It’s not unusual for a track and field athlete to find his best event after trying it out for fun. But it is rare for an athlete to discover that event in his late teens and then win a continental championship just one year later. But that’s the path Ivan Ukhov took, a path then eventually led to an Olympic triumph.
First the Court, Then the Track
Ukhov was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia, near the Europe/Asia border. His sporting life began at age 7 when his mother enrolled him in a basketball program. Basketball remained his game until about age 16, when an argument with a coach convinced Ukhov he was better suited to an individual sport. He selected the discus throw and performed well enough to compete at the Russian Junior Championships in 2004. The meet changed his life, but not because of his discus results. While at the meet he decided to see what he could do in the high jump. With no coaching whatsoever he won the meet by clearing 2.12 meters (6 feet, 11½ inches). Not surprisingly, Ukhov was encouraged to learn proper high jump mechanics, and one year later he won the European Junior Championship with a leap of 2.23/7-3¾.
Aside from the 2005 Junior title, most of Ukhov’s early successes occurred indoors, as he won the 2006 European Indoor Cup and the 2007 Russian Indoor Championship. He also set the Russian indoor high jump record by clearing 2.39/7-10 at the 2007 Russian Winter Cup meet in Moscow, winning a duel against Yaroslav Rybakov. Ukhov also placed second at Russia’s outdoor championship in 2006.
The year 2008 marked a critical turning point for Ukhov. After failing to qualify for either the World Indoor Championships or the Olympics, Ukhov left coach Evgeny Zagorulko’s training group and hired Sergey Klyugin – the 2000 Olympic champion who’d also trained under Zagorulko – as his new coach. Also, in September, Ukhov competed at the Lausanne Athletissima while clearly drunk and failed to clear a height. The video of his attempt became a YouTube sensation and he was reprimanded by the IAAF. But he seemed to gain a new focus on high jumping afterward.
Ukhov became a consistent winner in 2009 and qualified for his first World Championship, finishing 10th. But his major international breakthrough came at the 2010 World Indoor Championships in Doha, where he won the gold medal by clearing 2.36/7-8¾. Ukhov trailed Rybakov after missing once at 2.28/7-5¾, but moved ahead to stay with a first-attempt clearance at 2.36.
From 2009 through 2012 Ukhov won five Russian championships – three indoors and two outdoors – and improved the Russian indoor high jump record to 2.40/7-10½ at an Athens meet in 2009. He earned a bronze medal at the 2012 World Indoor Championships and was fifth in the outdoor World Championships in 2011. Ukhov also won the first Diamond League high jump championship, in the 2010 season.
Ukhov’s greatest success to date – at the 2012 Olympics – almost didn’t happen because he somehow lost his competition jersey midway through the final. Ukhov sat in fifth place following a first-attempt miss at 2.29/7-6 when he discovered the jersey was missing. Under IAAF rules, Ukhov could only jump while wearing a regulation shirt. Fellow Russian Andrey Silnov – whose early success with the Zagorulko group had pushed Ukhov down the team’s list – then came to Ukhov’s rescue. Silnov had already been eliminated from competition, so he gave his jersey to Ukhov. While wearing Silnov’s shirt, Ukhov cleared 2.33/7-7¾ to move into second behind American Erik Kynard. The Russian took the lead by clearing 2.36 and then 2.38/7-9¾. Kynard could advance no farther than 2.33, earning Ukhov the gold medal.
Post-Olympic Ups and Downs
After winning another outdoor Russian championship in 2013, Ukhov finished a disappointing fourth at the Moscow World Championships, but he earned a silver medal at the 2014 World Indoor Championships. Additionally, Ukhov raised the Russian indoor high jump record to 2.42/7-11¼ at a meet in Praha in February 2014. He then lifted his outdoor personal best to a national record 2.41/7-10¾ while winning the Doha Diamond League meet in May 2014.
- Height: 6 feet, 3 inches
- Weight: 183 pounds
- Birth date: March 29, 1986
- Hometown: Yekaterinburg, Russia
- Personal best: 2.41 meters (7 feet, 10¾ inches) outdoors; 2.42 meters (7 feet, 11¼ inches) indoors