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Katia Ustiuzhanina’s path to the Olympics goes through Lawrence

A rower from birth, Ukrainian native sees her sport from a new perspective in America

3 min read
KU rower Katia Ustiuzhanina is shown here in competition during the 2023 season. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Katia Ustiuzhanina was not born with a row in her hand. To say that would be corny, trite, and, technically, a fib. She did, however, participate in her first regattas from the womb.

“We didn’t have a choice,” says Ustiuzhanina. She and her twin sister Anastasiia, a rower for Tulsa University, were always destined to row, just as their mother, three time Olympian Tetiana Ustiuzhanina, had. It’s a good thing, then, that Katia has followed in her mother’s footsteps, earning plaudits first in her native Ukraine as a youth rower, and now in the Big 12 with the Jayhawks.

The reigning Big 12 newcomer of the year, who also earned all-Big 12 honors and Oarswoman of the year for the Jayhawks knows that she set the standard high in her first year rowing in America, but the awards aren’t on her mind anymore. “It’s something cool, prizes for you, but that’s all it was. I just focus on my team and my time because that’s so important to me.”

On the water, Ustiuzhanina is clear headed, or at least focused. “I try not to think about how it’s hard for me because all the people in my boat feel the same.” This attitude, along with the culture of university athletics in the US, have offered her new opportunities that she hadn’t enjoyed when rowing in Ukraine.

“It’s really nice to have all athletes be [together] in KU,” says Ustiuzhanina. Being around athletes from so many other sports is new for her, and she has attended games and matches for many other KU teams. Soccer, tennis, and basketball and football, which are “not so popular in Ukraine,” Ustiuzhanina has enjoyed seeing other sports and being part of a collective of athletes in Lawrence.

As Ustiuzhanina has worked on her English, her teammates have helped her with “social stuff” like finding and attending matches for the other Jayhawk teams while she helps raise them the standards on the water. “To be a successful rower “you need to do it for five years or more,” and some of her teammates have only been rowing for three, a far cry from her ten years of rowing experience. 

This deal has worked well for the Ukrainian, who rowed with her national team until 2022, and, though she is on a break from rowing with the Ukrainian national team, aspires to rejoin them in the future and represent her country at the Olympics, just as her mother did. 

While Ukraine continues to defend its borders against Russian invasion, most Ukrainian athletes are living abroad, making it hard for Ustiuzhanina to know when she will have a chance to rejoin her national team. 

So in the interim, she has focused on rowing in America, an idea Ustiuzhanina’s mother had for Katia and her sister in early 2022 when the future for their rowing careers were murky and uncertain. In addition to a new group of teammates, Ustiuzhanina’s time at Kansas has introduced her to life as an athlete on campus, which seems as close to life as a member of a national team as she has gotten, with access to so many other sports and athletes, all of whom, like her, are part of the KU family.

Ustiuzhanina’s adopted family has slightly less rowing experience than her born family, but it has supported her in ways she was not at home. As a child, she recalls, “I wanted to play volleyball. My mom told me no, you can’t.” Ustiuzhaninas row. 

Katia has come to appreciate this aid in focus in later years, but when she came to Kansas and found a chance to play her first sporting love, she jumped. Alongside her rowing and studies, Ustiuzhanina has played volleyball with other student athletes at KU events and at the rec center.

With her relaxed attitude towards training and life at KU, Ustiuzhanina stands ready to defend her honors from her freshman season, and “represent [the] University” with her teammates at every event. 

After a short fall schedule wrapped in November, Ustiuzhanina and the Jayhawks got going again in late March. They're now down to the final outing of six spring events — Friday vs. Creighton and Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown in Kansas City, Kansas — leading up to the Big 12 Championship on May 19 in Sarasota, Florida.

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