Ivan Lytovchenko remembers the look on the faces of his common folk. There were no emotions — only austere expressions and almost a sense of numbness to it all by now.
“Almost like brick faces,” Lytovchenko said.
Total destruction of historic cities and separation of families have been the daily fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For over a year now, the burgeoning long jumper for Manhattan College has had to live and breathe the war from every angle.
“All people around the world don’t know 100 percent information about Ukraine,” Lytovchenko said about the media’s coverage. “For us, it’s normal, but not for you.”
One memory that especially sticks out to the 18-year-old Lytovchenko came in the early morning hours of Sept. 29 last year. Rocket blasts pierced the early morning sky in his hometown of Dnipro, his hometown, thrusting him and his family out of bed with a nervous jolt. He, his brother, and father, both named Michailo, survived the strikes—the first one less than a mile away—but three others in the community weren’t as fortunate. The fallen are among more than 100 dead in Dnipro alone, scourging Ukraine’s fourth largest city to a shell of its old self.
“I just looked at my dad and he was so calm and he didn’t stress at all,” Lytovchenko said.
Consider those war-torn circumstances, and then wonder how Lytovchenko, now a Division I athlete in the high jump, managed to chase down an athletic dream while survival was not a guarantee.
In his first semester at the school, he has tried to envision a kind of normalcy where life is actually normal. It’s been tough, Lytovchenko says, balancing school and competition after arriving here with no friends. He knows other compatriots who have settled on the West Coast, but no one close to New York.
“It was really stressful for me because I’m here all alone without my parents or friends,” Lytovchenko said.
What Manhattan has in Lytovchenko could be considered a project. He has a lanky physique that he is still trying to use to his complete advantage. In the classroom, Lytovchenko appears well-equipped to work toward a degree in mechanical engineering, which as he calls, a “dynasty in the family.” His grandfather, father, and brother are all engineers.
“I’m more friendly with the numbers than the letters,” quipped Lytovchenko. “I decided to take the same steps as they did and I’m happy about that.”
Kerri Gallagher, Manhattan’s head coach of track and field, wanted to help make good on Lytovchenko’s dreams to study and compete in America. But first, that meant some mutual sacrifices, like the fact Lytovchenko had visa complications that delayed his arrival one semester late.
“We, of course, talked about the circumstances back home, but Ivan was very focused on wanting to find the right place to realize his potential academically firstly and then athletically,” Gallagher said.
“We were very fortunate to have Ivan reach out to us.”
Lytovchenko and his mother, Larysa , had moved in with a host family in the Alps Region of Italy in March last year to escape the war. Not only did the family offer refuge and free meals, but Lytovchenko says he gained a “second family” there. Their hospitality continued to provide comfort to Lytovchenko, especially upon finding out his arrival would be delayed, but the training conditions were far from ideal.
That’s not the only competitive jet lag for Lytovchenko either. Back home, track athletes train for half a year and then have one month of competitions in both the summer and winter. The calendar these days has been packed, but Lytovchenko just wants to compete and do what’s best for the school.
“That’s the biggest difference,” Lytovchenko said of his adjustment. “We’ve tried to do more training and right now I’m feeling much better.”
Prior to the Jaspers competing at the Metropolitan Championships last Saturday, Lytovchenko’s assessment of his own performance this season was that he’s “not happy.”
He channeled that motivation into a first-place finish in the high jump at the Mets, clearing two meters. The performance at Randall’s Island’s Icahn Stadium was a necessary step for Lytovchenko’s development, and his second win in his young Jaspers career starting with the Ramapo College Opener back in January.
Larysa is still in Italy, out of harm’s way, and works for a hotel owned by the host family to earn some money to send to Ivan, as well as others back in Ukraine.
“I don’t know anyone else who could do that,” Lytovchenko said of a group of strangers he now calls family. “Take someone from another country and give them some room and living space.”
Lytovchenko doesn’t know if he’s the only Ukrainian track athlete in the states, but figures it’s at least a very small number on the East Coast, if not only him. Fordham University has a men’s basketball player, Rostyslav Novitskyi, who is from Kiev, the capital city. Still, it’s a small cohort who beam with pride about their national heritage.
“I’m proud of being Ukrainian,” Lytovchenko said. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
He appreciates the kind sentiments from Americans, including at his new home, Manhattan College. But Lytovchenko insists he will be just fine given the journey he is on. His heart is with the men fighting at home, and it’s them who deserve the credit, Lytovchenko says.
“They don’t need to worry about me that much because I’m here,” Lytovchenko said. “A lot of people in Ukraine are fighting for their lives and a lot of them are the same age.”
Lytovchenko is enjoying a break from competition for now. But sooner than later, he will be back at it for the stretch run and then the Metro Atlantic Athletic Championships and the IC4A Championships in May. The NCAAs would be the dream finale, but Lytovchenko hasn’t thought that far ahead.
His focus remains on the present and the opportunities to make his family and country proud. He loves where he is at.
“I can only say good things about the college. For me this place is perfect,” he said.