A new bouldering facility has opened in a sports complex in Odesa, Ukraine, amid the Russia-Ukraine war.
"About 10 years ago I had a dream: to open a new bouldering wall in Odesa," Aleksandr Shalagin, coach at the Dynamica Odesa climbing gym, said. "The idea had been around for a long time. But it was never the right time."
Early this year, thanks to the support and direction of Sviatoslav, founder of the Dynamica Odesa sports centre (who wished to be referred to by his first name alone), a proposal to add a bouldering room to the complex was approved and set in motion. An opening was scheduled for March or April.
When Russia declared war on Ukraine in February, Odesa and its surrounding region bordering the Black Sea were targeted from the first day of the invasion. Construction of the bouldering wall had already begun. At first, it seemed as though Aleksandr's dream was finally unfolding at the worst possible time.
"The war caused adjustments, there were delays in the delivery of materials and construction works," Sviatoslav said. "But we did not give up and completed the necessary finishing touches little by little. We understood that Odesans should be able to distract themselves from their problems through sport, despite the challenging climate of war."
Climbing joins a range of other activities on offer at Dynamica, including basketball, volleyball, yoga and gymnastics. The bouldering room consists of with 4-metre walls of varying angles with a range of holds and volumes, including an interactive LED circuit board from Ukrainian company 12Climb.
Odesa already had an established climbing community, centred around a children's climbing school and an alpine club, but the city lacked a modern bouldering facility.
In August, Aleksandr announced the wall's launch on Instagram. 'Opening the doors today and starting a new life for climbing in Odesa,' he wrote. 'Things are different here and won't be the same anymore. Looking forward to seeing you today!'
Aleksandr, 33, is a coach with 27 years of climbing experience. As the younger brother of well-known Ukrainian climber Mykhailo Shalagin—a former IFSC competitor, Boulder World Cup winner and current coach of the Ukrainian youth team—climbing "runs in [his] blood."
While his wife and children fled Ukraine at the start of the war, Aleksandr—like most men subject to martial law in the country—"did not go anywhere." His family eventually returned to Odesa, despite curfews and continued assaults on the city from land, air and sea.
As Ukraine's largest port and a city of strategic, political and cultural significance to both Ukraine and Russia—and one of global economic importance due to its grain exports—Odesa has suffered significant loss of life and damage from shelling, cruise missiles and air strikes.
But Aleksandr and his family, alongside many Odesans, are striving to carry on with their day-to-day lives in the face of ongoing indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilians, many of which have been targeted at public spaces including recreation centres and shopping malls.
"None of us knew - and we do not know - how long the war will last," he said. "In my opinion, you need to take life out of pause and start living."
Since the wall's opening, Aleksandr has run group taster and improvement sessions for both adults and children, on three evenings per week. His courses have proved popular, and he shares daily videos of people enjoying the wall on Dynamica's Instagram and YouTube accounts.
For Aleksandr, opening the Dynamica gym and sharing it with the Odesan community—with experienced climbers, or new climbers—is a small but radical act of defiance and resilience in response to Russia's invasion.
"Life is returning to Odesa, Odesans are returning, Ukrainians are moving to our city from dangerous places," he said. "We are all waiting for our victory and the full return of sport in Ukraine."
In recent weeks, a Ukrainian counteroffensive has liberated key towns and pushed back the Russian line. President Zelensky claims that his troops have tripled their retaken area in little over 48 hours—a boost for Ukrainian morale and a potential turning point in the war.
Aleksandr and Sviatoslav hope that the climbing sessions will give Odesan children an opportunity for physical activity and social interaction—both of which have been disrupted throughout the war—and provide locals with a sense of normalcy and community in this drawn out conflict.
"Adults will be able, at least for a short time, to switch off from problems, not read the news for a while, but do sports while switching off their thoughts," Aleksandr said.
Most of all, Sviatoslav added, they simply wish for "the return of a peaceful life."
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