Olympic medalist who fled Belarus forced into exile again as Ukraine attacked

    Aliaksandra Herasimenia is pictured in Vilnius, Lithuania, October 17, 2020.

    (Reuters)After bolting to Ukraine to escape political persecution in her native Belarus, Olympic swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia never thought she would again be forced to flee, this time to save her family from Russian attack.

    Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medalist, found herself among thousands of Ukrainians massing at the border with Poland as Russian troops advanced on Kyiv.
    On the second day of the Russian invasion last month, Herasimenia and her husband, Olympic swimmer Yauhen Tsurkin, scrambled to pack some belongings and set off on a 12-hour car ride to the Polish border with their young daughter and Herasimenia's mother.
      With explosions resounding in the background as they inched along congested roads, Herasimenia reassured her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, telling her it was only thunder.
        "Of course I had to make something up because how do you explain to a child that war has started?" Herasimenia, who is now in Warsaw with her family, told Reuters.
        Herasimenia was among the elite athletes who fled Belarus in the wake of a crackdown against those who protested what they said was the fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020.
        Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has denied any wrongdoing.
          Russia has used Belarusian territory to launch a multi-pronged invasion of Ukraine, where many Belarusians settled after escaping persecution at home. Moscow says it is conducting a "special military operation" to disarm and "denazify" Ukraine.
          "We've been running for a long time," said Herasimenia, whose family waited for nearly a day and a half at Ukraine's border with Poland.
          "Those who left were the best of Belarusian society, those who were against what happened after the election, those who spoke out against the violence and expressed their position."
          Aliaksandra Herasimenia shows off her bronze on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's 50m freestyle final on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

          'Fighting for freedom'

          Herasimenia heads the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, a group that supports athletes who have been jailed or otherwise punished for their political views.
          These include Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a sprinter who defected at the Tokyo Olympics last year after being removed from the Games against her will by coaches.
          Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak criticized for 'shocking behavior' after wearing 'Z' symbol next to Ukrainian athlete