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Elle Rastvortseva (UC Davis photo)
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The first week-and-a-half of the war, Elle Rastvortseva cried a lot. Those first few days, her mother talked like each day could be the last. From her dorm room at UC Davis, Rastvortseva could hear the bombs exploding over the phone. Her mom told her where they’d put all the important papers. What to do in case the worst happened.
“I would get these single messages,” said Rastvortseva. “ ‘We love you so much.’ ”
Her family has since fled Kiev to a safer space with her maternal grandparents in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine, but even that area gets worse by the day.
At the golf course, the only place where 18-year-old Rastvortseva feels free, the sound of range balls dropping out of a machine reminds her of the shelling. The orange hue of a California sunset gets her heart racing as she sometimes mistakes it for the glow of a fire after a missile strike.
“My mind was thinking in the way that the war was happening right now,” said Rastvortseva, “with me too.”
There’s a part of Rastvortseva that wants to rush to Ukraine to be with her family, hiding in the empty shelves of her grandmother’s book closet with sisters Alice, age 10, and 14-year-old Elizabeth. Elle often stifles the sound of her tears when on the phone with family.
Elizabeth’s text messages sometimes send Elle’s mind into a tailspin:
We can hear explosions.
They just threw a bomb near us.
As much as Elle wants to be with her family, if the unspeakable were to happen, she’d be the only one left. She couldn’t stop her mind from thinking about what she’d do.
“I want to continue my bloodline and make my surname known,” said Rastvortseva. “I will need to do a lot of work so that the world will remember my family, my name as a Ukrainian.”
Now, nearly a month into the war with Russia, Rastvortseva said her mind is divided into two parts: What will happen to her family? And golf.
“Everything else just exists,” she said.
UC Davis coach Anna Temple checks in with Rastvortseva every couple of hours when they’re not at a tournament. The team makes sure that she has someone to go to dinner with, study with, ride with to practice. Anything they can do to make sure she feels connected and cared for.
They don’t talk about the war at practice unless Rastvortseva brings it up.
“I don’t want to put stuff in her mind if it’s not there,” said Temple.
And yet, Temple tries to keep up with the war in Ukraine as much as she can to be able to field Rastvortseva’s questions when they arise. Still, there’s a feeling of helplessness. Teams put ribbons on their bags at UC Davis’ home event last month. That felt like the right thing to do, but not enough.
When Temple checked in with Rastvortseva to ask about her family before the start of the Gunrock Invitational, Rastvortseva simply texted back, “They’re alive.”
It’s difficult for Rastvortseva to concentrate in class. She postponed a talk she was supposed to give in speech class about travel and respecting new cultures.
“How come my culture is not respected right now by Russians?” she asked.
One classmate gave a speech on pets, and Rastvortseva found herself thinking about images she’d seen of starving animals back home. Families who’d been in a rush to leave or didn’t have space or maybe the whole family was killed but the pets survived.
“Basic things like that are triggering me,” said Rastvortseva, “but I’m better.”
The strong and stoic Rastvortseva began playing golf at age 7 when her father, Roman, took her to a clinic because he didn’t have a babysitter. She fell in love with the game because she appreciates a good challenge and the outdoors.
The golf season is short in Ukraine – late April/May to October – and the closest golf club in Kiev is an hour from her home. Growing up, Rastvortseva relied on a bus to take her to summer camps.
“Even though I’m saying I’ve played golf for 10 or 11 years,” she said, “if I actually calculated it, no more than four years.”
A two-time Ukrainian champion and No. 1 player in the country, Rastvortseva has been a member of the Ukrainian national team since 2015 and served as team captain. While she went to school in California, the national team was out of the country when the war started. Many of them, she said, are now in different parts of the world, without their parents.
“Our Ukrainian coaches are actually fighting,” she said, “they are on the front with guns and everything.”
The Aggies compete next in the Fresno State Classic March 21-22, which must feel as far away from the war in Ukraine as the moon right now.
Temple doesn’t get as worked up about bad holes these days. She’s instead working through how to help her freshman get better while still being careful to preserve the one place she feels joy.
“In the big picture for her, and really for everybody,” said Temple, “this is golf.”
Rastvortseva’s father stayed back in Kiev, at first, to protect the family’s home and business. His parents live in eastern Ukraine in Zaporizhzhia, not far from the nuclear plant the Russians hit. For two weeks her paternal grandparents lived in the basement and only recently made the harrowing trip to the west side of the country. It’s not unusual, Rastvortseva said, for Russian forces to attack unarmed civilians trying to flee their homes.
In the west of Ukraine, the Rastvortseva family helps new neighbors in whatever way they can. Roman drives strangers to the Polish border and Veronika helps gather medicine, formula for babies and other necessities. The couple have rented flats for refugees in need of a place to live.
“There are a lot of people like my parents who help each other,” said Rastvortseva. “They actually sacrifice their own money.”
And, as her mother relays, with businesses gone, they’re quickly running out of money. To help ease that burden, Rastvortseva plans to start a GoFundMe account that would enable people to help make a direct impact on the ground in Ukraine. The Rastvortsevas have friends living outside of Kiev who lit their own furniture on fire to stay warm.
The family hopes to send their two youngest daughters, who also play golf, abroad to continue their schooling.
Even though she’s thousands of miles away, Rastvortseva takes great pride in those, like her golf coaches, who fight for Ukraine, and those, like her parents, who are committed to bringing aid to the most vulnerable.
Through the horrors of war, the beauty of humanity rises.
“This the truth,” said Rastvortseva, “that everyone has gathered as one.”
by Beth Ann Nichols, Golfweek