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24 December, 2021
Interview with Ukraines the first military diver

Today, there are three women in the Ukrainian military certified as divers with the Naval Forces of Ukraine. Kateryna Nikitenko was the first female authorized to practice diving; she was only 19 years old at the time. At 21, she is an instructor with a training unit. She has spent over 70 hours beneath the water. She is also a candidate master of sports in aquathlon (underwater wrestling accompanied by breath holding aimed at removing a ribbon from the opponent’s leg and being the first to bring the ribbon above the water within the wrestling area - ed. note).

In this exclusive interview for Censor.NET, we will see what she thinks about the phrase “women are not fit for ships”, how she managed to rescue herself under water, and what motivated her to complete training.

“The war prompted me to go into military medicine.”

-   As a child, I was very eager to become a doctor, I was interested in medicine. I was subject to very harsh control as a small kid. My parents were very strict with me. This is when I started thinking about the army. Discipline, education, physical training. Since I was 14, I was working at the beach helping my grandma. First managing kids at the bouncing zone, then selling cotton candy and later on bartending.

-     My parents wanted to teach me to earn my own money, so that I understood as early as possible what a hard job it is, and also to stop living off my parents. I understood that making my own money was great, but I was also disappointed by seeing my friends and classmates coming to the beach to have fun while I didn’t even have the time for a swim. But when I made enough money to dress by the beginning of the school year, it was really cool.

-    At 15, I finished school and started my medical studies. The war was already there.  In my first year, I was thinking about what to do next. I wanted to be more than a paramedic and the situation in the country also prompted me to go into military medicine. But I realized that my family won’t be able to afford my higher education as my parents have already invested lots of money in my studies. In my fourth year, I decided to go to Odesa to find an institution to join. I understood that there were ancient stereotypes and women are unwelcome on ships. So I was a bit afraid. Then I approached the South military base asking them to accept me as a paramedic. They told me that there were no open vacancies at the time but they could ask ship commanders and maybe they could take me onboard. In a week or two, I was informed that I could sign a contract with a diving school, but it was to be combined with the base.

-    Why, in your opinion, is the stereotype still alive that “women are not fit for ships” and what continues preventing women from taking leadership positions?


-       At the time I was 19. Every man sees a girl as a daughter or a sister. Everyone’s eager to take care of her, and it can distract them from their duties.

-        Did you need such care?

-      No, I didn’t, but I think this is what the stereotype is about. Back then, I realized that the job won’t be easy on the male team. But I had to try anyway. I went there not because I wanted to be cared for but because I could contribute to the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the way I could.

‘Water is my passion’

-    The sea... It always attracted me. I grew up near a salt lake and I used to swim a lot. I did think it would become my passion. So I came here to the Lisozavodsk ship. The diving school was still under construction, there was no separate office, as we were established only in 2019.  It was the first diving school since Crimea’s annexation.

-       How did you manage to go from a paramedic to diver and instructor?

-     First, my job was to provide medical assistance and first aid to students and instructors. Then I attended a training in Mykolaiv, it was a general military training. I saw how they train divers, what kind of physical training they receive. I was shocked. I decided to give it a try and I told the commander that I would like to join the next group. He hesitated a bit but then approved.

-        How about you, were you afraid of the extensive physical activities, heavy containers, etc.?

-     No, I wasn’t. Living in a village with lots of livestock could be close but is still different. I was in good physical shape and I was confident that I would complete the course. When I started as a diver, I was able to go underwater to inspect ships, search for objects, and lift sunken vessels just like all others.

-        But you were still looking for more?

-      When I worked as a paramedic at the swimming pool, I watched the instructors work, how they trained the divers. I was so excited. I wanted to continue my self-development.

-        Now you cannot work as an instructor due to injury, right? 

-    It is an intensive job. We work under various conditions. We used to go underwater all year around, for over two years. I realized that it would happen sooner or later, it is inherent in the job. Any job entails some danger to your health, but this job is even more complicated. When my fin got stuck, I was like, “Ohhhh, my friends, my family, my sisters...”

My first underwater experience was arranged by my parents before I started my diving course. They wanted me to try the activity that I was going to make my profession, so they bought me a diving certificate. First, it was a bit scary and unusual but then I got interested. I realized it’s not that hard and I could give it a try.  When I was in the diving course, I enjoyed it a lot and I was looking for more. They taught us what to do in extreme situations, and how to handle cramps.

-        Did it ever happen?

-     Yes, it did. My fellow diver and I  were inspecting the waters. It was up to 12 meters deep. My mistake was that I failed to carefully watch the lifeline kept by the diver tender on the surface. The water was dirty, there was a lot of debris and metal there. And then I realized I couldn’t move further as my lifeline had gotten stuck. I was trying to figure out where it got stuck to release it but I couldn’t. Somehow my fin got trapped in the loop and I was like, “Ohhhh, my friends, my family, my sisters...” It was the first time when something like this happened to me and I knew I needed to calm down or my heart would jump out of my chest. I lied on the bottom because I started breathing very quickly due to stress and emotions, which is totally incorrect. I calmed down, untied the line, and signaled to take me up. Thank God, that was it. Again, it was an experience, a useful and complicated one.

-    The diving school was opened three years ago. Why is there only one female diver and instructor?

-   I am not the only one anymore. A woman came after me who also took the course. She became a platoon commander as she was a military officer. Another woman who replaced me as a paramedic, she also took the diving course. Now she’s a diver and she is planning to become an instructor.

-      Why do so many men drop the training and what helped you keep going? (According to official statistics, 70% of men fail the course, 50% fail the admission test, and another 20% drop out during the course, - ed. note)

All of us were given equal opportunities and no preferences. I saw men giving up and feeling exhausted, but I had enough energy. In the first place, I wanted to see my own potential. Even though they were sceptical about me at first, my efforts were rewarded. But then the training started. They made us sink, the guys and me. They tied our hands and legs, they made us lift heavy stuff and swim without masks and tubes. They exposed us to all kinds of challenges to prepare us for extreme situations. When I saw the guys giving up and leaving the water saying, “Enough for me”, I understood that I want to do it and I can do it. Why am I any worse than men? If I believe in myself, I can do it. I am not that fragile and sometimes I can stand even more than they do.

-     The last restricted positions with the Armed Forces of Ukraine will be opened soon. What would be your advice to women who would like to become military divers, too? Where to look for motivation and leave the fear behind?

-     First of all, it’s very important to have a supportive environment. If it’s not the case, you should rely on yourself. If you really want it, you will overcome any obstacles. You should realize that you will definitely meet some discrimination as the stereotypes are still alive. You should believe in yourself and pay limited attention to what others say about you. You can do it, you know, and you will be fighting for your place.

Iryna Sampan