West Ottawa's Oriana O'Mealey has one eye on state meet, other on family in Ukraine
PARK TWP. — When Oriana O'Mealey is in the water, she has plenty of important things on her mind.
First of all, she's an individual medley (IM) swimmer, so she has to be sharp on every stroke and focused on getting to the wall first. But when she's training, her mind often wanders to other important things, like keeping up with her schoolwork, so she can graduate from West Ottawa High School a year early.
But these days, her mind is also on her grandmother.
Oriana's grandmother lives in Ukraine, along with an aunt and cousin. In the months since the war was initiated by Russia, the O'Mealey family has been constantly worried.
Her grandmother has moved out of her apartment and in with relatives in a city that Oriana and her family once visited every year. Much of the city is now in ashes — but just days ago, it was recaptured by Ukrainian troops.
"It was really hard last year when it started happening," Oriana said. "But it is harder for me to see my mom and how it is affecting her. She is emotional. Russia has been invading Ukraine for like a decade — (but) never the city we went to every year for spring break (Kherson).
"There was a week straight where my mom didn’t sleep at all. She wants to be there and help and support them, but she can’t do much. Every place we went to in that city is all burned down. My grandma still is over there with my aunt and my cousin. My grandma left her apartment because her city is occupied. I don’t want to say they are safe, but they are OK."
Not knowing what's happening on a day-to-day basis in Ukraine adds to the worry and strain.
"We don’t really know what is happening. Sometimes the wifi goes out for a week and we don’t know what is happening," Oriana said.
This month, the wifi and electricity were out for 10 days.
"We had 10 days without connection to my family because they had no internet, no electricity, no water. Now they got connections back and it is such a relief," Oriana's mother, Tetyana said. "I can still hear explosions when we talk on the phone. It really scares you. This isn't a movie. This is real life.
"My hometown became occupied from the first day of war. They were living as prisoners basically. But on Nov. 11, they freed my town and we have the Ukrainian flag flying again. They had to bring my mother to my sister's home. She has a hard time moving. That is why we could not evacuate them. My mom's health condition would not allow that."
The circumstances have led Tetyana to help in a variety of ways. After the U.S. granted refugee status to Ukrainians, she's served as a translator for several in West Michigan. She's also started a GoFundMe and sends money regularly back to her hometown.
"I have been meeting lots of people who need help translating (through Voices for Help)," Tetyana said. "President Biden helped us so much. I am so proud of our country. It has been a huge help."
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It's also created family drama. Oriana's uncle was working abroad when his contract ended. He couldn't go home to Ukraine, so the O'Mealeys had to pick him up from a Chicago airport.
"My uncle is staying with us right now," Oriana said. "We just went to Chicago with no contact with him besides the letter to pick him up. We were there for hours waiting. I was running up and down to customer service at the airport and my dad was at Gate B and my mom was at Gate A. It was chaos."
The conflict has made the O'Mealey family, especially Tetyana, vigilant about raising money and awareness for Ukraine.
"We do everything we can to help them," Oriana said.
It's something that's raised awareness among her teammates, too. The Panthers have rallied around Oriana and her family.
"It helps keep everything in perspective. We are here training and this makes you take a step back," said West Ottawa Coach Steve Bowyer. "We have an athlete with family in a life and death situation. It keeps everything in perspective. We are very fortunate to be able to do what we do, but kids are going through things outside of these walls that have an impact on their daily lives that we need to be able to support. It helps you appreciate more what we are able to do."
It's been difficult with everything else on Oriana's plate, especially graduating a year early.
"I have always been a little bit ahead in my classes," she said. "I was sent a year back when I was younger and I got caught up at West Ottawa and challenged myself. I made a lot of friends who are graduating this year. I feel like I am ready. I am excited for what’s ahead."
First that means a little more swimming, as she looks to score at the Division 1 state meet.
"Now this season, everything is the last time," Oriana said. "The last meet, the last race. I am just trying to enjoy everything with my friends. I know I am going to be sad when things come to a close. This year, I have definitely had a lot more fun, and I have been training a lot better. I am really proud of what the team has done. Everyone continues to work hard and get better."
That means getting better in all four strokes, since she's an individual medley specialist.
"I used to be a breaststroker and that is what I thought I was going to do. I tried doing other strokes and my butterfly got so much better. My freestyle got better. Just staying committed to all the strokes. I get bored pretty quick, so the change of strokes keeps things moving."
Very few swimmers have that kind of versatility at a high level.
"She has been one of our most versatile swimmers since she walked through the door. She was a huge part of our conference title in 2020. The one big thing that allows her to be such a great IMer is she is so tough," Bowyer said.
"The 200 IM is a tough event. You have to have all four strokes, and the turns and the endurance and the underwaters. A lot of kids, the IM is something they have to do because they are good at one of the strokes and this is their second event, but she has the IM as her primary stroke. She likes that challenge of everything that the race provides."
Bowyer said, while he hates to see Oriana go a year early, he knows it's the right move for her.
"The things that make her such a great swimmer and such a great teammate are the things that will allow her to graduate early and navigate things going on in her personal life, with her family and the war in Ukraine," he said. "She has been able to handle all of those things, (it's) what makes her so tough. It is what will allow her to graduate early and what allows her to contribute to our team the way she does."
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And in life, it's given her a new perspective, which her family sees on a daily basis.
"She wrote an essay about the situation and about my family and it left me in tears," Tetyana said. "I think Oriana knows what her freedom means, how hard it has been for people in the Ukraine. She is graduating, she is successful in swimming, constantly studying. But she is a deep thinker and she isn't showing it as much as I would, but it (definitely hits her). She is proud that my family is hanging in there.
"That makes Oriana even stronger."
— Contact sports editor Dan D’Addona at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDAddona or Facebook @HollandSentinelSports.