As a teenager in Kiev, Ukraine, life was hard for Yulia Stoiko—really hard. Problems in school and with her parents led her to avoid home and run to drugs, alcohol and nightclubs. But at 15 years old, Yulia stepped into a boxing club, she said, “For no particular reason. ”It was there she met Coach Dima and found a safe place to release her pain.
“It felt like a bomb was in my soul,” she said.
With each jab and punch, the pressure that had built up from years of pain and suffering released. Coach Dima took notice. After only a short time of knowing her, he shared something with Yulia that would change her life.
“My coach at the boxing club told me about Jesus,” Yulia smiled, remembering the moment she first heard about Christ.
As their relationship grew, Coach Dima initiated another conversation, this time about her dreams and goals. Pondering who she could become in the future motivated her to end unhealthy friendships and stop living a destructive lifestyle.
Yulia decided to focus on boxing. When Coach Dima encouraged her to attend a boxing camp, hosted at an orphanage, so she could practice, she listened. The camp ended up being life-changing—for both of them. Coach Dima connected with FCA staff Pasha Tian, who began to serve him as he ministered to coaches and athletes. Yulia met Iryna Chorna, also on FCA staff, who became an instant spiritual mom. By the end of the camp, Yulia had accepted Christ.
“It was amazing, wonderful: It changed my life,” she said.
Yulia returned home full of joy; her faith couldn’t be contained. She continued to meet with Chorna for discipleship; she wanted to learn how to live like Jesus.
“It’s a big privilege to mentor Yulia because when I see God in her life, how she was before and how she is now, she’s a totally different person,” Chorna said. “And now she’s helping others grow spiritually.”
Whether it’s for teammates, managers, coaches, opponents or her family, Yulia’s passion is for everyone to hear about Christ.
When the sisters met Masha (pictured left) in a competition, they invited her to church and she accepted Christ. They introduced her to FCA Ukraine staff Liuda Statkevych, and Liuda started mentoring Masha. Today, Masha continues to box, and she leads a Huddle for other athletes at her school. Masha is one of many athletes who have accepted Christ because of the impact of Yulia’s and Marina’s testimony.
Although they grew up in the same household, Yulia and her younger half-sister Marina weren’t close. The tension of living in a one-bedroom dorm with their entire family and being surrounded by secrets, fighting, alcohol and very little personal space created a lot of conflict and distance between them. But once Yulia found boxing, they soon both had an outlet.
Marina joined the gym to get in shape after Yulia encouraged her to try it. Before long, Marina realized she too had the athleticism and skills to do well in boxing. In 2014, Yulia joined Ukraine’s National Boxing Team, and Marina joined in 2016.
“WHEN I SEE GOD IN HER LIFE, HOW SHE WAS BEFORE AND HOW SHE IS NOW, SHE’S A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PERSON.”
—IRYNA CHORNABecause Coach Dima understood the impact he could have on his athletes’ lives, he began hosting a Huddle before practices and read from devotionals that FCA Ukraine staff gave him. Getting into God’s Word helped the sisters understand that genuine faith takes more than knowing God exists, a common belief in Orthodox cultures. The devotionals explained that the Christian faith means asking Jesus to live inside your heart and giving Him control. This was something Marina had watched Yulia experience, so she began considering it for herself.
“I was happy to see big changes in Yulia’s life because she showed love to me—this was something we didn’t have before that,” Marina said.
Yulia looked for ways to share Christ with her sister. One day when she and Marina were together, they attended church and a Christian music festival afterwards. When Marina heard the message of Christ from the stage, she accepted God too. Her life soon mirrored Yulia’s—she became a totally different person.
In addition to new attitudes, outlooks and smiles stretched across their faces, the sister’s relationship got a makeover. The two went from being teammates and siblings without a strong bond to loving sisters. Family members, other girls on the boxing team and friends began asking them, “What’s changed? What’s going on with you?” It didn’t take long for the girls who had been engaged and equipped with the love of Christ to begin empowering others.
When the National Team met for a week of conditioning to prepare for competition, Yulia gathered the athletes for a Huddle, and 11 girls accepted Christ. Chorna noted that people recognize something is different about them.
“Where these girls go, no matter the country or level of competition, God is using them,” Chorna said. “They’re sharing God with the National Team, coaches, managers, even their opponents—and people are coming to know Christ.”
Coach Dima’s encouragement to dream big has led the sisters to where they are now. Today, they’re living in an apartment in Kiev and continuing to train.
Marina medaled at the 2020 Youth European Boxing Championship and has her eyes set on the Paris 2024 Olympics.
“We want to compete at the Paris Olympics in 2024 and take two gold medals,” said Marina, now 19, who medaled at the 2020 Youth European Boxing Championships in Budva and has grown to be a major force on her team. In addition to hopeful Olympic success, Marina has her sights set on the silver screen.
“I want someone to make a movie about our life—two sisters who box—and I want it to show how our lives used to be and how they are now,” Marina said. “I want to show how God has changed us so people will accept Him.”
Yulia, now 23, is also pursuing a big impact. She regularly meets with Chorna and is helping lead FCA Ukraine’s retreats, Camps and Huddles. One day when she’s not balancing the demands of being a full-time athlete, she hopes to join FCA staff.
“When God changes you and you see how great God is, you can’t be quiet,” Yulia said. “You need to share God with others. Everyone needs to know about Jesus Christ.”
Photos courtesy of FCA Ukraine