BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Stanislav Horuna shuffles down the hall outside the hotel bar, his sandals clacking against the tile.
On this particular day, he’s carrying a copy of Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and wearing shorts and a tank top, a different look from the traditional gi he’s worn in some of the biggest karate competitions in the world.
“Sorry,” said Horuna, who won a bronze medal in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo in the kumite category of karate for his division. “I was at the pool.”
Until recently, Horuna and five of his fellow Ukrainian athletes had been staying at a hotel not far from the airport, training for the 2022 World Games in Birmingham. For two weeks, they would spend an hour and a half training in the hotel conference hall. At night, they would train for another hour and a half. The next day, they would start all over again.
Horuna hasn’t seen much of Birmingham. When he’s not training or giving his 97,000 followers on Instagram a peak into his life, he’s resting. Talking about the World Games outside the hotel bar, he sets down “Thinking, Fast and Slow” on the table next to him. The book is a 499-page examination of how the mind forms thoughts and how those processes influence the decisions people make. Horuna, who supported himself as a lawyer while he trained in karate, finds the book intriguing.
“It’s to understand myself and to understand other people,” he said.
Horuna himself has a lot on his mind these days. Not only is he training for his first event Saturday in the World Games, he’s also keeping up with what is happening in Ukraine as they fight invading Russian forces. Earlier that day, Ukrainian forces had just won back control over Snake Island, which had been occupied by Russia since February.
Even as noise pours out from the hotel game next door, Horuna remains focused, carefully considering each word he uses.
“I just do what I have to do,” Horuna said. “We all do.”
Horuna has been of the biggest karate stars to come out of Ukraine. In 2017, he took home the gold in the previous World Games held in Wroclaw, Poland. In 2021, he took home the bronze in Tokyo. Now, he hopes to be able to take home another medal in this year’s World Games.
For a time, Horuna wasn’t sure if he would be able to compete in the World Games. As Russia began invading Ukraine, he decided that he wanted to do something to help his country. That is when he began volunteering with Ukrainian forces, doing what he could to raise money for the effort.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, Horuna was affected by the war. Early on, he sent his wife and son to safety in Hungary. He said his training helped him to be able to remain calm, but nonetheless, he saw firsthand how the war had changed those around him.
“Every day, you hear the alarm. That’s pretty terrifying,” he said. “You know that this is for real.”
One way Horuna gave back to his country was by selling his Olympic medal for over $20,000, money which he used to buy a drone and other wartime supplies. Horuna doesn’t think twice about selling his medal, although it still feels bittersweet.
“It was an easy decision because at that time, it was very difficult situation on the frontline in the whole country. We didn’t know what will be tomorrow or next week or next month. There was only one thought: to survive,” he said. “We had to support with everything we had. And the decision was easy, but after I sold it and then I send it to Japan, then I started to miss it.”
Having won his division in the previous World Games, Horuna said his main motivation in this year’s World Games is to inspire other Ukrainians, as well as bring them honor.
“It encourages our people who have stayed in that region and encourages our fighters,” he said. “Some of them were athletes as well, but now, they are soldiers.”
Horuna said the last couple of years, it’s been difficult to stay motivated about the sport, especially with everything going on back home. At 33, he thinks he only has a couple of more years left in the sport. With the next chapter of his life looming, he doesn’t think he’ll return to law. Maybe he’ll start a business, maybe he’ll do something else.
“For me, of course, I would like to have to get this big victory at the end of my career because really this is the biggest tournament left for me,” he said.
More than just for himself, Horuna wants to bring home the gold as a win for Ukraine.
“I think they need small victories,” he said. “The time will come when we get that big victory against Russia, but until then, we need to smile and I think I can bring one.”