At last, Mariya Lasitskene has an Olympic gold medal to go with her three world titles. The most dominant high jumper of recent years was forced to miss the 2016 Olympics due to Russia being banned from the Games.
In Tokyo she faced the rising force of Yaroslava Mahuchikh of the Ukraine, too. But she peaked to perfection and nailed the victory courtesy of a 2.04m jump.
In second, Nicola McDermott jumped an Oceania record of 2.02m to give Australia their first medal in this event since Michele Brown won silver in Tokyo in 1964.
Mahuchikh, the favourite going into the final, jumped a best of 2.00m for bronze. Aged 19, perhaps her lack of experience told.
Lasitskene summed up the pressure when she said of her own competition: “I don’t remember anything at all. There is a fog on my mind, a real fog. You are making mistakes, you are telling yourself you don’t have the right to be here. How are you even here?
“But then you go on and continue jumping. You try to line up with your plans. You feel greed. You tell yourself I won’t give it up, I don’t want to, I can, I must.”
Usually poker faced, Lasitskene let out some rare emotion in Tokyo with a few tears and even a stifled celebration when she cleared 2.04m.
She added: “There must be nerves. There must be fear. I was deadly afraid. At some moments I was shaking, at some moments it felt like my arms were falling off – and then my head started spinning.
“It was a real horror. I can’t imagine how my parents were watching this. I can’t imagine how Vladas [her husband and TV commentator] was commentating on it. I don’t know what happened. But maybe all those challenges were thrown at me so that I could overcome them.”
The 28-year-old is one of the few Russians who has been able to compete in recent years as an authorised neutral athlete and she has been outspokenly critical of her own Russian sporting officials when it comes to their slow anti-doping efforts.
The Russian Olympic Committee had not won a gold medal in athletics until Lasitskene stepped on the track either. “I was not reading anything this week while I was here,” she said. “I did not watch anything. I only talked to people who I knew would not pressure me. I already understood what a responsibility lay on my shoulders, so I put all my effort into ignoring it.”
On missing Rio in 2016, she said: “What happened five years ago probably should have happened. It shattered many careers, including mine, but probably I had to stand strong so that this [gold medal] would now hang around my neck.”
Runner-up McDermott smiled: “It’s such a dream, really. I went into this competition at the Olympics thinking that anything is possible, and I had faith enough to go whatever the high jumper, whatever the height.
“So to be able to jump with these wonderful girls and Mariya to do 2.04m, I don’t think I would have ever jumped that high [2.02m] if I didn’t have these girls who pushed me.”
Mahuchikh became the youngest Olympic medallist in this event since 1980 when Urszula Kielan of Poland took bronze and she said: “I am very tired, but I’m happy that I have a bronze medal because it is my first senior Olympics and I already have a medal and this is very cool for me. I really wanted it and now it is in my hands and I am very happy.
“I am happy that I got the 2.00m because I had to do a third attempt on 1.98m. I had to really focus then because if I didn’t clear it, I understood that I wouldn’t have a medal.
“My coach got me focused on the 1.98m. She said, ‘Yaroslava, you can jump. Fight for it, let’s go. You can do it’. Those were her words and I did it. I cleared it after all and continued my fight for a medal.”
In a great competition for Ukraine, Mahuhchukh’s team-mates Iryna Gerashchenko and Yuliya Levchenko finished fourth and eighth respectively.