'Difficult to sleep'- Ukrainian athletes try to stay strong

ZHANGJIAKOU, China, March 9 (Reuters) - What should have been the pinnacle of their sporting lives, the Beijing Winter Paralympics have been a gruelling emotional examination for Ukrainian athletes feeling scared and anxious about Russia's invasion of their country.

The Ukrainian team has excelled in Beijing -- winning eight gold medals to sit third in the table -- but standing on the podium has been overshadowed by the crisis back home.

"It's super difficult. Nobody can get any sleep. You have your phone besides you and you can't help but scroll to know what's happening," Taras Rad, who has won two medals in biathlon, told Reuters.

"And when you do get some sleep, you're so worried that you wake up in the middle of the night... every time I go back to the (Olympic) village, first thing I do is call up my family."

Grygorii Vovchynskyi said his bronze medal in Wednesday's sprint free standing event was as good as a gold.

"I've been giving it all for my country. I represent Ukraine. I love Ukraine. Given everything that's been happening, this is my gold medal," the 33-year-old told Reuters.

"We have to stick together, stay strong. We are speaking with family and friends on the ground there every day and they tell us to concentrate on the competition, but it's not so easy."

The Ukrainian team extended their support to biathlete Anastasiia Laletina, who withdrew from two events after her father, a soldier in the country's army, was captured by Russian troops. read more

"We're not celebrating our medals because of everything that's happening... we want peace in Ukraine," said Oksana Shyshkova, who secured silver in the women's sprint free visually impaired class on Wednesday.

"They are bombing (civilian) buildings and people are getting killed every day. All of us have families back there... we just don't know what to do. We're really scared. There are little children there."

Russia denies firing on civilian targets in Ukraine.

It is still uncertain whether the athletes will be able to return home after the Games - the delegation plans to fly to Poland from where they will try to get to Ukraine.

"I want to go to my family, my friends, my daughter. I want to go home. All of us will discuss and find a way," said Vovchynskyi.

Reporting by Dhruv Munjal, editing by Ed Osmond

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