Ukrainian teen who fled war brings family wisdom to Head of the Charles

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More than 11,000 rowers from around the world will take to the Charles River this weekend, to compete in the annual Head of the Charles Regatta.

Among them is Maria Prodan, 14, from Ukraine, who will compete on Sunday. You could say rowing is in her blood; Prodan's trainer is her father, Olympic coach Anton Prodan, who received his rowing wisdom from his own dad, Sergiy.

One early morning a few days before the regatta, father and daughter set out before dawn to hit the water for practice. A red sun was just breaking through the clouds as the younger Prodan climbed into her 25-foot scull. Anton Prodan followed behind her in a small motor boat, shouting out coaching tips in Russian: Keep the knees closer together, he told her, for better balance.

Coach Anton Prodan gives his daughter Maria some guidance during her practice run along the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Coach Anton Prodan gives his daughter Maria some guidance during her practice run along the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Prodans arrived in Boston last February, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine forced them to abandon their home in Balaton, outside of Kyiv. Maria Prodan has vivid memories about the first day of war.

'Everything went white," she said. "My house started shaking. Dishes, plates, everything was falling" from the shelves. That night, she heard what she thought sounded like mosquitoes. But they were helicopters, flying over her village.

"I ran outside and I was like, 'Mom, there are Ukrainian helicopters!' " Prodan recalled. "And then I saw the Russian flag. If one of these helicopters landed in our village, I would not sit here ... I would be dead."

The villagers hid in an underground shelter for a month, she said. Her family's calico cat, DC, had to stay behind in their house. In brief moments of relative calm, Prodan said, she would run home to feed her pet.

The family eventually managed to evacuate and, after a harrowing journey with stops in the Czech Republic and Canada, made it to Boston. Now Prodan goes to school in Newton and spends as much time as she can with her cat. She also trains every day for her ultimate goal — Olympic gold in rowing.

Early this spring, Prodan won two gold medals at her first rowing competition, at the Head of the Quinobequin, a juniors race that also takes place on the Charles River. It was a great warm-up for this weekend’s big race.

"Now, I don't have that fear of the first race," Prodan said. "I am going to be OK."

She and her father admit it's not always easy to train with family members.

"We got used to it," Anton Prodan said. "It is hard, but it is normal. When you know so much in this sport, you can help more."

According to Maria Prodan, "My father always says, 'On the water I'm coach, on the land I am your father.' " It may be harder for her to switch hats from athlete to daughter. But her dad's unrelenting support gives her confidence.

"My dad is telling me, my mom is telling me," she said, "every day you need to make one more step, and everything is going to go well."

Rower Maria Prodan practices on the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Rower Maria Prodan practices on the Charles River. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For now, she has time to indulge in the atmosphere of the regatta and enjoy it as the teenager she is. She's particularly excited about picking up some event-related merchandise.

"I think my dad is going to allow me to buy everything that I want if I have a good result," Maria said. She'll also keep the sticker with her boat's number on it as a souvenir.

On Sunday, Maria knows the competition will be intense, and she might not win.

"But I hope that I'm going to win," she said. "The main thing is to hope. You have hope? You have an idea how to row? Row. Just go and start rowing."

Prodan will be on the water early Sunday morning, her father cheering her on from the banks.

This program aired on October 21, 2023.


Headshot of Irina Matchavariani

Irina Matchavariani WBUR Newsroom Fellow
Irina Matchavariani is a newsroom fellow at WBUR.



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