something,” said Ihrak. “He went back without any doubt.”

Halinichev’s story is not unique. Other Ukrainian athletes have also made the ultimate sacrifice, including pistol shooters Ivan Bidnyak and Yehor Kihitov, judoka Stanislav Hulenkov, weightlifter Oleksandr Pielieshenko, and acrobatics coach Anastasia Ihnatenko, who died alongside her husband and child in a Russian missile strike.

Vinnikov, Halinichev’s coach, is convinced that his athlete would have won a medal for Ukraine at the Paris Olympics. “He would have won a medal for his country,” he said with conviction. Halinichev’s achievements, including a gold medal at the 2017 European Youth Championships, silver at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, and another silver at the 2021 European Under-22 Championships, serve as a testament to his potential.

In his empty apartment in Shostka, his parents have filled a room with reminders of his accomplishments. Trophies and medals from 2010 to 2021 are neatly arranged on a shelf, alongside his photograph, a candle, childhood pictures, a religious icon, flowers, and his boxing gloves. However, they no longer live there, having sought refuge in the Czech Republic since the war began. Ihrak is considering a move to Germany. Dmytrenko, Halinichev’s coach, cherishes the photos and messages he kept, remembering a moment just before the war when he praised Halinichev’s achievements. The boxer’s reply, “Everything is still ahead,” encapsulates the spirit of a young man with a bright future who chose to fight for his country, leaving behind a legacy of courage and sacrifice.

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