The Dutch runner Femke Bol, who was the last participant in the 4x400 relay, accomplished the extraordinary by overcoming a 20-meter deficit to clinch the gold. The Indian Neeraj Chopra and Pakistani Arshad Nadeem were locked in a close competition for the global javelin throw title. Nonetheless, the most closely contested and emotionally charged event at the World Championships in Budapest was the women's high jump.
Two Australian athletes, Eleanor Patterson and Nicola Olyslagers, drove Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine to the limits of her capabilities, pushing her an extra two centimeters. She secured the gold with a leap of 2.01 meters, an achievement that greatly surpasses the global podium benchmark.
This marks the inaugural gold medal win for Mahuchikh, who is just 21, at the World Championships. Her victory follows a series of remarkable achievements including a bronze at the Olympics, gold at the European Championships, and silver medals at the last two World Championships. However, this achievement stands out as a true triumph of determination and spirit.
Mahuchikh left Dnipro when the Russians invaded Ukraine, leaving her entire family behind, to continue her training in Germany and Belgium. During the competition in Budapest, she wore eye makeup reflecting the colors of the Ukrainian flag, securing a second medal for her country.
"In the beginning, we were unsure of what was happening," she says. "I escaped from Dnipro to a small town where my trainer lived. Our training sessions took place in an enclosed gym, and we ran to the basement with each siren. This went on for days until we could cross the border by vehicle. I felt as if I were losing my mind. It was incomprehensible to me how I was expected to concentrate on my training and competition while my home was embroiled in conflict, but gradually, things are starting to make sense."
"Well wishes from our soldiers"
"This is your contribution to this conflict," Mahuchikh says. "You participate in competitions, engage with people, and tell Ukraine's story. Your performance amplifies the reach of our story, and nothing attracts more attention to your message than winning a gold medal. We all have a responsibility to aid in the defense of Ukraine, with our part being to compete. That's our arena of battle."
They left Ukraine on March 6, 2022. After a grueling journey of three days and 1240 miles - marked by long hours at roadblocks, the sound of sirens and explosions, left behind. Only the incessant consumption of Red Bull to remain alert - Yaroslava, along with her spouse, coach, and child, reached Belgrade to participate in the World Indoor Championships. Displaying an exceptional level of tenacity and mental fortitude, Mahuchikh emerged as the gold medalist.
Meanwhile, her mother and sister had also evacuated Dnipro, eventually joining her first in Germany and later in Belgium. She returned to Ukraine for the first time since the invasion in January, nearly a year after she had escaped, and was able to embrace her father and grandmother. Shortly was soon, called to compete in Lviv. While the competition was underway, her native city was attacked and the building where she had lived was hit. The catastrophe resulted in 46 fatalities and over 80 wounded.
"We, as athletes, have a tradition of hanging a poster or flag in the locker room before the competition, filled with good wishes from our soldiers," she says in an interview prior to the Budapest final. "Every victory of ours is dedicated to the people of Ukraine and the soldiers defending us. We're aware that they keep track of the competitions whenever possible. We all genuinely feel a sense of duty to give our utmost, to excel for these soldiers. They're protecting our families, and in essence, they're enabling us to lead a somewhat normal life."
Breaking down and crying alone
Mahuchikh minces no words when it comes to the readmission of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions. "It's amazing that the Russians complain that they are wronged, while Ukrainian citizens, soldiers, and athletes are being killed because of the Russian invasion," she says. "Russia is a terrorist state, and all the Russian athletes who remain silent are partners in this terror regime. They have no right to participate in competitions. For me, all Russian athletes are dead, they do not exist.
"I imagine that if I have to compete against Russian athletes who compete without a flag, it will be very difficult for me not to think about all the ruined buildings, the bombed airport, the train stations, the dead, the destruction, the tragedy. But we do not have the privilege to boycott competitions. This is our part in the struggle for Ukraine's independence. The only luxury I sometimes allow myself is to cry when I'm alone in the room. One of my biggest and most important goals for 2023 was to stop crying. But I think I've succeeded much more in my athletic goals than in my emotional ones."
"We are a strong nation, strong people. We want to show the whole world that we are going to win, both in sports and in our war for independence. I have to be the best because then I can tell journalists about what's happening to us. I feel that I am no longer an athlete representing Ukraine, but rather an ambassador who wears sports clothes and competes in the high jump."
Before, Mahuchikh saw herself as a bird that flies high over the bar. "That's still the case, but it's a lot tougher now," she says after becoming the world champion. "I used to go to contests knowing I had a place to go back to. Now, even though I long for home, that home isn't really there anymore. It's a lot harder for a bird to fly when her heart is somewhere else."