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Defeat the hunger and take to the tennis court. The story of Leningrad’s many-time tennis champion

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Not only they fought for their Motherland, but they also did everything to make sure it stayed alive after the horrible war.

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Prior to the Victory day, our channel has prepared a string of stories about witnesses of the horrible 1940s. These people survived the Great Patriotic War. And they are still contributing to the country’s prosperity.

Stories by our reporters are about people of different professions, who, in spite of their age, continue doing the things they love. Every single one of them can be called a hero – of any epoch.

Today we present the story of how sports helped to survive the war. Mariya Tikhonova with more.

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “This diploma is the most valuable to me. Because I won it during the blockade. Those times were particularly hard”

Defeat the hunger, take it to the tennis court and become the city’s number 3 player. Natalya Vetoshnikova says this is her life’s biggest victory. And she’s already 93.

The multiple-time champion of Leningrad and renowned athlete in the USSR, she was among the very few to witness a little-known event of the blockade. In 1943, in the height of the war, the stadium at the besieged city hosted a tennis championship. This worn-out diploma is an invaluable historic document. No photos, no newspaper clippings - only her and her recollections.

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “I actually felt on myself what it means to “lose ground under one’s feet”. I didn’t faint or anything. No vomit, no dizziness, nothing. But it really felt like I have no ground under my feet. At some point I said I couldn’t go on, and my opponent said the same”

The summer of 1943 was particularly horrid for the city’s residents. That’s when Leningrad experienced the hardest artillery shelling in all of the war. In July alone, around 7 thousand shells exploded in the city’s streets. But – miraculously – in the days when the tennis tournament was held, not a single bomb fell on the Petrogradskaya area.

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “Throughout the entire war, we lived under constant pressure; we were gripped all the time. We didn’t use the word stress back then, but now I understand – we were living in a state of permanent stress”

That stress lasted for 900 days – from the beginning to the end of the blockade. She admitted – she wasn’t brave enough to go to the frontline at the age of 20. That’s why she helped those at the frontline by packaging bandages for the wounded. Her next of kin died not because of the wounds. Only three out of eight members of her family survived the blockade. She, her mother and younger sister survived the most famished winter of 1942 only thanks to their stock of wood glue and spices. Now the smell of both turns her insides out.

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “The stench was horrible, when we cooked it. Just horrid. But we were forced to eat this, adding pepper and laurel leaves. From then on, I never put peppers or laurel leaves into the food I make”

After the war, the young sportswoman took some time to get back into form. By the end of 1940s Natalya Vetoshnikova was winning at courts. Top ten tennis players in Leningrad and top 10 players in the country. All those are just steps towards the coveted dream.

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “Tennis helped me survive through the blockade, because every morning I woke up and told myself – I will not die from hunger, because I have to win the USSR tournament”

She didn’t become the USSR champion though, but still became the living legend and won her own “sports Oscar”. Now she helps in writing the book on history of tennis and gets a collection of unique photos ready. She hasn’t played for 30 years, but still looks sharp. And is not afraid to look funny at her 90-odd years of age. 

Natalya Vetoshnikova, resident of blockaded Leningrad: “I cannot understand why some don’t let me take their seats on a subway or a tram. I worry about that. Not because I desperately need it, but in essence. Younger ones than me get seats, but I’m still standing”

Racquets and balls are different now, but her sporting nature still keeps her in motion. She has firmly written her name into the history of tennis, but, despite her achievements, she is still very demanding to herself. 

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