It has been a stunning season by any account for Ukrainian high jumper Yuliya Levchenko.
Even though the two biggest prizes of the season evaded her, having to settle for second at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 and IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels, at the age of 19 she has established herself among the world elite for her event and, barring injury, looks set to occupy that position for many years to come.
Having won gold at the Youth Olympic Games in 2014 and then taking the bronze at the IAAF World U20 Championships last year, she was already on an upward trajectory, but her feats this season have established her as probably the closest rival to the undisputed current world No.1, Maria Lasitskene.
Levchenko, in her first year in the senior ranks, started the season with a personal best of 1.95m but increased that on three occasions.
She took the European U23 title with 1.96m in Bydgoszcz in July, partial compensation for finishing third at the same venue 12 months before when she crossed the border to neighbouring Poland as favourite for the global U20 crown.
The IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco witnessed Levchenko clear 1.97m but she finished second behind Lasitskene – in fact, Levchenko has yet to beat Lasitskene in 10 encounters stretching back to 2015 – as she was subsequently to do at the World Championships and Brussels.
This was a prelude to her going higher and higher in London, producing a soaring clearance at 1.99m to temporarily take the lead in the hunt for the gold medal, and then – having watched Lasitskene regain pole position by going over 2.01m on her first attempt – slithered over 2.01m to become the 70th woman ever to clear two metres or better.
A forgiving bar
"It was an unbelievable [world] championships for me," she said after the final, which lasted nearly two hours. "I was focused from the opening jump until the last attempt. I didn't allow myself to get emotional.
“When I got the bronze medal at the European Indoors in Belgrade, I showed how happy I was, but here I just tried to keep myself under control.
“My clearance at 2.01m was not my best attempt technically. I thought that such a height would not be so forgiving of any mistakes that I made; that’s one reason why I was just sitting there looking stunned rather than dancing with delight as I had done at 1.99m. I couldn’t believe how I had got over; I suppose sheer willpower and strength.
“My boyfriend had sent me a message before the competition that I would jump 2.01m. I didn't believe him but it looks like he was right,” she joked.
“One thing that helped me focus at 2.01m was that of the three women remaining (Poland’s 2014 world indoor champion Kamila Licwinko was also in the competition having also got over 1.99m at the first time of asking but with failures earlier in the competition), I was the last to jump.
Satisfied with second
“I saw Maria go clear (Licwinko then had failures with her first and second attempts) then I knew I was in second place. I just tried to relax and I got over 2.01m on my second attempt.
“I have to be honest and say Maria was clearly stronger throughout the competition, as she has been all season. It would have been hard to beat her, but I was very pleased with second place.”
So too were the rest of the Ukrainian team; 'relieved' might even be a better word.
Surprisingly, Ukraine had not won a medal until Levchenko’s silver on the penultimate day of the championships and it was to be the only time in London that a Ukrainian athlete stood on the podium.
“You always worry about your team. You want more medals, more successful performances. But this is a sport and not always everything turns out the way people want, there are many factors,” she said, in response to some post-championships chest-beating about their country’s medal tally in the Ukrainian media.
“There were athletes who could not show their best result, and we were all very upset for them.”
By contrast, Levchenko was feted like a returning hero, at least by modest Ukrainian standards. “We do not celebrate in the street, we do not ask (well-known people) for an autograph. But when I returned to Kiev after the World Championships, the border guards recognised me and congratulated me. It was tremendously pleasant.”
Levchenko naturally attributes one of the reasons to her success to her coach Irina Pustovit.
Another factor is that she has a number of domestic rivals.
In addition to her good friend Iryna Gerashchenko, there is also 2017 World University Games winner Oksana Okuneva and 2013 European junior champion Kateryna Tabashnyk to reckon with locally. All three women accompany Levchenko in the 2017 top 10 world outdoor list having jumped 1.95m or better.
In addition, knocking on the door, is this year’s world U18 champion Yaroslava Mahuchikh, who jumped 1.92m this year.
“Domestic competition is always good, it produces good results. It pushes and does not let you relax,” added Levchenko.
“I am very friendly with Iryna so that’s slightly different and I don’t feel I am competing with her in the same way; instead we both fight with the bar rather than between ourselves.”
Inga Bakakova’s long-standing and impressive Ukrainian high jump record of 2.05m, set more than two decades ago in 1995, is still some way from being beaten but the gap is closing. And Levchenko – who moved up to equal third on the Ukrainian all-time list – this season closed it more than any of her contemporaries.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF