A combo image shows Yaroslava Mahuchikh competing in women high jump final and receiving gold medal in Serbia on Saturday. AP/AFP
Yaroslava Mahuchikh overcame the "total panic" of armed conflict in her native Ukraine to win gold in the high jump at the World Indoor Championships on Saturday.
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Mahuchikh was forced to flee her home, hide out in a cellar and eventually make the 2,000km trip over three days to Belgrade to face what she dubbed her own front line.
The reigning European indoor high jump champion, who won Olympic bronze in Tokyo last summer and world outdoor silver in Doha in 2019, left her home in Dnipro just three weeks ago as the conflict escalated.
Training, needless to say, was low on her list of priorities. But she did succeed in finding her way to Serbia after "hundreds of phone calls, many changes of direction, explosions, fires, and air raid sirens."
"This medal is for Ukraine, all my country, all my people, all the military," said Mahuchikh.
"I must protect our country on the track. "Before we went to the field, the only thought in my mind was about Ukraine because too many terrible things have happened there.
"I even doubted that I could jump at all, but my coach said I must go out and perform with the shape and fitness I had before the start of the Russian invasion."
Coming into the competition at 1.88m, Mahuchikh had a failure at 1.92 and two at 2.00 before making the latter height. She sailed over 2.02 to ramp up the pressure on Eleanor Patterson.
The Australian responded by passing, so the bar was raised to 2.04m. But when Patterson failed at the new height, Mahuchikh was left celebrating in the Stark Arena, the crowd rising for a standing ovation with a handful of Ukrainian flags fluttering.
Patterson claimed silver with 2.00m, with Kazakhstan's Nadezhda Dubovitskaya taking bronze (1.98).
"To win a silver behind Yaroslava makes it even more special," said Patterson, who had painted her nails with a blue and yellow love heart in support of Ukraine. "She's had to deal with such hardships that no one deserves to, so I'm incredibly proud of her too.
"I'm in the same hotel as the Ukrainian team and I was able to see them beforehand and exchange small smiles and little gestures of support."
Mahuchikh said she had been grateful for the support shown to her and the five other members of the all-female Ukraine team in Belgrade.
"I saw that Eleanor had manicured her nails with Ukrainian colours and a big yellow heart," she said.
"My heart right now is with all people who support us and defend Ukraine." Mahuchikh's teammate Iryna Gerashchenko, who fled her Kyiv home with her husband and dog amid "everything at once: bombs and rockets" but no kit, finished fifth in the high jump with a best of 1.92m.
"I have such respect for both girls and all the Ukrainians who have made it here," added Patterson.
"It's incredible to see them and phenomenal for Yaroslava to come away with the gold."
Mahuchikh's victory came in the absence of Russia's Mariya Lasitskene, who won gold in Tokyo competing as an accredited neutral athlete.
But Lasitskene was ruled out of the world indoors following World Athletics' ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
Looking ahead, Mahuchikh said she had "no idea" how she would prepare for a busy season that includes the world outdoor championships in Eugene, Oregon, and the European championships in Munich, Germany. "I am so sorry that I cannot go back to Ukraine. I want to go back as soon as possible," she said, adding that she would now temporarily travel to Germany with her kit sponsor.
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