The second-place finish at world championships was beside the point for Ukraine’s best high jumper, Yaroslava Mahuchikh.
“For me, it’s gold,” she said Tuesday night, as she looked down at her newly won prize, one nobody would have been right to expect four months ago after she took a three-day car trip to flee her hometown and get away from the bombing.
Mahuchikh left shortly after her country came under siege by the Russian military. The war grinds on. Though thousands of civilians and soldiers are dying, Mahuchikh felt it was her duty to keep doing what she does best, if for no other reason than to give people back home something to be happy about. And, she said, to show Ukraine is strong.
“We will fight for our independence and for our territory,” she said. “And of course, finally, we will win.”
She came into the biggest high jump contest of the year as a favorite, in part because the three-time defending champion, Maria Lasitskene, is from Russia and not allowed to compete in major events due to the war.
The Ukrainian finished behind the surprising Eleanor Patterson of Australia, who had one fewer miss than Mahuchikh at 2.02 meters (6 feet, 7 1/2 inches), which made the difference between first and second.
Still, this was a night to celebrate for Ukraine, and for Mahuchikh, who said she felt the warmth from the stands, where the yellow-and-blue Ukraine flags dotted a few seats and fans cheered for her before every jump.
“Now, everything is for our Ukrainian people, and everything you do, you want to show the good results,” she said.
The silver medal goes alongside the gold she won at the world indoor championships in March. That came shortly after she escaped her hometown of Dnipro, which had come under attack by Russia and, she said, is under siege today.
She is one of 22 Ukrainian athletes in Eugene this week for the championships, all of whom have been training far from home — some in Portugal, others in Spain, still others in Poland and Mahuchikh most recently in California after stops in Serbia, Germany and Turkey.
Her teammate, Iryna Gerashchenko, finished fourth — also a spectacular result given her plight after bombs started falling near her home in Kyiv. After sheltering in her parents’ basement for about a week, she left without spikes and trained for a time in tennis shoes.
“Things are a bit better, but at the same time, the war is going on,” said Gerashchenko, whose jump of 2 meters (6 feet, 6 3/4) was a personal best. “It’s very hard to live the life before, the previous life. But I’m very happy that my parents are safe.”
Mahuchikh’s medal gives Ukraine two at the halfway point of worlds.
A night earlier, Andriy Protsenko won bronze in the men’s high jump. His victory comes months after he was trapped for nearly six weeks in his hometown of Kherson, which is near the Crimean peninsula and under Russian occupation.
“It made me realize that anything is possible,” said Ukrainian hurdler Anna Ryzhykova, who finished second in her preliminary heat shortly before Mahuchikh took to the field. “He trained one month in an occupied city where he was risking his life. It’s amazing.”
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe was on hand. His federation was one of the first to banish Russians from these major events, a decision made, he said, because there was no fairness in allowing in athletes from an aggressor nation while those from the country under attack were living such fragile existences.
“Some of them are living at their training camps and can’t get home, some are wondering where loved ones are,” Coe said. “Their houses have been destroyed. It’s inconceivable. I don’t think any of us have that within our framework of reference.”
Mahuchikh said her mom, sister and niece are safe in Germany. Her dad and grandfather remain in Dnipro, where she said they can sometimes hear artillery firing.
There is no timeline for when she might get back to her home country to show off the silver medal.
“I wish I could come back home to our airport, to speak to our journalists, and with our relatives,” she said. “But I can’t do it now. The Russians have taken that opportunity from me.”