Drexel squash star Alina Bushma plays on for family in Ukraine

Drexel's Alina Bushma, of Ukraine is seen after winning her squash match against Princeton's Andrea Toth of Canada in Philadelphia, Friday, March 4, 2022

Drexel's Alina Bushma, of Ukraine is seen after winning her squash match against Princeton's Andrea Toth of Canada in Philadelphia, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Alina Bushma prepared for perhaps the biggest match of her squash career at Drexel when her mother texted her a snapshot from her day in Ukraine. Inna Bushma wanted to show her daughter the camouflage nets she made as a volunteer helping Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces.

“Looks like grass,” Alina Bushma said, laughing.

Bushma much preferred the photos her parents sent earlier in the week — champagne for a toast for their daughter who helped lead Drexel to a runner-up finish in the Collegiate Squash Championships.

“I’m just a girl from Ukraine where squash is not even that popular,” she said Friday.

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The 21-year-old Bushma scored the winning point last Saturday that sent the Dragons into the CSA championship match, where they lost to Harvard. She hit the court again Friday at the squash center on Drexel’s campus and won her first match in the CSA individual championships — and earned First Team All-America honors with her win.

Drexel’s Alina Bushma of Ukraine warms up before a squash match in Philadelphia, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Bushma walked off the court and found her coaches and teammates waiting for her in Drexel T-shirts with two equally sized horizontal bands of blue and yellow for the Ukrainian flag stitched on the left sleeve. She fought back tears at the gesture, a team with players from countries around the globe (England, Spain, Malaysia included) that had banded together to support their teammate.

“They know what I’m going through,” she said.

Bushma has watched “news, news, news” in the nine days since Russia invaded Ukraine. People across Ukraine have taken up arms and sought shelter. More than 1.2 million people have fled to neighboring countries, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday. Bushma’s parents, though, have stayed put in Kyiv, in large part to help their homeland, but also to take care of the squash standout’s grandparents. Bushma has an older sister who lives in Germany. She has tried to remain upbeat and joked she didn’t want to “bug my parents” with texts and calls for the latest updates.

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“They’re more positive than sometimes I am here, because they’re trying not to panic and keep it positive,” she said.

Watching from afar as Russian troops seized the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe has weighed on Bushma. Her family is there, and so are friends and people she knows — many around her age — in school who must now fear for their safety on a daily basis.

“It’s like why do I deserve to be here safely in America while they have to go to bomb shelters and think about their lives every minute,” Bushma said.

So Bushma — majoring in computing and security technology and minoring in psychology — keeps doing what she does best and wins at squash. Her 11-8, 11-8, 10-12, 11-7 victory over Princeton’s Andrea Toth moved her into the quarterfinal. She improved to 16-3 this season, a stout record on the best team in Drexel history. Drexel finished the season with 16 wins, topping the previous record of 12 set in the 2019-20 season. The Dragons lost the CSA Howe Cup to Harvard 8-1. The singles championships run through Sunday at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center.

Bushma picked up the sport when she was around 5 or 6 years old at an after-school fitness club where her mom was a member.

“I was like, what is a squash?” she said.

She begged her parents to let her play and promised she would take the sport seriously, even in a country where quality players are at a minimum. Bushma remembered entering tournaments that barely had 10 players entered, and with collegiate sports not offered in Ukraine, she knew she’d have to pursue an education in America. When a friend and fellow squash player toured Drexel, she recommended the school to Bushma. A few emails to the coaching staff later, Bushma was eventually off to Philadelphia.

She has ink-stained reminders of Ukraine.

Bushma got her first tattoo at 16 and now has “15 or 16” of them — her most recent one came on her last trip home in December. There’s an eye on the back of her neck (“it’s to see my opponent”), a chestnut behind her left shoulder as a symbol of Kyiv, and another symbol, wheat, on her left arm.

“I’m obsessed,” she said.

Drexel’s Alina Bushma, right, of Ukraine meets with assistant coach Dylan Cunningham after winning her squash match against Princeton’s Andrea Toth of Canada in Philadelphia, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Until her next appointment, Bushma will worry about her friends and family in Kyiv — and hope they can raise a glass again for her achievements at the end of the weekend.

“I was glad to get them some happiness,” she said.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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