The man on the Zoom screen, the one clad in a white T-shirt, his black hair closely cropped, is a runner.
Growing up in Dnieper, near Ukraine’s northern border, Artem Moroz ran and ran and ran. At first, he ran because running called to him. Then he ran because he cared about his health, because he wanted to stay active. Then he ran to complete marathons, grinding through the pain and lowering his times. But in all his days, through hundreds and hundreds of jaunts, he loved running through the forests in his hometown.
These forests were green, lush, magical. He’d leave his house behind and lose himself within, connecting with nature, gulping fresh air in deep breaths. He especially treasured morning jogs, when the sun broke through the trees, or trots through the brush after rainfalls, when all the green stuff glistened. This became his meditation, the way he sorted out his world and the world, while plotting for his future—a family, a life—with running tethered deep in his soul.
So how did Moroz end up here, in America, on a Zoom screen, while in Florida for medical reasons and, soon, in New York City for a race with unfathomable significance attached? How did he end up living in a real-life movie?
He’ll run on two prosthetic limbs, after losing both legs to Ukraine’s war, which stole from his physical form but not his mindset. “I didn’t lose,” he says on the call, which took place on Friday morning, through a translator. “I didn’t lose my dream. Through all the barriers, through all I knew, I will do this anyway.”
That’s because the man on the Zoom screen is a soldier—and not in the metaphorical sense. When Russia invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022, he volunteered to fight on the front lines, running toward danger in this case, not away from it. He defended Kyiv and later Kherson, the latter of which, he proudly notes, was completely liberated by the soldiers he served alongside.
Eventually, he became a commander, responsible for dozens of men and the orders they were given. In the worst moments, of which there were many, his wife and two young children served as his primary motivation. He fought for them. His favorite moments, of which there were fewer, resulted from the times his platoon won a particular skirmish. Small victories counted, too. He can still see the faces of the Russian soldiers as they turned to flee. He enjoyed those brief stretches of respite. “The best moments,” Moroz says.
He wants to be careful how he frames that, though. War was as bad, even worse, than it might sound. Totally different, he says. No humanity. No jogs for fun. And, at times, very little hope.
Moroz, 44, worried all the time, but not in the ways that might seem most obvious. He worried about the civilians getting caught in the cross fire, like when Russian soldiers looted cities, looking for expensive cars and watches and, well, everything. He needed to protect those everyday citizens, too. He fretted less about the danger on the front lines, the risks, including death, present through every minute of every day. He couldn’t change any of that, couldn’t wish Russia into a retreat. He fought because he had no other choice. He fought for land and for strangers, for aid that might increase when hope did, for women and children, none more important than the three who relied on him, who loved him, needed him.
Before he fought, though, Moroz saw Russian tanks rolling into Irpin, where he and his family lived in central Ukraine. He watched opposing soldiers fire randomly at cars. At that point, he cared only about the lives he was directly entrusted to protect. So he helped his wife and children—Anastasia is 14; Matviy, 6—flee to Europe. Then he went immediately to the front and raised his hand.
His wife said goodbye to Artem right before they departed. This wasn’t like a movie, either. She was scared, terrified, because she knew this wasn’t an abstract war but a real one, close and ongoing, death a real possibility. She didn’t believe he would come back. He would. He promised.
The man on the Zoom screen, if not clear already, is a father, too. His pride is evident as he waxes poetically, even with the translation, about his children. Anastasia is a blossoming gymnastics competitor. She plays guitar in her spare time and learns other languages in school. She also exhibits a penchant for mathematics, her interests and skills already widespread. Her younger brother, meanwhile, studies taekwondo, competing in local competitions—at least until the war broke out.
Anastasia is the other runner in the family. She, too, loved bouncing through the forests. But she, too, couldn’t run outside if she had stayed back in Ukraine. It was too dangerous. Mines. Bombs. Even walking around is forbidden, Moroz says, for anyone other than soldiers. Some specialists are currently working to clear areas like those forests from the perilous weapons the Russians left behind. “What they have done,” he says, “is horrible.”
Moroz knows that firsthand. Because the man on the Zoom screen is also a double amputee. A mine got him, on Sept. 14, while he was huddling with a group of soldiers and calling for support because they were under attack. When the blast hit, the ground shook with force. Four of his men died, right there. Others required emergency surgery. Fortunately, an ambulance arrived in 20 minutes, and those, like Moroz, who needed immediate blood transfusions were immediately given them. They only came close to dying, a victory in and of itself.
The doctors and paramedics were Polish; heroes, he says, all. Imagine volunteering to fight in a war zone in a country that’s not even your own? They fought. They fixed people and their wounds. His was one of the lives they saved by giving him the transfusion and taking him to a hospital.
This part might sound a little far fetched, but the man on the Zoom screen proved in recent months that he is a competitor, too. Immediately after a landmine ripped both of his legs right off, he still thought, When can I run? Soon, it turns out. Doctors in Ukraine fitted him for prosthetics and, while bulky and outdated, he could still jog right down the street. They made his body feel heavy, but he clung to the glorious baseline instead. He’s not dead. Not sitting in a wheelchair. Not done fighting, even. Running, he found, was still running, this activity that defined him, regardless of how he ran or why. Men he served with had it much worse, he notes.
Hence the trip to the U.S., where he met with specialists at Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates in Orlando to upgrade his prosthetics in the hopes that, one day, perhaps this year, he will run on them in the Boston Marathon. On Thursday, therapists fitted his current prosthetics with special liners to better connect all the different parts.
On Sunday, Moroz will compete in Run as One 4 Mile, an event hosted by New York Road Runners in Central Park. That jaunt marks both his first race since the war began and his first race on prosthetic legs. Members of the NYC chapter of the Ukrainian Run Club plan to attend to cheer their hero on. Another group, Revived Soldiers Ukraine, is covering his medical equipment upgrades, expenses, transportation, hotel stay and food.
Almost 8,000 runners will partake in this particular event, which is held annually to honor Tom Labrecque, the former Chase Manhattan Bank chairman who never smoked but died from lung cancer at age 62. The NYRR will raise both money for resources and general awareness. It also supports the Ukrainian running club, the group officials introduced to Moroz.
Still, this isn’t a movie. Not even close. As this hopeful man in the bleakest of situations prepared for the race of his life, he received terrible news from back home. The fitness center near his residence, where Ukrainian defenders often hid from Russian attackers, had been absolutely destroyed by a bomb. Moroz knew many soldiers who were killed. This happened on March 21. The same day that Moroz turned 44.
Despite all of that, the man on the Zoom screen remains an optimist. He lived to, if not celebrate, then at least see another birthday, after all. He’s hoping to meet with President Joe Biden to plead for additional resources and much-needed aid. He cannot wait for the family reunion, whenever that takes place. And he wants Ukrainians to know that they, as a people, are unbroken, fighting, unstoppable right until the end. Life has changed, says the optimist, despite his bleak circumstances. But life has not ended for those who remain.
On Sunday, the man on the Zoom screen will run through an oversized park in the middle of Manhattan. He will run because he is strong. He will run for his wife and his two children. He will run, because his people, who are also strong, will draw from his example of might and will and heart. And maybe, just maybe, Central Park will feel like the forests from his youth, before the war and before he needed to inspire, as he trained for obstacles he could never foresee.