Ukrainian-born Anastasia Gromova was going on the adventure of her life. The 24-year-old planned to hop on a plane in the fall, leaving her desk job of three years in Montreal to teach English in Japan.
“She was very passionate about Asian cultures,” said her father, Sergiy Gromov.
But before making the move across continents, Anastasia traveled to Miami with her best friend from college, 23-year-old Michelle Pazos. Pazos’ father, Miguel, had an apartment in the oceanfront Champlain Towers South. The friends wanted a perfect, sunny beach vacation before Anastasia traveled far from everyone and everything she loved and knew.
Anastasia, along with Miguel and Michelle Pazos, perished in the night when the Surfside condo collapsed on June 24. The bodies of Miguel and Michelle were found on July 8 and 9, respectively; Anastasia was among the last victims to be found, recovered on July 18.
Anastasia was born on Dec. 18, 1996, in Ukraine. She had one older sister, Anna. As a child growing up in Kyiv, she was an “always smiling,” beautiful child, recalled her mother, who couldn’t remember a time when her youngest cried.
“She got up and ran again, and that’s it,” said Larisa Gromova, Anastasia’s mother.
At home, they spoke Russian, and at school, their daughters learned Ukrainian. When Anastasia was 12, the family moved to the outskirts of Toronto, hoping to give the children more opportunities. Larisa feared what the massive change would do to their family. But Anastasia seemed to understand her parents’ decision.
“I asked her once, ‘Anastasia, do you know [why] we choose for you this future?’ … And she said, ‘Mom, don’t worry. I know I have here [a] better future and no regrets.’ “
On her first day of school in Canada, Anastasia refused to let go of her father’s arm. But after a few days, she told him that she felt comfortable going alone. She grew accustomed to her new surroundings quickly. Her talent with languages also became apparent. She was placed in English-second language, but after a proficiency test the first week, she was placed in regular English classes.
“Nobody realized that she is from Ukraine, not from other school in Canada,” said Larisa. “She had such a good memory. And we were like, ‘How can you do it?’ And she said, ‘It’s so easy, Mom. You have to read it twice, and it’s in your brain.‘ ”
She attended high school in Burlington, a small city about half an hour away from Toronto. There, she discovered her love for writing and won second place in a town-wide essay-writing competition.
“She found this competition by herself,” said her mother. “We didn’t even know she was participating.”
Her parents weren’t sure where her talent for crafting stories and essays came from, but they were proud of their daughter.
“And even before high school, there was a class assignment to write a story. And she wrote the story and the teacher didn’t believe that [she was the author]. This story even got into the school newspaper,” her father added.
A high school teacher tried to persuade Anastasia to pursue writing in college, but she opted to enroll in business management and marketing studies at McGill University in Montreal.
Anastasia made a life for herself at the university. She made friends during her first semester and delved into the life of her new city, going to the orchestra, the ballet and museums. She explored small cafes and restaurants across Montreal. She loved to cook, and when she returned to visit her parents in Ontario on school breaks, she would bring back recipes with ingredients not often used in Ukrainian food, like rose water.
She also loved to travel, and spent part of her third year abroad at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Before starting her program in Australia, Anastasia’s adventurous spirit took her to solo travels in New Zealand.
She decided to bike 80 kilometers through the country, hoping to visit some of the nation’s famous beaches. Halfway there, she realized she wouldn’t make it because it was too far and too hot. So she hitchhiked, and one of the locals picked her up and waited until she took photos and enjoyed the view.
She met Michelle that same school year on a multi-country trip in Asia. As they traveled across Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and others, the young women bonded.
“They came together and became the best friends ever,” said Larisa. “After they returned to Canada, they were always together, always smiling, always going somewhere.”
After graduating from McGill in 2018, Anastasia landed a job as a copywriter at Cossette, a big marketing agency in Montreal. She studied the nuances of Quebecois French, but her college trip through Asia had instilled in her a love for the continent, and she wanted to live there.
In her spare time, Anastasia began to learn Japanese — her fifth language after Russian, Ukrainian, English and French — taking online and in-person classes. She got her teaching license while working full time.
“She didn’t waste her time. She always wanted to know what to do next, where to, what’s the next goal,” said Anastasia’s father of his daughter’s ambitious streak.
Anastasia was supposed to move to Japan through an English teaching program funded by the Canadian government. Her lease would be up before traveling to Japan, so she moved home with her parents, continuing her role as the family’s official trip planner, organizing weekend ventures into national parks, bike trips, and visits to small towns around Ontario. They went to the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls.
“Today’s Saturday, we’re going over there, over there, over there,” said Larisa, laughing, recalling her daughter’s excitement over the family adventures.
Despite being uprooted from her native country at a young age, Anastasia maintained close ties with Ukraine. At this year’s Orthodox Easter, she wore a traditional red dress she ordered from Ukraine and cooked Ukrainian food for her family.
During this limbo she chose to travel to Miami, a city she loved, with Michelle. They flew down south to Florida in mid-June. During her first week staying at Surfside, she worked remotely from Champlain and continued to take Japanese lessons.
“Me in Japanese class, them on the balcony with mimosas,” Anastasia joked to her mother over text on June 19, five days before the condo collapsed.
Anastasia sent her mother photos and stories about her trip. A meal at a seafood restaurant. A freshly polished manicure. The blue, sparkling ocean.
“They were so excited about it,” her mother said. “She was happy.”