Ukraine in mind as a high jumper competes for gold at the World Championships

EUGENE, Arch. – It took her three days by car to flee Ukraine after the start of the war. High jump champion Yaroslava Mahuchikh can only guess how long it will be before she comes back.

On her way out, Mahuchikh heard gunfire and could sometimes see shells raining down miles away. Although her hometown of Dnipro was far from the frontline of the Russian invasion, she could never shake the fear that saying goodbye to her mother and father, grandfather and sister could be the last time she did so.

“When there is a war,” Mahuchikh said, “it is very complicated to say that every city is safe.”

Four months after that harrowing journey across the border in Serbia, the 20-year-old is at the IAAF World Championships in distant Eugene, Oregon.

She made it through Saturday’s qualifiers easily and is a favorite to win a gold medal on Tuesday, partly because her main rival, three-time world champion Maria Lasitskene, is Russian and banned from competing because of the war.


Athletics World President Seb Coe said that given the hardships the 22 Ukrainians competing in Worlds have endured just to make it to this point, it would be “unimaginable” to believe that would have allowed the Russians here to compete against them.

Mahuchikh agrees. In a series of personal interviews and email exchanges with The Associated Press, she said that while her and Lasitskene’s relationship was always cordial, it was never warm. Well, it could never be fixed.

“She wrote that she can’t compete because she’s Russian,” Mahuchikh said of Lasitskene’s recent open letter criticizing Coe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. “And our people are dying because they are Ukrainians. I don’t want to see killers on the track. Because they are really killers, many athletes, who support this war.”


There are some Russian athletes who have supported the war, led by a handful of gymnasts, including Ivan Kuliak, who wore a “Z” symbol in support of the war while stepping up steps from a Ukrainian athlete at a recent World Championships a medal podium stood cup event. Shortly thereafter, gymnastics officials stripped Kuliak of the medal and suspended him for a year.

Other Russians have campaigned for peace, including tennis player Daniil Medvedev, who was banned from Wimbledon this year, and Alex Ovechkin, who plays for the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

In her letter, Lasitskene, who won last year’s Olympics alongside her three consecutive world titles, regretted the plight of Ukrainian athletes. They “experience what no human should ever feel,” she wrote.


She also said that keeping Russians out of sport did not end the war, “but on the contrary, it has spawned a new war around and within sport that is impossible to contain.”

Mahuchikh said Lasitskene’s correspondence was missing, and there was no contact with the Ukrainians themselves.

“Russia is an aggressor country that launched a full-scale invasion of my country,” she said. “Many coaches and athletes joined the army to defend our country; Some are at trouble spots, others are imprisoned or killed. Sports infrastructure in many cities has been destroyed. We cannot train in our home country.”

That Mahuchikh – or one of the Ukrainians on this week’s Worlds starting lists – has made it to Eugene can well be seen as a triumph of persistence, logistics and an otherworldly ability to separate the day-to-day threats to their families and country from the day-to-day Challenges faced by a top athlete.


“You understand how important this is,” Mahuchikh’s coach Tetiana Stepanova told the AP through a translator. “You go through the airport. People see their Ukrainian uniforms and they come up to us and form their hands into a heart. That means a lot.”

After her perilous trip to Serbia, Mahuchikh resumed training and tried to feel normal. Her mother, sister and niece made it out of the country to Germany.

“It’s better for them there,” Mahuchikh said. “We can keep in touch and they can send me things and I can relax and stay focused knowing they’re safe.”

Her father and grandpa stayed in Dnipro, about 250 miles southeast of Kyiv. Mahuchikh said they are safe there for now.

She stayed in Dnipro for a while, but after a few weeks her regular job beckoned and she had to put the drives behind to bring food and clothes to hospitals and animal shelters, and stop at places around Dnipro to help animals ( “They can’t walk,” she said).


When she can, she sends money to friends and family back home. This summer she spends her life oscillating between a steady stream of news punctuated by constant worry and a training schedule that initially had all arrows pointed towards the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade in March.

By this time, a policy towards the Russians in sports had already been established. Bach said the IOC’s recommendation was primarily for the safety of the Russians. Coe said the World Athletics decision, which also excluded athletes from Russian ally Belarus, was a fairness issue.

“It was done from a very clear point of view and it was about the integrity of the competition,” he said. “It would have been unthinkable to host a World Championships here with athletes from Belarus and Russia, two aggressive nations that have moved to an independent state.”

Mahuchikh – who won bronze at last year’s Tokyo Olympics and has been preceded by wins at all junior levels since 2017 – won the gold medal at the indoor championships. It was about more than just jumping high.


“I realized that I could show the power and strong spirit of the entire Ukrainian nation on the track and in the jumping,” she said. “I was able to show the world that we will fight to the end. Until we win.”

One day Mahuchikh hopes to bring home that gold medal. Maybe she’ll have two after Tuesday’s final.

But there’s no way of knowing when — or if — she’ll return, or what her country will be like.

“It’s so bad and it’s difficult mentally,” she said. “But I believe we will win and get back to our lives. And we will always remember that time.”


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