SANTIAGO, Chile — Lyza Yakhno went from standing on the Olympic podium for Ukraine to standing poolside for Canada at the Pan American Games.
She'd just retired from artistic swimming after Ukraine's team bronze in Tokyo's Olympics when Russia invaded her country Feb. 24, 2022.
Yakhno contemplated starting her own swim apparel business before rockets fell on Kharkiv where she lived, 30 kilometres from the Russian border.
"They attacked, like, every day 100 rockets on the city, on the people," Yakhno said Tuesday in Santiago, Chile. "One day I was in my apartment with my boyfriend, my mom and his friends and the rocket came in 20 metres beside my apartment.
"The building and the floor were shaking. At that time, I was praying 'God, please give me life. I don't want to die right now.' It was very scary. I lost all my hair in two months because this is so stressful."
It wasn't the first time armed conflict forced Yakhno to move. She says her family left her hometown of Donetsk in 2014 because of Russia's annexation of Crimea.
After fleeing to Lviv in western Ukraine last year, Yakhno received an unexpected invitation from Canada Artistic Swimming to work with athletes at a training camp in Budapest, Hungary.
She said she was in survival mode then. Coaching wasn't on her mind.
"I was surprised because I wasn't looking for a job," Yakhno said. "Then I see the message. I'm like 'Oh my God, yes of course.'"
Canada Artistic Swimming's initial motivation was to help a Ukrainian in the sport's community.
"We were all very happy to feel like we were doing something, but we were pleased that she fit in with the coaching staff so well and worked with all of us so well," chief sport officer Kerri Morgan said. "She was an instant fit."
Another invitation to help Canada's team before and during the 2022 world championship in Budapest was extended. Yakhno was then encouraged to apply for a job posting as an assistant coach.
"Not only did this relationship start out for humanitarian reasons, but everybody was in agreement she was the right fit to fill our open assistant coach position," Morgan said.
"She brings a lot of knowledge for highlight setup and execution and she brings a depth of knowledge in sport-specific execution. She was instantly a team player with the coaching staff."
Yakhno spoke next to no English when CAS first contacted her, but she did a few weeks later when she interviewed for the job.
"She's a very stoic, quiet, hard worker behind the scenes," Morgan said.
Yakhno began working with the national team in Montreal after her arrival in Canada on Sept. 17, 2022.
"It's very fast and I'm still in shock,' the 25-year-old said. "It's the second year and I'm coaching Canada trying to qualify for the Olympic Games."
Canada has won gold in both duet and team in the last three Pan American Games in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
The country that wins team gold in Santiago qualifies both team and duet for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. The highest-ranked duet not from the gold-medal country also qualifies for Paris.
Artistic swimming preliminaries got underway Tuesday with duet and team technical routines. The Pan Am Games champions will be crowned Friday after the free and acrobatic routines.
Yakhno being not far removed from a successful competitive career makes her relatable, said Montreal athlete Audrey Lamothe.
"I really like that Lyza has an athlete perspective. When she coaches us, when she's giving a correction, I know she feels what we're doing," Lamothe said. "It's very nice for us to have her perspective because it's really different from other coaches.
"I really like the way that she interacts with us because she also knows all about what is behind the performance, and how are we are feeling before performance, so I really like this part too."
Yakhno says her mother, currently in Germany, will arrive in Canada next month. Yakhno wants her life story to be a lesson to the Canadian athletes she now coaches.
"I tell my athletes when they need some motivation 'you focus now in the moment because you never know what happens tomorrow.' Look at me, war a second time, the coronavirus we lost two years and didn't compete," Yakhno said.
"Every day, every moment, is very appreciable."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press