KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nervous ahead of their first jiu-jitsu championship, the war veterans gathered in a group to share jokes and help each other tie the belts of their kimonos. Many of them had suffered severe battlefield injuries requiring amputations.
Now they were assembled to perform in the “para jiu jitsu” category at the Ukrainian national competition before hundreds of spectators on amphitheater-style benches in one of Kyiv's sports complexes.
More than 20,000 people in Ukraine have lost limbs because of injuries since the start of Russia's brutal war there, many of them soldiers. A handful of them have dealt with their psychological trauma by practicing a form of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“This gives us freedom. We don't feel like we're lacking anything,” said Artem Kuzmich, who started practicing jiu-jitsu classes after losing a leg on the battlefield in 2019.
Kuzmich is Belorussian and voluntarily joined the Ukrainian army to fight Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine starting in 2014. Now, he mentors soldiers who have recently suffered similar injuries and find salvation in jiu-jitsu.
Much of the martial art of jiu-jitsu involves moves and holds aimed at using an opponent's own force against them.
It's a sport that can easily be adapted for people who have had amputations, with no prosthetics needed, Kuzmich said.
“We work with what we have and can achieve victories with what life…