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Ukrainian Teen Vlad Flourishes on the Dutch Athletics Track

A young man in a red sports jersey standing on a sports track holds his hands in front of him in a gesture suggesting he has just thrown something forward.
Vlad Bezghinov in action at the shot put competition at Special Olympics Netherlands 2024 National Games.

“Go, Vlad!”, is the cheer which echoes around the AV Sprint athletics track in Breda, Netherlands. This is the sound of Vlad Bezghinov's parents encouraging their son—who is competing in the 100 metres, 200 metres and shot put—at the Special Olympics Netherlands 2024 National Games. His mother Natalia is grateful every day that her 14-year-old son can develop so well in the Netherlands.

Vlad, who has autism, doesn't feel like talking much today. He is focusing on competing in this big competition, an experience that is all the more remarkable because he has only been involved in athletics for a year. Furthermore, his attention is absorbed by all of the activity around him. “He learns a little Dutch at school, but it is difficult for him,” says his mother Natalia, who speaks Dutch quite well due to intensive language lessons. Two years ago, she left Berdyansk, a port city on the Sea of Azov in southeast Ukraine, with her husband, daughter and son Vlad. “My heart cries when I think about it... but I am also happy that we are here.”

“He wanted to keep running!”

Her happiness is also a result of how Vlad is thriving in the Netherlands. In Hoogeveen, where the family now lives, Vlad attends special secondary education at De Windroos and participates in athletics at HAC'63. “A year ago he had a sports day at the athletics track with his school,” says his mother. “He liked it so much that he wanted to keep running!”

And so, he ended up in the group of A-athletes (A for adapted) at HAC'63, where Evelyn Bouwknegt is one of the trainers. “In the beginning it was of course quite difficult, also due to the language barrier. But now he gets on very well. He always greets me with ‘Hello, Evelyn’ and says ‘Thanks, Evelyn.’ He is very polite and enthusiastic. If things don't go the way he wants, he sometimes gets angry, but that is also getting better."

A young man in a red sports jersey strides forward on a sports track with a crowd in the background.
Vlad Bezghinov in action at the shot put competition at Special Olympics Netherlands 2024 National Games.

Double the training, double the fun!

For some time now, every Tuesday, Vlad has trained at the athletics club. And recently, he has also started training on Thursdays. The trainer of the regular training group for middle distance running noticed some talent in Vlad and inquired about the young runner. “Since then he has also been training with that group on Thursdays also,” says Bouwknegt. “It’s very nice to see how the other athletes involve him. It will take some getting used to for Vlad, because he may receive a little less attention than he does on a Tuesday evening, but it is nice to see how he reacts to a high-five from those athletes, for example. When they see him training with me on Tuesday, they greet him and encourage him. Then you see him beaming!”

After Vlad's first race in Hoogeveen, Evelyn received a text from Natalia. “She never thought that it would be possible for Vlad to participate in a sports competition.” Natalia hopes that they can stay in the Netherlands, because Vlad has completely blossomed.

As the day comes to a close, Vlad wants to say something. He picks up his phone and shows an image, “A Jeep,” he says. “From the police.” On his phone, there is a picture of a Lego police jeep. Vlad points to it and laughs with joy. He will be 15 years old on 13 August. Judging by the glint in his eye, it is very likely that he will find a Lego police jeep among his presents when he wakes up that morning!

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