RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — While Andriy Hovorov hasn't been home for almost three years, he is representing his native region of Crimea quite well at the Olympics.

Hovorov raced for Ukraine on Thursday and posted the fastest time in the men's 50-meter freestyle swim heats and later qualified for Friday's final. The man from Sevastopol is a bona fide gold medal contender, and he's enjoying every minute.

"A really good race, really tight," Hovorov said of his semifinal race, which he finished in a 21.46-second dead heat with former gold medalist Anthony Ervin of the United States. "I'm excited, totally. Everything's going well."

Hovorov's life took an unexpected turn when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The swimmer ruled out changing his nationality, leading to his extended absence from his home territory. He's been warned not to visit Crimea by Ukrainian officials worried he could face harassment.

Ukraine's economy is in crisis, but sports officials have focused much of their meager funding on him, allowing him to train abroad with coach Arilson Silva, the former mentor of Brazilian world-record holder Cesar Cielo.

"This result comes from him," Hovorov said of Silva. "We know what we're doing, we know the plan, and this is just the first step to have better results."

Hovorov arrived in Rio de Janeiro in good form, winning silver in the 50 free at the European championships in May, plus a gold medal in the 50 butterfly, a non-Olympic event.

Speaking with The Associated Press in June, Hovorov said he was proud to stay with Ukraine but understood how other Crimean athletes could have been tempted to switch to Russia if they were struggling to fund their careers in the Ukrainian system.

Hovorov doesn't want to talk politics in Rio, but remains in close contact with relatives in Crimea. He said the situation there is stable, even with tensions high this week following what Russia claims was a military incursion by Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine has another Crimean medal contender in rhythmic gymnastics, where Anna Rizatdinova must face the Russian gold medal favorites.

Crimeans who switched allegiance to Russia have struggled to reach Rio because of International Olympic Committee rules mandating athletes observe a period of ineligibility after changing their registered nationality. One Crimean, javelin thrower Vera Rebrik, has been approved to compete for Russia, but is not in Rio because of a doping-related ban on the Russian track and field team.