Ukrainian high jumper keeps her eye on the raised bar, but her mind is fixed on the war

MONTE GORDO, Portugal (AP) — Kateryna Tabashnyk’s success depends upon utter concentration on the here and now, on the height of the bar in front of her and her body’s ability to leap it.

That focus and drive is a requirement for all high-level athletes. But the 30-year-old Ukrainian high jumper’s mind wanders often to her bombarded native city of Kharkiv and the Russian missiles that have stolen so much: her mother, her apartment, a pain-free childhood for her nephew, even the fields where she trained.

Part of her is always home, she said, “and when your home has been destroyed, it feels like a large void.”

She, like most other Ukrainian athletes, carries the war with her everywhere: To Turkey, her first refuge after the full-scale invasion started in February 2022; to the European Indoor Championships in Turkey, where the 30-year-old took a bronze medal, and now to Monte Gordo in southern Portugal, where the ocean breeze drifts over the stadium that she shares with other Ukrainians training to qualify in the Paris Olympics.

“The last two years have been like an inferno where everything is burning. And you are burning in it no matter where you are,” Tabashnyk said.

Russian and Belarusian athletes face nowhere near the same burdens. They cannot compete under their national flag or in team sports. Athletes with links to the military or who have expressed support for the war will be banned. But all can train and compete secure in the knowledge that their homelands are safe from the war.

On the eve of the war, which started Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine cancelled its athletics championship and Tabashnyk was in Kharkiv. The threat posed by thousands of Russian troops at the border, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from her hometown, was real.

But Tabashnyk said, “I was 100% sure that this could not happen.”

Then the next day, as she stood on an eleventh-floor balcony, a missile flew past and exploded before her eyes. Tabashnyk grabbed her two cats and went to a shelter. Her mother and brother were themselves sheltering on the other side of town.

Then, as now, Kharkiv was targeted by the Russians, and Tabashnyk spent nearly a week in the basement with five people, two cats and a parrot. The group rigged water filters from charcoal and bandages.

One day, a missile exploded about 100 meters (yards) away, aimed at the Kharkiv Regional Administration. The blast killed more than 30 people, blew out Tabashnyk’s ear drums and filled her eyes with dust, leaving her unable to see or hear clearly.

“I thought it was the end,” she said, her voice trembling at the memory more than two years later. She fled Ukraine soon after for Turkey, leaving behind her track spikes and memorabilia from more than a decade of competitions.

“I realized that I had to save my life, and the sneakers could be found somewhere later.”

At first, she could barely find any sense in training in Turkey, while her family was still in danger. Then something shifted.

“I realized that if I was given this opportunity to be there, I don’t have the right to give up and fall down,” she said. “I had to get up, I had to work.”

Worse was to come. Tabashnyk’s 8-year-old nephew was critically injured in a Russian attack while he was playing in the courtyard, with shrapnel wounds that cost him a kidney and badly damaged his liver.

With the boy too badly hurt to be evacuated, Tabashnyk’s mother returned to Kharkiv to help care for him. Tabashnyk was in Estonia in August 2022 when she learned that a missile in Kharkiv had struck yet again, killing her mother and obliterating the apartment where she grew up.

The Russians, she wrote bitterly “liberated me from my home and my whole life.”

Tabashnyk started the long drive from Estonia, silent and alone at the wheel for three days to pick up her mother’s body and deliver it for a funeral in the southern Odesa region, where her sister lived.

“It was my longest ride,” Tabashnyk said. “I had even a slight feeling of resentment that she left me. … But then I thought that now I would have a guardian angel.”

Tabashnyk’s mother was sounding board and cheerleader, the person she called after every training. “And now, who do I call?” asks the athlete.

For months, she didn’t want “to live, to eat, to drink, to train.” She would go to competitions, outwardly the strong athlete, but grief was tearing her apart from within.

“If everything is ruined inside, and you try to appear strong, it slightly breaks you,” she said.

Despite the pain, Tabashnyk won her first medal at the adult level at the European Championships in March 2023 in Turkey. She dedicated the bronze to her mother. She was then sidelined with two successive injuries but is back with more determination than ever.

She and the other Ukrainian athletes training in Monte Gordo have formed something of a support group. They talk about parents, homes, and Russian attacks. They want to be useful in the war, said Hennadii Zuiev, coach to Tabashnyk and the Ukrainian high jumper Andriy Protsenko.

“The benefits of going to the front are not as great as proving themselves on the global stage and speaking out at all the competitions about Ukraine, about our problems, about this unjust war. And so it motivates them," Zuiev said.

But the constant stress wears on their bodies nearly as much as their minds. It has transformed how and where they train. “We are trying to give 100%, but we could give more if we were in normal conditions if there was … no war.”

Strikes have hit more around 518 sports facilities, including 101 that were ruined completely, according to the latest figures from Ukraine’s Ministry of Sport.

“And it hurts seeing those strikes, and how it’s being ruined,” Tabashnyk said. “Every day I sit down and think, where do I return… My home was ruined, and it’s impossible to return there.”

While Ukraine's Yaroslava Mahuchikh is one of the medal favorites in high jump after breaking the world record with a jump of 2.10 meters (6.88 feet) over the weekend, Tabashnyk failed to qualify for the Olympics, held back by her injuries during the last two seasons.

But Tabashnyk is determined to keep competing, which she proved at Ukraine’s Athletics Championship in June, where she received the silver medal. The athlete said she and other Ukrainian athletes share a goal: “We show that Ukraine is independent and strong.”

She is focused on transforming the pain brought by the last two years into strength and energy. The tattoo in Ukrainian below her collarbone reminds her of what she must do: “Live for today.”

“Sometimes this pain engulfs your whole body and seems to paralyze it,” Tabashnyk said. “And you can’