RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — While Andriy Govorov hasn’t been home for almost three years, he is representing his native region of Crimea quite well in Rio.
Govorov raced for Ukraine on Thursday and posted the fastest time of the men’s 50-meter freestyle heats, making the furious dash to the wall in 21.49 seconds, better than U.S. medal contenders Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin.
“We were planning for this, we had expectations, but it’s just the start,” Govorov said.
Govorov’s life took an unexpected turn when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The swimmer, who is from Sevastopol, ruled out changing his nationality, leading to his extended absence from his home territory.
Ukraine’s economy is in crisis, but sports officials have focused much of their meager funding on him, allowing him to train abroad with coach Arilson Silva, the former mentor of Brazilian world-record holder Cesar Cielo.
“This result comes from him,” Govorov said of Silva. “We know what we’re doing, we know the plan, and this is just the first step to have better results.”
Govorov arrived in Rio in good form, having won silver in the 50m free at the European Championships in May, plus a gold medal in the 50m butterfly, a non-Olympic event. The Olympic 50m free semifinals were scheduled for Thursday night, with the final taking place on Friday.
Speaking with The Associated Press in June, Govorov said he was proud to stay with Ukraine but understood how other Crimean athletes could have been tempted to switch to Russia if they were struggling to fund their careers in the Ukrainian system.
After the 50m heats, Govorov said he doesn’t want to talk politics in Rio, but plans to speak with relatives in Crimea later in the day. He said the situation there is stable, even with tensions high this week following what Russia claims was a military incursion by Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine has another Crimean medal contender in rhythmic gymnastics, where Anna Rizatdinova must face the Russian gold medal favorites.
Crimeans who switched allegiance to Russia have struggled to reach Rio because of International Olympic Committee rules mandating athletes observe a period of ineligibility after changing their registered nationality. One Crimean, javelin thrower Vera Rebrik, has been approved to compete for Russia, but is not in Rio because of a doping-related ban on the Russian track and field team.