It’s a scenario Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh could never have envisaged in her worst nightmares even a month ago but, in the midst of the horrific events in her homeland, the reigning European indoor high jump champion carries the hopes of a nation with her at the World Athletics Indoor Championships.
If she were to succeed in getting a medal in Belgrade, the significance of seeing her beleaguered nation’s flag raised would stretch far beyond the sporting arena.
Mahuchikh, who also won an Olympic games bronze medal last summer, recounted her story over recent weeks, which will seem tragically unsurprising in the wake of the horrific events in her home country but nevertheless demonstrate the limitless capacity of the human spirit.
“It was 24 February, 4.30 am, when I woke up in my apartment in the city of Dnipro (in the centre of Ukraine) because of terrible sounds of explosions, artillery fire and shooting. Even before I called my parents, I understood that this was war.
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“With what has since happened, and that this is still possible in the 21st century, is a really awful feeling. I cannot describe in words what I felt at that moment, and I wish nobody in the world will have the same or even similar feelings.
“After hours of total panic, we left our city moving to a little village not far from home. Nobody thought about training at that time as we were forced to spend days in the cellar just monitoring the news from Kyiv, Sumy and Kharkiv minute-by-minute. A few days later, I started to do some training, but we could do nothing in a stadium.
“We were in touch with the Ukrainian athletics federations, with my manager Aivar Karotamm and his Ukrainian assistant Oleksandr Krykun, and we were all looking for the best – safest – way to resume training and only then started to think about the chance to perform here in Belgrade.
“It's difficult to imagine how they managed to arrange it, but in cooperation with the World Athletics, the Romanian and Serbian athletics federations, they managed to arrange my trip to Belgrade, a trip of almost 2000 kilometres.
“It was more than three days to get here, a nervous trip. Hundreds of phone calls, many changes of direction, explosions, fires, and air raid sirens. I would like to think that it was just nightmarish dream, but this is reality of getting anywhere in my country even today. This is the reality of the war.
“We arrived in Belgrade on 9 March. The Serbian athletics federation kindly took care of us and provided us with training facilities from the first day of our arrival here but it’s impossible to keep your focus.
“All my thoughts are in Ukraine and with all Ukrainians who defend my motherland now, but I have to do the things that I am familiar with. I must perform to represent Ukraine in the international sports arena in the best way I can.
“Today all Ukrainians have different battlefronts. We must fight everywhere to prove our strength and our power. My front line for the next few days is the women’s high jump competition at the World Indoor Championships. I’m aiming not just to win here; I’m aiming to do even more.
Fellow medal contenders and compatriots Iryna Herashchenko and Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk had similar tales of severe stress and fortitude, the pair crammed into a car with two of their teammates Anna Plotitsyna and Yulia Loban before enduring a 20-hour journey across several frontiers and arriving in Belgrade on Tuesday night.
“On 24 February. I was originally supposed go to the Ukrainian indoor championship in Sumy, but the day before that the Ukraine federation announced that the championships were cancelled because of the rapidly escalating situation. That morning we were woken up by the sounds of shelling in Kyiv, from the left and from the right sides. It was everything at once: bombs and rockets, everything,” reflected Herashchenko, who took the European indoor silver medal behind Mahuchikh in Poland last Marcen h.
“My husband and I began to quickly pack our bags. First, we thought to drive to a village, it was around 7-7.30 of the morning but thwe saw the huge traffic jams and decided to move to my parents, who live not far away from us in Kyiv.
“We stayed all together at their house for a week. It was a horrible week. We weren’t sleeping in the shelters for the whole night every night but went down there very often. Every night, we were woken up by the sounds of explosions. I couldn’t sleep at all; I was very afraid all night," recalled Iryna Herashchenko.
“Since we have a dog, sometimes we took him up from the shelter for a walk until the curfew, because we were told saboteurs were very active at this time. During the walks we didn’t go very far from the house, but as soon as the night fell upon us, we began to be really scared.
“I was not able to sleep, my husband was telling me to get some rest, but I was just unable to fall asleep. During the entire week Maryna (Bekh-Romanchuk) called me from Chmelnytskyy inviting us to come to them but I didn’t want to leave my parents as my dad told me that he’s not going to go anywhere.
“Then we got a call that there is a possibility to compete at the World Indoor Championships and we finally decided to move to Maryna’s house. It would normally take five hours to drive from Kyiv to Chmelnytskyy but it took us two days. It was very scary to drive through check-ups and to stand in traffic jams since you don’t understand what can happen in the very next moment.
We stand in #solidarity with Ukraine ????????! #United— Munich2022 (@ECMunich2022) March 4, 2022
Statement from European Championships #Munich2022 Local Organising Committee and @euro_champs. #Munich2022
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“I had nothing for training. No kit. What I am wearing right now is what I received from Maryna,” added Heraschenko.
“Thank heavens, my parents managed to send my track shoes and a pair of leggings with some friends, and I have managed to train at least a little bit.
“For a week, t was impossible to be focused on training as my parents stayed in Kyiv but on my birthday on 10th March, my parents finally changed their decision and made their best ever birthday gift to me, they left Kyiv. Now they’re more-or- less safe.”
Millions of Ukrainians are still living in dire circumstances but by just making it to Belgrade, and flying their country’s flag on a global stage, Mahuchikh, Heraschenko and the rest of their six-strong team off a small beacon of hope to their compatriots despite the fact that sport is of secondary important in the middle of the grotesque war engulfing their homeland.