Ok, so we didn’t quite walk away as “the champions.” But, we did take third place. And that still comes with bragging rights.
Our trip to work with the staff at Nikolaevskie Novosti happened to coincide with a bowling tournament between local media outlets. Anatoliy, the chief editor, invited me to participate. Having a slight competitive streak, I gladly accepting.
I was assigned a lane with the team from a competing newspaper. We were given a warm-up period of a few minutes before the start of the tournament.
My turn came for practice came up.
I can’t tell you the last time I bowled. It had been years for sure and I was a little nervous. But I let loose with my first ball.
The folks on the competing team must have thought I some kind of ringer, brought in just for the tournament. But they had nothing to fear. Because my game went downhill from there.
I managed to break a hundred in both games. Nothing stellar, but it did help us secure third place.
Everything the Nikolaevskie Novosti staff did, they did as a team. As a family.
On our last night in Nikolaev, the staff held a barbecue in our honor, at a very secluded spot on the bank of the Yuzhny Bug River. It also happened to be on the grounds of the Athletic and Sport Committee of Ukraine in Nikolaev. Anatoliy took Kim and I in to meet the local chairman, a very gentle giant of a man that was once a competitive rower. As we would find out during our trip, everyone in Ukraine is an award-winning athlete in at least one sport. And that’s how they’re introduced.
As we walked into his office, we noticed it was adorned with sports memorabilia from soccer balls to pennants to trophies and medals.
Little did I know, he was about to present me with one of those medals.
Anatoliy introduced us to Valeriy Babiy, award-winning competitive rower for Ukraine. He told me he’d heard that I helped the Nikolaevskie Novosti team take third place in the bowling championship and wanted to give me something. He reached back to his desk and grasp the medal. I was speechless as he presented it to me.
Olena, our friend from IREX, translated the words on the medal for me.
On the front read “Athletic Sports Society, Ukraine.” And on the reverse, “For the Considerable Contribution to the Olympic Movement.”
I had just become one of Ukraine’s award-winning athletes.
But this wasn’t all.
As we continued talking, he walked over to one of the walls of his office and pulled a couple of items down. Kim and I couldn’t tell what they were. But, as he presented them to us, we finally saw what had once been on the wall. They were Ukrainian Olympic pins. Each from a different sport. Mine was synchronized swimming.
Having covered the 1996 Olympic Games, I knew how much people coveted these pins. They weren’t given away haphazardly. These type of pins are traded between athletes from different countries. You don’t just hand them to complete strangers and expect nothing in return.
Yet, that is exactly what he did. He gave them to two people from the United States that had walked through his door two minutes prior.
We chatted briefly before going to meet our friends and watch the sun set over the river.
Several people prepared salads and fixings as the smell of barbecued chicken and meat filled the air. Even the herring in a fur coat salad was there.
Kim and I settled in with a couple of beers and took in took in the delightful evening. It was our last night in Nikolaev.
Just like the rest of the week, we were treated like family. We watched the sun set, took silly pictures, shared stories, laughed at jokes and had the most special meal of the week. Everyone had taken time away from their families and their personal lives to be with us. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.
A real gift comes from the heart. One that’s taken off the wall and handed to you. It can be the gift of a person’s time that they spend with you. Something that has special meaning to them and they want you to have it. These are true gifts. They’re the ones that are cherished for a lifetime.
Sadly, our week had to come to an end.
Kim and I knew the next group to go to Ukraine would have to meet our expectations. After all, we’d set the bar.
They have to help the Nikolaevskie Novosti team win a championship. Their trip is supposed to coincide with the tennis tournament between the media outlets. One of the requirements for the Chronicle participants: they must have some serious tennis skills.
Because we’re sending the ringers.