BRNO, Czech Republic — It was an unusual place to hold a high-jump competition — a parking lot outside a shopping mall in late June. Customers stopped briefly with their bags. A cluster of spectators, including Ukrainian war refugees finding a moment to cheer, stood along a railing. Human statues, painted gold, froze in poses as ancient Olympians. Cars and trucks whisked south on the highway toward Slovakia.
If it was not a traditional meet, nothing has been conventional lately for Yaroslava Mahuchikh, 20, of Ukraine, the displaced Olympic bronze medalist who is the gold medal favorite at the world outdoor track and field championships that began Friday in Eugene, Ore.
On Feb. 24, Mahuchikh (pronounced ma-GU–chi-huh or ma-HU-chick) was startled awake by shuddering booms in Dnipro, her hometown, in east-central Ukraine. Russia had begun its invasion. An explosion, caught on video, fireballed into the dark sky. Dnipro’s airport and area military facilities had come under attack.
Mahuchikh phoned her parents and her coach, then traveled to her coach’s home in the nearby village of Sukhachivka, presuming it would be safer there. They developed a routine, rushing to the cellar when warning sirens sounded and training when possible at an indoor jumping facility. Soon they left the country. For how long, no one knew.
On March 6, Mahuchikh, her coach, her coach’s husband and her coach’s son, who is also Mahuchikh’s boyfriend, began a three-day odyssey by car to Belgrade, Serbia, to compete in the world indoor track and field championships.
In defiance and observance at the world meet, Mahuchikh wore yellow eyeliner and painted her fingernails yellow and blue, Ukraine’s national colors. And despite the tragic disruption of war and the emotional distress of leaving behind her family, she won first place and drew loud applause.
“The result showed that Ukraine is a powerful, independent country that doesn’t need Russia,” Mahuchikh’s coach, Tetiana Stepanova, 56, said through an interpreter at the high-jump competition in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city. Brno is about two hours southeast of Prague, the capital.
Sports have become a sign of unity, triumph, resilience and perseverance for Ukraine. Its men’s national soccer team was embraced internationally this spring as it gamely tried, and barely failed, to qualify for the World Cup to be held in November and December in Qatar.
“I protect Ukraine on the track,” Mahuchikh said. “Some protect Ukraine in the arts. We are all pulling together.”
Yet the exultant statistics of sports provide only mild diversion from the grim statistics of war. Even by conservative estimates, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in Ukraine. People are hiding in basements, and children’s toys now include parts of rockets, Stepanova said with mournful eloquence.
At least for now, Mahuchikh feels it would be too risky to return to Ukraine and, even if she did, it would be too difficult to leave repeatedly for the international track circuit. She lived for months in Germany and Turkey before heading to California in early July to prepare for the outdoor world championships.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
- History: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
- On the Ground: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.
- Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here is a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.
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Her mother, sister and niece left Ukraine and joined her in Germany. But her father and grandmother remain in Dnipro. It is a hub of humanitarian assistance, military resistance and freshly dug graves set in rows like desolate crops. It has not been shattered to rubble, like Mariupol and other cities in the east, but civilian targets there have been shelled by missiles and the airport has been destroyed.
When a recent storm brought heavy thunder, Mahuchikh said, her frightened grandmother thought it was the rumble of bombing. Other Ukrainian high jumpers who joined her in the Czech Republic in June brought their own heart-wrenching stories.
Maryna Kovtunova, 15, is the Ukrainian youth champion who has become Mahuchikh’s protégé. As Kovtunova fled Mariupol with her mother and father in March, their apartment destroyed, she said that a bullet was fired into the family car, apparently by a sniper. It struck the rear window, ricocheted and lodged in the windshield. Kovtunova keeps a photograph on her phone that shows her holding the bullet, its tip bent vaguely like a rhinoceros horn.
The photo caption, translated, says: “I’m alive but this bullet almost hit me. I bent down in time.”
Kateryna Tabashnyk, 28, said her family’s apartment in the eastern city of Kharkiv was struck by a rocket that injured her 8-year-old nephew. He was hospitalized, she said, and one of his kidneys was removed. She has been living in Spain, which like other European countries has offered apartments and training facilities to the exiled Ukrainians.
“The hardest thing is that I had to leave for a long time without the possibility of taking them with me,” Tabashnyk said through an interpreter.
When Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, came under attack, Iryna Gerashchenko, 27, who finished fourth in the high jump at the Tokyo Olympics, spent a week sheltering in her parents’ cold basement with her husband and their dog. Then she left for western Ukraine without so much as a track uniform or spikes. For several days, she trained in the sneakers of a teammate’s mother. Finally, a friend delivered track clothes and shoes in a care package sent by her parents. Gerashchenko and three teammates then drove on to Belgrade, where she finished fifth at the world indoor championships.
She later moved to training camps in Portugal and Poland, but as the world outdoor championships approached, Gerashchenko bounced from one competition to another across Europe, her belongings crammed into two suitcases. She has not seen her parents in more than four months.
“I want to hug them,” she said.
Mahuchikh and Stepanova, her coach, left on their March odyssey to Belgrade carrying a digital letter from Ukraine’s track and field federation, explaining their reason for leaving the country. But there was a five-hour wait at the western border with Moldova because of traffic and confirmation of their travel documents. As the 72-hour trip continued through Moldova, Romania and into Serbia, Mahuchikh slept in the car. Apart from stops to eat and refuel, her driver, Stepanova’s husband, Serhii Stepanov, took a catnap of only three hours.
How did he stay awake so long? He shrugged, smiled and said, “Five Red Bulls.”
On June 22, Mahuchikh competed in the Czech Republic at one of Europe’s quirkiest meets, the Brnenska Latka, roughly translated as Brno’s (high jump) Bar. It has been held for 25 years, often inside the Olympia mall (hence the living statues holding a javelin and discus). This year, for the first time, it was staged in the mall parking lot.
One of the meet organizers, Simon Zdenek, was a boy in 1968, the communist era, when he held his father’s hand and watched Soviet tanks roll in to crush a period of reform in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring. “Never forget this,” his father told him. He hadn’t, Zdenek said. The day before the competition, he drove an hour and a half to pick up Gerashchenko, the itinerant Ukrainian star, at the airport in Vienna.
“We understand what they are going through,” Zdenek said. “We want to help them.”
Two brothers from Dnipro, Yegor and Nikita Chesak, elite hurdlers and quarter-milers now living temporarily near Brno, brought a blue-and-yellow national flag to cheer on Mahuchikh and other Ukrainian jumpers. Serhiy Slisenko, 25, traveled 13 or 14 hours by bus from Lviv in western Ukraine to compete in the men’s high-jump competition and leaped his career-best height outdoors.
“It’s really important to do what you can to show that you are Ukrainian and you can do your best even in these difficult circumstances,” Slisenko said.
Mahuchikh wore blue and yellow eyeliner and a pendant in the shape of Ukraine. Gerashchenko wore a blue-and-yellow ribbon in her hair and a blue-and-yellow ring on her hand. A small group of Ukrainian spectators, displaced and living in Brno, cheered them on, saying, “Jump, jump, jump, let’s go, you can do it!”
The excitement and nearness of the small crowd, amid a backdrop of war, lent urgent energy to the competition. Mahuchikh prevailed with a jump of 6 feet 8 inches, or 2.03 meters, the best in the world this year, her back and legs seemingly as peaked as the roof of a house as she cleared the winning height.
Russians, including the reigning women’s Olympic high-jump champion, Mariya Lasitskene, are barred from the world championships in Oregon because of the invasion. It is right to exclude the Russians, Mahuchikh said, adding, “Human life is more important than some competition.”
This fall, she hopes it will be safe to return to Dnipro to see her father and grandmother. She feels it is her duty to tell her story, and her country’s story, but Mahuchikh is only 20 and it has not always been easy to be a high jumper and a wartime ambassador.
“Mentally, it’s so difficult,” she said. “I must focus on competition and training, but sometimes I am crying in the room. Now I think all Ukrainians live the same way. They want to go home. They want to see their husbands and their fathers.”