Olympic medalist hopes win at World Games in Birmingham will bring ‘smiles’ to Ukraine

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Stanislav Horuna hangs out in the hallway outside the hotel bar, his sandals clattering against the tiled floor.

On this day, he wears a copy of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahnemann and wears shorts and a tank top, a different look from the traditional gi he wears in some of the biggest karate competitions in the world.

“Sorry,” said Horuna, who won a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the kumite category of karate for her division. “I was at the swimming pool.”

Until recently, Horuna and five of her fellow Ukrainian athletes were staying at a hotel not far from the airport, training for the 2022 World Games in Birmingham. For two weeks, they spent an hour and a half training in the hotel’s conference room. At night they trained for another hour and a half. The next day they would start again.

Karoly Gabor Harspataki of Hungary, left, and Stanislav Horuna of Ukraine compete in the men’s kumite -75kg elimination round for karate at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Horuna hasn’t seen much of Birmingham. When he’s not working out or giving a glimpse of his life to his 97,000 Instagram followers, he’s resting. Speaking of the World Games in front of the hotel bar, he puts “Thinking, Fast and Slow” on the table next to him. The book is a 499-page examination of how the mind forms thoughts and how these processes influence the decisions people make. Horuna, who supported himself as a lawyer while training in karate, finds the book intriguing.

“It’s to understand myself and others,” he said.

Horuna himself has a lot of worries these days. Not only is he training for his first event on Saturday at the World Games, but he’s also following what’s happening in Ukraine as they battle invading Russian forces. Earlier in the day, Ukrainian forces had just regained control of Snake Island, occupied by Russia since February.

Even as noise pours in from the nearby hotel’s game, Horuna remains focused, carefully considering every word he uses.

“I just do what I have to do,” Horuna said. “We all do.”

Horuna was one of the biggest karate stars to come out of Ukraine. In 2017, he won the gold medal at the previous World Games held in Wroclaw, Poland. In 2021, he won bronze in Tokyo. Now he hopes he can win another medal at this year’s World Games.

For a while, Horuna wasn’t sure if she could compete in the World Games. When Russia started invading Ukraine, he decided he wanted to do something to help his country. It was then that he began volunteering with the Ukrainian forces, doing what he could to raise money for the effort.

Like many of his compatriots, Horuna was affected by the war. Early on, he sent his wife and son to safety in Hungary. He said his training helped him stay calm, but nonetheless, he saw with his own eyes how the war had changed those around him.

“Every day you hear the alarm. It’s pretty terrifying,” he said. “You know it’s for real.”

Bronze medalist Stanislav Horuna of Ukraine poses during the medal ceremony for Men’s Karate Kumite -75kg at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Horuna notably gave back to his country by selling his Olympic medal for over $20,000, money he used to buy a drone and other war supplies. Horuna does not hesitate to sell her medal, even if it remains bittersweet.

“It was an easy decision because at that time it was a very difficult situation on the front line all over the country. We didn’t know what will be tomorrow or next week or next month. There was only “one thought: to survive,” he said. “We had to support it with everything we had. And the decision was easy, but after I sold it and sent it to Japan, he started to miss me.

Having won her division at previous World Games, Horuna said her main motivation for this year’s World Games was to inspire and bring honor to other Ukrainians.

“It encourages our people who have remained in this area and encourages our fighters,” he said. “Some of them were also athletes, but now they are soldiers.”

Horuna said that for the past two years it has been difficult to stay motivated for the sport, especially with everything going on at home. At 33, he thinks he has only a few more years left in the sport. With the next chapter of his life looming, he doesn’t think he will return to law. Maybe he’ll start a business, maybe he’ll do something else.

“For me, of course, I’d like to have that big win at the end of my career because it’s really the biggest tournament I have left,” he said.

More than just himself, Horuna wants to bring gold home as a win for Ukraine.

“I think they need small wins,” he said. “The time will come when we get that big win against Russia, but until then we have to smile and I think I can bring one.”

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