Ukrainian Paralympian practices his volleyball spike when he's not flying drones over Russian troops (2024)

By Charlotte Gardiner, Richard Engel and Yuliya Talmazan

DNIPRO, Ukraine — An anti-tank mine for a dumbbell and a tourniquet to help practice his volleyball spikes.

On Ukraine’s front lines with Russia, Dmytro Melnyk, 44, has had to improvise as he prepares for the Paralympic Games in Paris.

When he’s not training, Melnyk is a drone operator dropping bombs on enemy positions or monitoring troop movements from the air from his base near the northeastern town of Vovchansk — the scene of bitter fighting as Ukrainian forces are staving off Russian advances in the Kharkiv region.

“Before the war, the Paralympics were my No. 1 dream,” he said via an audio message from the front line. It was one of several interviews he gave to NBC News over the course of months between September 2023 and June this year on the front line near Vovchansk and in his home city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine.

But after the Russian invasion in February 2022, his “priorities changed” and volleyball took the back seat as he decided to join the army. Today, his drone-flying shifts can last for up to 18 hours, and after getting some rest, Melnyk said he uses the brick wall of an old farmhouse to practice his digs, sets and spikes.

Melnyk is one of around 3,000 athletes currently serving in the Ukrainian army. More than 470 have been killed in action, according to Ukraine’s sports ministry.

He said he will find out in early August whether he will be allowed to get leave from the army to compete at the Paralympics.

“If I go to Paris, I can’t let my team down,” he said. “So I must also train here.”

The dispensation for him to leave would “depend on where we are at with the fighting,” he added.

Then “there is another factor,” he said. “I need to survive till then.”

Life-changing injury

Melnyk qualifies for the Paralympics because his left leg is just over 3 inches shorter than his right — the result of a six-story fall from a balcony he was helping his father to fix when he was just 18 years old.

“My pelvis was seriously broken, also my pelvic joints were broken,” he said, adding that he also had an open fracture of his left hip. He was saved, he said, because he rolled in the air and fell on his legs.

After undergoing rehabilitation for a year and a half, he said he got involved in a number of sports before he stumbled over sitting volleyball, which uses the same skills as the standing game, although athletes play in a seated position and use both their arms and legs to move across the court.

Although the injuries from the fall have left him in constant pain, Melnyk said that for 22 years volleyball has provided him with a focus as he played full time, while also working as an assistant manager at a restaurant in his home city of Dnipro.

He became so good that he was picked for Ukraine’s team at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where the Ukrainian team placed fifth. “It’s an experience that’s hard to forget,” Melnyk said, before confidently adding, “I don’t know what it’s like to win the Olympics, unfortunately. I’m only on my way to that.”

Ukrainian Paralympian practices his volleyball spike when he's not flying drones over Russian troops (2)

While Ukraine’s team failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games four years later, in April Melnyk was given special dispensation to travel to the Chinese city of Dali, where they qualified for Paris.

Shifting priorities

After living and breathing volleyball, Melnyk said things changed after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

Although he tried to sign up to fight, he said military recruiters rejected him several times because of his disability. So he spent his own money to train as a civilian drone operator, and the army eventually accepted him into an aerial reconnaissance unit in March 2023.

“There’s no other way for me,” he said. “If I can help somehow, I must be there. At this point I must say that I’m not only wanting to help, but I actually do help. I play my part in this. I don’t do it worse than others, but in some aspects even better than others. That’s why I have to be there.”

At a secret warehouse where his unit turns store-bought drones into customized miniature spy planes to fly bombs capable of attacking Russian tanks and troops, NBC News spoke to his commander, Lt. Georgiy Volkov.

Ukrainian Paralympian practices his volleyball spike when he's not flying drones over Russian troops (3)

“A lot of people have a healthy body, but they don’t have enough spirit, enough strength” to fight, he said, adding that Melnyk was unique as both a disabled athlete and a soldier. “I can be proud that such guys are defending our country at the moment,” he said.

On a mission on the front line of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region last August, Melnyk said Russian artillery fire injured the same leg that was damaged in the balcony fall. The “hellish” pain continued as he was evacuated to a hospital, he said.

It took two surgeries to remove five pieces of shrapnel, and Melnyk said he spent a few weeks rehabilitating with the help of his teammate Oleksiy Kharlamov last fall.

Getting back in shape was tough, he said, and even getting into the position required for sitting volleyball was a challenge.

“We miss him a lot,” Kharlamov, 45, said last September as he trained with Melnyk at a local gym in Dnipro. “He is key to our team.”

Ukrainian Paralympian practices his volleyball spike when he's not flying drones over Russian troops (4)

While Melnyk’s sporting future remains in doubt, he said he was angry that Russian and Belarusian athletes would be allowed to attend the Games after the International Olympic Committee cleared some of them to compete under neutral status, without a national flag or anthem.

Only individual athletes can compete, so Melnyk will not face competitors from either country because he plays in a team sport. But he was forthright in his views.

“What can I think about a nation that’s destroying sport in our country and then comes to compete with us? This is not right. There’s no way this should be happening,” he said.

Even if he gets to compete in Paris, Melnyk said he would carry on fighting on the battlefield when he returns.

“Of course, I remain a man, a soldier,” he said.

Charlotte Gardiner

Charlotte Gardiner is a producer for NBC News, based in London.

Richard Engel

NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent

Yuliya Talmazan

Yuliya Talmazan is a reporter for NBC News Digital, based in London.

Ukrainian Paralympian practices his volleyball spike when he's not flying drones over Russian troops (2024)

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