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Competing for Ukraine

Competing for Ukraine

American figure skater Siobhan Heekin-Canedy represented Ukraine in the 2014 Winter Olympics–and became an unofficial cultural ambassador for the Ukrainian people along the way.

Siobhan Heekin-Canedy

Nine years ago, as Ukraine’s Maidan protests reached their peak and Russia-Ukraine relations reached a new low, I represented Ukraine as an ice dancer in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I am American; however, my ice dance partner was from Ukraine, and having received Ukrainian citizenship, I was proud to be a member of the Ukrainian Olympic team. Although I was painfully aware of the tensions between Ukraine and our host country, much of my Olympic experience went on as planned. Along with other Ukrainian Olympians, I attended a meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, while my teammates and I shared a residence in the Olympic Village with the Russian team (the Ukrainian contingent not being large enough to merit its own). No one anticipated that in a matter of days, Yanukovych would flee to Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin would launch a plan to annex Crimea.

Fast-forward eight years. On February 24, 2022, I awoke to the news that Kyiv was under assault as Putin once again used the Olympics as a backdrop for his imperial ambitions. The invasion came as a shock, prompting me to think more deeply about the way that the American and Ukrainian facets of my identity have become intertwined­–and how the futures of the United States and Ukraine are also intertwined.

When I began skating with a Ukrainian ice dance partner, I was determined to represent only the United States. My attitude changed after my first trip to Kyiv. The Ukrainians I encountered captivated me with their independent spirit and determination to create a better future, even while cherishing their national history and culture. When my partner and I were invited to represent Ukraine, I already knew that Ukrainians were willing to stand up for their freedom and that, as an American, I could be proud standing beneath their flag.

As I spent more time in Ukraine, I realized that representing Ukraine did not mean I had stopped representing the United States; everything I said or did reflected on my home country, and so I had a responsibility to show Ukrainians the best of America. I found myself acting as an unofficial cultural ambassador. I went out of my way to speak Russian (the preferred language of most Ukrainians at that time), but my peers were eager to practice their English with me. Many of them had never met an American before, and they relished the opportunity to interact with one. I began to develop a sense of Ukrainian identity; at the same time, my understanding of American identity matured. I was able to see the United States as one piece of the puzzle that makes up our globe—an important piece, with the responsibilities that come with global leadership, but nonetheless part of a larger whole.

Heekin-Canedy and her Ukrainian partner Dimitri Dun performing in the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships (Credit: Luu)

My American-Ukrainian identity has continued to evolve. I have since learned that my skating gave hope to many Ukrainians as political turmoil and tragedy played out during the 2014 Olympics. I believe that I inspired them, not despite being American, but because I was an American willing to stand proudly with Ukraine. Russia’s invasion a year ago reinforced this point. I’ve been haunted by the memory of one Ukrainian man who had thanked me for inspiring Ukrainians through my Olympic performance; he had asked me to “be with us in these draconian times.” Now, no longer representing Ukraine as an elite athlete, how can I continue to stand with Ukraine in these far more draconian times?

One of the best answers I have come up with is: as an American.

The American and Ukrainian aspects of my identity have always strengthened each other, and I suspect that this points to a deeper truth. If these two parts of my life have fit together like puzzle pieces, perhaps it is because Americans and Ukrainians need each other—not just to ensure Putin’s defeat, but to strengthen their own senses of identity and purpose.

Ukraine is fighting for survival, but also to be part of “the West” and everything it stands for. More than any other country, the United States has attempted to model what this means. It has also promised that developing nations can enjoy freedom and prosperity if they embrace liberal democratic values. We did this with Ukraine, initially guaranteeing its territorial integrity in exchange for its renunciation of nuclear weapons and later holding open the door to NATO membership.

In its fight against Russia, Ukraine needs tangible American support, but it also needs an America that lives up to its own promise—an America whose citizens believe that the ideals of classical liberalism are still relevant in the 21st century, who are able to look at the nation’s sins of the past and present without abandoning its founding principles, and who reject both the authoritarian populism often displayed on the Right and the fascination with socialism, cancel culture, and “woke” identity politics on the Left.

Ukrainians are independent and strong-willed, and they alone will ultimately determine the future of Ukrainian identity and purpose. Still, the United States remains a world leader, and its path will continue to shape the global conversation and the future of countries who look to it as a model. It would be tragic if Ukrainians suffered and died to be part of the “free world,” only to discover that the chief architect of that world had already given up on freedom.

Nor is Ukraine’s need for the United States one-sided. The America that Ukraine needs is also the America that Americans need. If we let it, the Ukraine crisis can help us to remember what it means to be American—and can remind us that, for all our country’s flaws, there is much worth saving.

When I skated for Ukraine, many Americans didn’t know that Ukraine existed (one local reporter who interviewed me clearly couldn’t locate it on a map). The February 24 invasion changed that, forcing Americans to pay attention to Ukraine and to reconsider America’s role within a rapidly changing global context. The Russian regime’s brutality and brazen disregard for international norms has prompted widespread displays of solidarity and grassroots activism in favor of U.S. material support. At the same time, some Americans have taken an isolationist approach to the war, claiming that Ukraine’s fight is irrelevant to America’s future, or even suggesting that Ukraine is no more America’s ally than is Russia.

While these are opposing attitudes, both can be liable to view the Ukraine crisis through the lens of American politics only. When Americans view support for Ukraine simply as an extension of America’s culture wars or political affiliations, they miss the real reasons Ukraine is fighting. Meanwhile, the isolationist attitude reveals a lack of confidence in what it means to be American today. It also reveals the belief that America has lost the right to lead by example and an inability to comprehend why “the West,” with all its flaws, might still be an attractive alternative to the barbaric tyranny of Putin’s regime.

Such fears are founded on valid concerns. Nevertheless, we have two choices: We can allow our flaws to define us, losing hope in the American model of governance and its ability to be a force for good in the global order, or we can devote ourselves to renewing classical liberalism at home and to showing the world the best of what it means to be American. And while a healthy American response to the war in Ukraine includes concrete measures to help Ukrainians survive, and repel, Russia’s invasion, such support ought also to be grounded in a renewed commitment to the core values of liberal democracy and a willingness to defend a rules-based international order that, however imperfect, still leaves room for these values to thrive.

Skating for Ukraine taught me that America does not exist in isolation. It taught me that being American comes with a responsibility to live up to the values we profess by supporting those who share them in other countries. It also taught me that, if we have the humility to learn from them and the courage to stand with them, Ukrainians can remind Americans that freedom and democracy are worth defending. This war has brought death and destruction, but it has also given America an opportunity to prove to itself—and to the world—that the American experiment is alive. Let’s not waste it.

Siobhan Heekin-Canedy is a writer with a background in international affairs. She represented Ukraine as an elite-level ice dancer from 2008 to 2014, including at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and served as the North America regional director of the World Youth Alliance from 2020 to 2022.

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