Ukraine’s Yuliya Levchenko: ‘We need to have peace so we create our future’

    Yuliya Levchenko arrives full of apologies, although they are not at all necessary. She has crossed Kyiv after watching her younger sister Polina, a fellow high jumper, compete at a local event and the reason for her half-hour delay was wearyingly familiar. An air raid warning disrupted proceedings midway through and, as usual, the athletes had to shelter until the skies were deemed sufficiently safe. She beams when recounting that Polina, who has accompanied her to this quiet cafe on the city’s left bank, still recorded a personal best.

    It is an everyday snapshot of the challenges Ukraine’s athletes must surmount, and so often do with astonishing results, in trying to make a career. Gorgeous late-spring days such as this one contain an undercurrent of horror. “You know, it looks like we’ve adapted to this situation,” Levchenko says. “It’s horrible, because it’s nonsense really, but now we adapt to it. Here in Kyiv it’s safer now than in Dnipro or Kharkiv. It’s safety, but it’s not safety.”

    Fifty days from the start of Paris 2024, which will be her third Olympics, the 26-year-old can say she has recovered a semblance of her old self. A 1.98m jump in Chorzow last July exceeded the qualification standard and released what she describes as a “volcanic” set of feelings. “Since then, I’ve had the emotions and power to do my jumps,” she says. “It felt like a huge award for me, a very emotional moment. After that, I felt that I could jump like in previous years. It’s possible and I can …” she says, pausing. “I can allow it.”

    One of the overriding sensations since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has, she explains, been guilt at applying herself to a profession she adores but “is not important to other people”. Loved ones help to provide another perspective.

    We meet less than a week after Oleksandr Usyk’s world heavyweight title victory over Tyson Fury made the country swell with pride. “My mother is usually like ‘boxing isn’t for ladies’, but even she was crying. She called me and said: ‘Yuliya, every victory is important for us.’ And after that you feel our general dream, for our Ukrainian victory, can be real.”

    That is, in essence, the motivation to continue but there remains an exhausting burden to carry. For Levchenko, who comes across as thoughtful and considerate to a fault, that extends to managing her interactions with foreign peers when they meet. They are supportive and engaged but she fears sounding like a broken record. “I can say to them ‘I’m upset, everything’s bad because I lost my friend yesterday in the war,’” she says.

    ‘Our general dream, for our Ukrainian victory, can be real.’ Yuliya Levchenko celebrates at the 2019 World Athletics Championships. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

    “But it’s impossible to say every time: ‘You need to think only about me and my country’. I don’t always know how to do it correctly, to speak about our situation and ask for support and not to push other people because they have their life goals and need to do their job.”

    What used to be standard behaviours become hard to gauge when your country is under attack and people in your circle are suffering. “One moment you’re laughing and then, a few seconds later, horrible news and you start crying,” she says. “Then you’re neutral because you don’t know how it’s correct to express your emotions. When you have time for reflection later, you start thinking: ‘Is it good that my reaction was like this or like that?’ It takes a lot of energy: you’re always thinking about things that, in regular life, you could just relax with.”

    Levchenko burst on to the scene in 2014 with gold at the Youth Olympic Games. She had only taken up the sport three years previously when one of her teachers in Kyiv, Tamara Konstantinivka, took her to training after coaches spotted her athletic potential during a school football tournament. “Teenagers, children, they love to jump,” she says, sunnily. “It’s ‘oh wow, I can jump, super!’ It was fun, and that’s why I love high jump.

    “You know, you can just be a teacher who teaches something and then: ‘Bye bye, our lessons finish.’ But she took my hand and off we went. She really created my life, because I don’t know where I would be if she had just ignored the invitation.”

    Silver at the 2017 World Championships in London was a high point and at 26 she has time to match her compatriot, Yaroslava Mahuchikh, who tops the global charts and picked up bronze at Tokyo 2020. This summer’s showpiece is, she says, “a celebration of sport, something special”, and in one sense it resembles a second chance.

    “In 2022 I thought my career in sport was over. First of all you never know if you can still live: home should be your castle, where you feel safe, but I woke up and it was one of the most unsafe places in the world. I felt I needed to save my life or give my help, but that I couldn’t do sports like I did before. ‘Sports, come on, who needs sports now?’ The priority was lower.”

    Upon Russia’s attack she left Kyiv for the country’s west and was surprised when her coach suggested a training camp in Portugal. “Training camp? Now? Seriously?” First she had to make sure Polina, her mother and their pets were safe. Her manager, who is based in Estonia, found an apartment and Levchenko drove them the entire way before heading to the camp.

    ‘In 2022 [after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] I thought my career in sport was over.’ Yuliya Levchenko at Tokyo 2020, her second Games. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

    The thought of jumping again was still hard to compute. “Did I need to jump or learn something new?” she wondered. “I thought I might need different work because I didn’t know if I could return home or not.”

    Recollections of her first competitive jump since life turned upside down bring light, self-mocking laughter. It was in Eugene, Oregon that May and simply being there felt miraculous. “I was like a total loser. When you compete you need to be a fighter. But I was all: ‘Ahhh, OK, it’s not a problem, I love everyone!’

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    “I’d had so much support from all the other athletes, they’d been asking about everything that was going on, and it was as if I forgot I needed to jump. I already had my reward from people who supported me and, at that moment, it was more important than showing good results.

    “Now it’s … I don’t agree with myself from the past. I understand that I need to be a fighting character and not: ‘Urgh, loser’, but it takes time to understand that. You need to live with it and then, in time, you comprehend how to exist with all of this stuff in your head.”

    In Paris she will not have to deal with the added strain of facing Russian athletes, whether or not under a neutral flag: they will remain excluded from all athletics events. Again Levchenko’s analysis is preternaturally sensitive. “Honestly, at the beginning we waited for them to say: ‘We’re sorry, this isn’t normal, we want to do something’,” she says.

    “But it was just silence. And I can’t imagine how they can meet people in, for example, high jump at a competition and say: ‘Hi, everything is OK’. A lot of us waited, of course. We waited for their support because the whole world sent it. But Russian athletes, no. They were afraid to say something and now, in athletics, they compete only with countries who support this war.

    “As an athlete I don’t want to damage someone else’s career. But nor can I support it when Russian missiles damage our sports facilities and a lot of athletes lost their lives. And I don’t know how we can separate sport and real life. When I come from Ukraine and get a text from their country, how can we communicate if you’re always between life and death?”

    Iryna Herashchenko, another of Ukraine’s exceptional high-jump contingent, is Levchenko’s training buddy. “Partners in crime,” she says, smiling. “It’s an individual event but we feel like a team with strong bonds. Sometimes you’re bad cop, Iryna good cop.”

    ‘It’s an individual event but we feel like a team with strong bonds.’ From left to right: Yaroslava Mahuchikh, Yuliya Levchenko and Iryna Gerashchenko at the 2023 World Athletics Championships. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

    Assuming Mahuchikh takes a podium place it would be some achievement for at least one of the pair, who are both in the world’s top eight, to join her but Levchenko knows there is a bigger picture. “We want to represent our country, our team, our spirit,” she says. “We have the right to play sport, join the Olympic community and participate in Olympic traditions.

    “We want to be with the world and feel this connection. This is a basic human right and it should be as easy as saying: ‘I want to cook something’. It’s very important to show that we, the largest country in Europe, want to be with the modern world. Normal people don’t want war or death. We need to have peace because only in this way can we create our future.”

    It is time to leave and Levchenko heads out on to the pavement with Polina, who has waited amiably but must be exhausted after another day of competition and upheaval. “It’s a big step and sometimes you feel like you can touch it,” she reflects, one last time, of the task she faces in Paris.

    Through all those conflicting thoughts, the pride will come from embodying Ukraine’s place in the world.

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