“Come on guys: stretch, extend your toes!” shouts Rimas Kurtinaitis, 1988 Olympic basketball champion and current head coach of the Moscow-based Khimki team. As soon as Ivan Ukhov steps on to the basketball court, he’s straight to it, sitting down and stretching. Tall, well-coordinated, and in wide hip-hop style trousers, it’s almost impossible to distinguish him from the professional basketball players.
In the words of American Dick Fosbury, pioneer of the contemporary High Jump technique: take any leading NBA player, teach them to jump, and you’ve got a World record-breaker. Sure, Ukhov is not at NBA level, but boy can he dunk.
“I played basketball for about 10 years, between the ages of seven and 16 for my school team,” says Ukhov. “I became the best player in my town and region.”
Many elite high jumpers share a basketball past. World champions Jesse Williams, an American, and Donald Thomas of The Bahamas both started their careers this way.
“The other day I was talking to Jacek Wszola, 1976 Olympic champion from Poland,” Ukhov says while spinning the ball on one finger. “His personal best is 2.35m. He was once invited to compete against a basketball player and Wszola, whose own height is 2.04m, reached 2.30m. The much shorter basketball player, measuring only 1.7m, jumped straight to 2.23m. Wszola started feeling uneasy: what if the basketball player had been any taller? What implications would this have for track and field athletes?”
There is no reason for Ukhov to worry about his own future yet, though. Sergey Monya, a forward for the Russian national team, shows Ukhov how to jump over the hoop, and with a couple of smooth, cat-like steps and an invisible push, Ukhov is hovering over the court. Monya, who is 2m tall, does not even attempt to jump higher than Ivan; he just waves his hand. Ukhov lands on the floor, and tries to explain himself:
“Sergey, you must bear in mind that I can jump even higher!”
“What do you mean?” hits back Monya.
“If I’m in good shape, I can touch the hoop with my chest,” says Ukhov. “It’s just that the season is now over and I’ve gained some extra weight."
How to lose 25 kilos in a fortnight
“For me, my weight is like my own personal dumbbells which I carry with me all the time.” This most extravagant 2012 Olympic champion can easily gain up to 25 extra kilos between championships, which he easily loses over the course of a fortnight prior to a new season, like a boxer slimming down to his fighting weight.
“It’s normal for me to lose a couple of kilos a day,” says Ukhov. “It’s not that much, there are others who can lose three times that. I lose weight mainly due to water. For example, as soon as the season finishes, I can gain seven kilos in less than a week just by drinking as much water as I want.”
“In any case, basketball training is a great way to lose any extra weight, and it is much more fun than running in circles around a field in two jogging suits.”
Isn’t it just. “Ivan, our evening training starts at 6pm. Don’t be late,” Kurtinaitis teases after Ukhov makes another perfect dunk into the hoop. All joking aside, if Ukhov had made a different choice when he was younger, it is quite possible that he would be training in the basketball team with Kurtinaitis as his head coach.
“Before, when I trained with Yevgeny Zagulko, we would always play basketball at our get-togethers in Kislovodsk. Aleksandr Shustov, Anna Chicherova, Andrey Silnov: they all use the ball rather well. But now we no longer recruit for the team. I wanted to come to the court for a game but couldn’t find anyone to join me. Now I have to jog instead,” says Ukhov with a sigh.
Do you train often?
Any Olympic champion would nod 'yes' to this question; any champion except Ukhov.
“Don’t think so. Some seasons only 40 minutes a day, sometimes,” says Ukhov. “No point forcing yourself. It all builds up during seasons anyway. Sometimes I train up to five hours a day.”
Ukhov gathers up his kit after basketball training. Melania, his little daughter, is feeling sick and she is waiting for daddy at home. Changing a nappy, putting his daughter to sleep, taking her to the playground – all of this is as much a part of his life as jumping.
“Nothing changed much for me after I won the Games in London,” says Ukhov. “Certainly, it’s wonderful that I became a champion but that’s not the only goal in my life. That’s why I don’t have a real sense of achievement.”
The next big event for Ukhov is the World Championship in Moscow this summer. He has started training already, and hasn’t taken a single day off after the winter season.
“I didn’t train properly for the winter season, that is why my performance was only average,” says Ukhov. “But I didn’t want to miss a season. What else can I do? Just train all the time? That is boring. What an ordinary life…”
These days, even training with basketball players is one of the steps on his way to a perfect jump. But Ukhov has a habit of never discussing his future plans. The main things in Ukhov's life are his wife Polina and daughter, and they’re just looking forward to him coming home.
Natalia Maryanchik for SPIKES magazine
Supported by the IAAF and the Russian athletics federation, SPIKES has a Russian edition this year, with three issues coming out ahead of the IAAF World Championships in Moscow this August. You can follow SPIKES on Twitter – @spikesmag