Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh on a mission for her war-torn country

EUGENE, Ore. – On the morning of July 9, a Russian missile exploded into the home of Daria Kudel, a champion sports dancer, and her family in the central Ukraine city Kryvyi.

Shrapnel tore through Kudel’s heart and liver. She was rushed to a nearby hospital but could not be saved.

Ten time zones removed from the death and destruction in her war-torn country, high jumper Yarosalva Mahuchikh, the World indoor champion training on the U.S. West Coast, was hit particularly hard by the news of Kudel’s death.

“She was only 20,” Mahuchikh said her, voice tailing off.

Mahuchikh is also only 20.

“When I read this I thought, ‘How can this be? How can it be in 2022?’” Mahuchikh continued. “I thought it could be me. Thank God.”

Mahuchikh is the favorite to win the World Championships high jump at Hayward Field Tuesday night. But she will be chasing more than just gold when she and countrywoman Iryna Gerashchenko take center stage in front of a global television audience.

“I believe I have a mission to compete here and show all the world we are strong people and that we will fight to the end,” Mahuchikh said, “and show best results for our Ukrainian people.”

The high jump, she said, “is my front line.”

Mahuchikh owns the three best jumps of 2022, including a world leading 6-feet-8, and is the only jumper to clear 2.0 meters (6-6 ¾) outdoors this season. But she knows under normal conditions the favorite would be Russia’s Maria Lasitskene, the reigning Olympic and world champion and Mahuchikh’s girlhood idol.

Lasitskene will not be in Eugene, however, because of a March decision by World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, to ban Russian and Belarus athletes from the World Championships in response to Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine that has left 4,700 Ukrainian civilians dead, according to the United Nations.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said it was “inconceivable” that Ukrainian athletes would have to compete alongside athletes from Russia and Belarus while Russian forces bombed and killed innocent civilians in Ukraine.

The World Athletics move followed the International Olympic Committee’s February decision to encourage international sports to ban Russian and Belarus athletes in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Lasitskene, in an open letter to IOC president Thomas Bach and Coe, an IOC member, criticized the ban saying the organizations “chose the easiest solution … to suspend everyone because of citizenship.”

She also told Bach, “I have no doubts that you don’t have the courage and dignity to lift the sanctions against Russian athletes.”

Her former idol’s letter outraged Mahuchikh.

“We don’t keep in touch with Maria really,” Mahuchikh said. “She didn’t write with anyone. Not even a simple word: ‘How are you? Are you OK? How is your family?’ No she only writes letter (to the IOC and World Athletics). And no word for the war in Ukraine.”

Mahuchikh was awakened on February 24 by Russian bombs crashing down her home city of Dnipro in east central Ukraine. She and her family were forced to flee to a neighboring village. She trained when she could at a local indoor facility in between bombings. Warning sirens sent Mahuchikh and her friends and family scurrying to the cellar several times a day.

The first bombing of Dnipro came just 23 days before Mahuchikh, the bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, was scheduled to compete in the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade.

At first, she was torn between competing and staying in Ukraine and helping treat the war’s casualties.

“It mixes up my mind,” Mahuchikh said. “Because one part says it’s OK, you’re going to the World Championships Indoors to show how strong we are but the second part is to maybe I should be at home. Maybe I should show help as a volunteer for the soldiers. But when we come to Serbia it’s really understood I should be here, I should talk with journalists and show to Ukrainian people are strong.”

So March 6, Mahuchikh, her coach Tetiana Steponova, Steponova’s husband and son, who is also Mahuchikh’s boyfriend, began a 72-hour journey through Ukraine, Moldova and Romania to Belgrade.

“I didn’t know when I would come back and see my parents, my friends again,” she said.

They often heard gunfire or bombing as they drove toward Ukraine’s western border with Moldova, where they were detained for five hours because of traffic and processing delays,

“Of course I was a little bit afraid because a lot of the regions where we go we’re bombed by Russians,” Mahuchikh said. “It was so difficult but we had to go to the World Championships and show good results.”

Iryna Gerashchenko, of Ukraine, competes during qualifying for the women's high jump at the World Athletics Championships on Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Iryna Gerashchenko, of Ukraine, competes during qualifying for the women’s high jump at the World Athletics Championships on Saturday, July 16, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Gerashchenko, 27, was forced to leave her home in Kyiv so quickly that she didn’t have time to take her jumping shoes or uniform. She trained for days in tennis shoes borrowed from a teammate’s mother.

Five days after the group left Dnipro, the center of the city came under pre-dawn heavy bombing that destroyed a shoe factory, an apartment complex and two office buildings. One of the offices was a clinic for HIV/AIDs patients. The windows of a nearby kindergarten were blown out.

“Russia,” Mahuchikh said, ‘is a terrorist state.”

Seven days later Mahuchikh was World Indoor champion. Gerashchenko, who also made the harrowing drive to Belgrade with her coach and friends, placed fifth.

“I didn’t think I was doing it for myself or my medal, I was doing it for all the Ukrainian nation,” Mahuchikh said. “I want to show Ukrainian people are strong people. They never give up. Our military protect our country at home and today I protect my country on the track.”

And so Tuesday evening Mahuchikh will be back on her front line, jumping for gold and so much more.

The women, Gerashchenko said, will jump “with Ukraine in our hearts.”

“We always remember the lost lives,” said Mahuchikh, who after the World Indoor meet relocated to Turkey before joining her mother, sister and niece in Germany. Her father and grandmother remain in Ukraine. “The civilians killed by Russians that didn’t do anything to deserve this and of course we remember our soldiers who try to protect our country. It’s really a heartbreak for all Ukrainian nation. But we will rebuild always and our people we all believe we will win and we all believe we can do it and we can all rebuild all of that and we will be a good independent country.”

Since she was a teenager, Mahuchikh jumped while wearing yellow eyeliner. In Eugene, the eyeliner both above and below her eyes has been split between yellow and blue mirroring the Ukraine flag.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “It looks much better now.”