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Ukrainian table tennis champion starts new life, coaching career in Richmond

‘The last one and half years were the hardest time in my life, because war is horrible,’ says Zoia Novikova
Zoia Novikova, a table tennis coach at the Richmond Olympics Oval and Euro Cup gold medalist, shared her journey from escaping the war in Ukraine to starting a new life in Richmond. Daisy Xiong photo

Zoia Novikova and her family’s life changed forever in February 2022.

She gave birth to her fourth baby girl on February 20, 2022 in Dnipro, Ukraine, and the next day, the Russo-Ukrainian War broke out.

Novikova, a table tennis Euro Cup gold medalist who won several European championships, embarked on a journey of survival with her husband Sergii Korkin, a well-known table tennis coach for Ukraine’s national team and three of their four daughters (her oldest daughter lives abroad).

After travelling by bus and train, the family ended up in Moldova where they stayed for several months. The Canadian government was expediting paperwork for Ukrainian refugees, and the family was able to obtain visas to Canada.

So they bought one-way tickets, landed at YVR and made Richmond their home.

“We left the country, leaving everything behind, our house, car, family, friends…with a little money, and trying to start a new life in a new country that speaks a different language,” said Novikova, adding that carrying a newborn baby made the journey much more challenging.

“The last one and half years were the hardest time in my life, because war is horrible – giving birth to a baby is even easier. But at least, we are safe here. Many friends and family couldn’t leave Ukraine. We are thankful for this possibility to have this experience in our life in Canada.”

During the most challenging times, Novikova remembers a famous saying: “The road will be mastered by the walking one.”

Coaching career launches in Richmond

Novikova said she and her family are very happy to call Richmond home. They are working hard to build a new life here from scratch, but it’s been anything but easy.

“I like the city very much. I like the climate, friendly people, the environment… There is a large Chinese Canadian population here and Chinese players are the best in the world in this sport,” said Novikova, who spent half a year in China observing and learning table tennis skills.

But living in Richmond can be expensive. With rent and daycare for their three daughters, their monthly bills are almost $5,500 plus food and other expenses. Her husband, a 65-year-old well-known coach from Ukraine, is working as a cleaner – that’s the only job he could find to support the family.

Meanwhile, Novikova has been trying to continue her table tennis career here. After 10 months of persistent applying, waiting and doing demo classes, she was hired as one of three table tennis coaches at the Richmond Olympics Oval last month, and a coach for the BC Table Tennis Association on Bridgeport Road.

“I have one to two students per day maximum – that’s not enough. I need maybe five students daily to be able to survive. I need to work a lot,” said Novikova.

“And I want to work not only because of money – money is very important now for our family to survive and build our new life here – but we must work also because we are very good at our jobs.

“I would like to settle here. I would like my daughters to grow up here because of the friendly people with kind hearts. I like these people. They are very good people.”

Nurturing the next generation of table tennis players

The former European champion has a big goal in Richmond – to use her and her husband’s expertise and experience to nurture the next generation of table tennis players, and help more people enjoy the charm of table tennis.

“There are many seniors playing table tennis all day here in Richmond, which is great. But children are important in every nation – they are the future generation. I want to invest in the new generation and pass our expertise to them as much as I can,” said Novikova.

She hopes one day, she and her husband can open their own table tennis school in Richmond.

“If you go every day, every year, in 10 years, you can become a champion of Canada or a champion of Richmond, going to the highest position,” she said.

“It is possible if you have a teacher and if you have a desire. I have a lot of experience and I love my job. I will do my best to prove this to people.”

Novikova is also looking forward to playing with other table tennis players who have different backgrounds, techniques and playing styles and exchanging experiences with them.

For her, table tennis is not only a career and a sport.

“It’s an art, because when you play it, it’s like drawing a painting in the air. It’s also entertainment and treatment for preventing many diseases including dementia and depression,” she said.

“It also educates people and builds character and resilience in them, which helps them cope with struggles and difficult situations.”

In ancient Greece, hostilities between states ceased before, during and after the Olympic games.

“There was a rule: when the Olympics started, the war finished,” said Novikova.

“These two things are incompatible. Sport brings people together and builds bridges between nations. And war is the opposite. It kills people and separates them.”