A year into this raging global crisis, the world is slowly returning to its norm as people learn to live with the pandemic. Sport has become one of the indicators of this willingness to move on. One such evidence is the successful staging of the 27th IHF Men’s Handball World Championship in Egypt last January where, according to IOC President Thomas Bach, over 8,000 individuals were involved.
Attention now moves to athletics where Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh has been turning heads, not just with her stunning looks, but more so with her performances this year.
On January 9, Mahuchikh debuted in the 2021 season by matching her Ukrainian indoor record of 2.02m at the Christmas Starts tournament in Kyiv, Ukraine. She then proceeded to erase that feat with a jump of 2.06m on February 2 at an indoor meet in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia. At only 19 years old, she has thus established an absolute new national record for Ukraine and the best world result for girls under 20. With the third highest jump in history, Mahichikh sets her sight at the 2.09m world record of Bulgarian Stefka Kostadinova established in 1987 at the world championships in Rome.
In anticipation of the highly competitive and exciting Ukrainian Athletics Championship at Sumy this February 10-12, we caught up with the teenage sensation for a quick interview. Despite her tender age, a sincere and mature Mahuchikh shared stories of her beginnings in sports, her coach, and the heights she has already conquered.
How did you start playing sports?
“My dad was a canoeist when he was young, and my mom was in gymnastics and athletics. My older sister was involved in karate and was very successful in this sport. She has a brown belt and is a silver medalist of Europe. So, karate was actually my first sport, even though it lasted for only two days. I just rolled around there and threw the ball over the net. Then I said it was not for me.
But I had a lot of energy. I was running around the house doing headstands and all that. When my sister began studying at the university to become a psychologist, I got bored and kept asking her to play with me. Eventually, she found a compromise – she brought me to the athletics field where she trained before.
By the way, thanks to her major, my sister was able to convince me to continue doing track and field. There were moments when I just wanted to study and play around. I’m just a girl after all. Sometimes I just want to walk out. Why do you keep telling me to train? But my sister found the right words and persuaded me to keep doing athletics. She is my personal psychologist.”
Only the lazy do not talk about your “super tandem” with the coach. Did you immediately start training with Tatyana Stepanova? Was high jump your specialization in the first place?
“No. At first, I trained with another coach, Elena Kutsenko. She gave me simple training for development, hurdles, long jump, and ball throwing. Then, when I was 11 years old, Tatyana came to the sports school. They started coaching in tandem. Tatyana trained hurdles. And I liked running hurdles. Then I started doing high jumps.”
What were your first big competitions?
“It was the summer championship of Ukraine, in Vinnitsa, 2015. It was a big discovery for me that there is such a huge stadium – 400 whole meters! At that moment, I ran hurdles and did high jumps. But I did not win any prize there. I was upset for a while, but decided undoubtedly – I will continue jumping! I realized that the thing I was doing will be my path in life.”
What exactly helped you to understand that?
“I understood how cool it was to take first place at the competitions, and get certificates! And how extremely cool it is when you jump and fly over the bar, even if you don’t jump over your own height! How could I live without it before?!”
Could you tell me about your first competition with the Ukrainian national team?
“When I was 15, I won the World U18 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, where I jumped 1.92m.
Those competitions were a great experience for me all-around. It helped me in the future. Before that, I had some issues. It was difficult for me to compete when someone was looking at me. Like, ten people from sports schools were standing and watching the competition, and I could hardly handle that. But, during the World Championship, there were 50 thousand spectators! My first attempt at 1.92m was not successful. And then, during the second attempt, athletes, including Kenyans, were running long distance on the track. There was an incredible noise in the stadium, noise in my ears, and attention from all sides… But I pulled myself together and managed the 1.92m in the second try. After that, I realized, people watch my performance and look at me. They like it and keep watching further! I have coped with my complex!”
How has your life changed after winning that world championship?
“Honestly, it hasn’t changed that much. Maybe the only change was, in October 2017, I signed a contract with a manager from Estonia and with Puma. I was delighted. I wanted a contract with a sports brand so bad. And when I got my first clothes… Oh my god… I could not believe everything was for me! Now, I am not that excited about it. Instead, I try to help my friends who I used to train with.”
Seems like your career went smoothly until your first major award. Could you share some turning points?
“In the 2018 winter season, I went to an international meet for the first time and jumped 1.90m. In summer, I went to the Diamond League event in Rome where I jumped just 1.85m. I went there without a coach and realized I was very young to go to competitions without a coach. But when I went alone to Monaco to participate in the Diamond League, I continued telling myself: ‘Yaroslava, you are already 18 years old. You are mature. You can do it and you and the coach have worked everything out. And I managed a good result there.”
In May 2019, there was a Diamond League event in Doha where I won with a jump of 1.96m. That was where we decided to try to qualify for the World Championship. Then, there were also times where I performed poorly such as in Stockholm and Oslo. These were naturally upsetting. But my coach, as always, calmed me down and said that I can, that I am ready.
At the next event in America, I jumped 2.00m.
But then, at the U20 European Championships, only 1.92m. It was actually there that I tried 2.02m for the first time. Although I could not make it, it helped for the World Championships. When the bar was set at 2.02m, I knew that I had already tried it.”
Indeed, your previous attempts prepared you for your fantastic jumps at the World Championships in Doha. How was everything going on the way to the final?
“Our goal was to get to the final. So, we did that. In the final, before the 1.95m attempt, I was fifth. While lying down, I looked at the screen, and thought: ‘Fifth… well, okay…’ And then, I thought further, ‘No, you need to pull yourself together!’ So, I was able to clear 1.98m on my first attempt.
Then, I had my last attempt at 2.00m. Julia Levchenko cleared that before me. I was talking to the coach and she cheered me up. She knows how to do that. And so, I was successful in my attempt at 2.00m.
But that still just puts me at 4th place. I had to try 2.02m. I knew that this was something I’ve tried already even if I failed before. Surprisingly, I took it on the first attempt! I was over the moon. That was a new World U18 record!
At that point, my coach told me not to continue anymore. But my adrenaline was going, and I wanted to try higher. After two unsuccessful attempts, I said to myself: ‘Ok, I tried it, great. Now I’ll try again and that will be over.’ In the third attempt, I jumped, the bar wobbled, and I quickly got off the mat. In complete disbelief, I thought: ‘What!? Have I done that?’ I ran to my coach and celebrated with her. These were indescribable emotions I had!
I did not try 2.06m anymore. I was just emotionally tired at that moment, and I realized that I still have a lot of opportunities ahead. So, I hope to take it step by step.”
It was a jump that changed your world! Unbelievable! Tell me, did it change your life too?
“There was so much attention! I came to Kiev for two days to give everyone an interview right away. Instagram followers doubled at once. But the most difficult thing was to reply to messages and comments. I needed to answer and give a ‘like’ to everyone.”
Do you have an idol?
“I have no idol. I should look up to myself and improve myself because it’s like at the competition. You’re not competing with girls. You are competing with yourself and with the high jump bar.”
What does the word ‘coach’ mean to you?
“A part of the family, support, my other half.
I won’t be anywhere without her – not in sports, not in life. We have a very harmonious relationship. She is like a mom and a friend to me. I can talk and share everything with her. She will not condemn but give advice instead. This is ideal when there is a strong coach-athlete relationship because this is reflected in the result. Sport still intersects with personal life. And if the coach is interested only in sports results and does not know what you are doing outside of sports, there will be no such harmony.”
What do you associate with the high jump?
“With a bird. I imagine myself as a swallow. So, I push myself off the ground, fly over the bar, and fly away…”
Mahuchikh’s successes are quickly changing the record books and captivating everyone’s minds. But what remains unchanged is the path that brought this young, talented teenager to sports and her high jumps. Fly high, Yaroslava, fly to Olympic gold and a world record!
Edited by Aldo Tong