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LA, Ukraine, Israel: Olympian Itkin competes for more than himself

As a Jewish Ukrainian who grew up in Los Angeles, Olympic fencer Nick Itkin is going into the Paris Olympics with unique pressure and motivation.

NEW YORK — When the parents of Olympic fencer Nick Itkin parents decided to leave Ukraine in 1992 — months after the fall of the Soviet Union — they spent most of his father Michael’s money to move to New York. But it only took a few days in the Big Apple for his mother Tatiana to realize she didn’t like living there. 

They spent the last money they had left to move to Los Angeles. 

“They spent their last ticket on a flight to LA and then they figured it out from there,” Itkin said at USA Fencing media day on Tuesday. “There was a lot of immigration into America during those times, but they fell in love with the (LA) community and obviously it’s a beautiful place too.” 

Armed with almost no knowledge of the English language, Michael Itkin found work as a fencing coach in Culver City. Five years later in 1997, he opened his own independent fencing studio and five years after that in 2002 he founded Los Angeles International Fencing Club, which he still leads as head coach. 

It was at LAIFC where Nick trained to become the Olympic medalist that won a bronze medal for the U.S. in Tokyo in 2021 and ascended to No. 1 in the world fencing rankings this year after winning first place at the FIE Grand Prix tournament in Washington in March.

Nick now has turned his attention to fulfilling his lifelong dream of winning a gold medal in Paris this summer.

But the 22-year-old fencer knows his second Olympic run is taking place in a vastly different world from the one he competed in three years ago. He knows his home country of Ukraine and distant family friends have dealt with the chaos of war since Russia’s invasion of the country in February 2022. 

“My family has a lot of close friends and people out there,” Itkin said. “There’s a lot of horrible stuff going on there right now and I hope peace comes soon. We’re trying to do the most we can to help them.

“I have a lot more respect for the people that are there right now, I’m living comfortably in the U.S. so I’m spoiled in that regard, but props to the people out there that are really struggling.” 

Russia invaded Ukraine just four days after the end of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Olympic Committee considered this attack a violation of the Olympic truce — a resolution that calls for all nations to lay down arms and not engage in conflict starting one week before the Olympics begins and ending one week after the end.

Because of this, Russian athletes are not allowed to represent their nation’s flag in Paris, but can compete as “Individual Neutral Athletes.” But Russia’s war on Ukraine is only one of two major world conflicts that Itkin is hereditarily tied to. 

In 2022, Itkin’s father took him and his family to Israel. It was the last time either of them saw the country before the Oct. 6 Hamas attacks and subsequent war in Gaza. 

“I can’t say that I’m very much involved in the Jewish religion, but my father, it’s a huge part of his identity so obviously I grew up experiencing the culture and the religion,” Itkin said. “When we visited Israel, it was one of his goals, to bring his family there. It meant a lot to him.”

Itkin said his ties to both Ukraine and Israel have given him a unique level of pressure and motivation in Paris to represent the many sides of his heritage. As an American and a Jewish Ukrainian, he knows his platform and performance will be significant on an international stage.

As a graduate of Notre Dame with a degree in political science in 2022, one of his interests in college was the history of the Olympics as a platform for activism during times of global conflict. 

“The Olympics is such an international stage, the whole world is watching, so you know it’s very important to see high level athletes that use their platform for good, hopefully,” Itkin said. “Even when I was a little kid, this is the moment I’ve been dreaming of.

“A lot of people are going through difficult times and at this moment I’m focused on my training and competing this summer, but obviously I’m praying for peace in this world.”

Once Paris is over, Itkin will turn his attention to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, where he aims to compete in his hometown in what he hopes is a more peaceful world.