High jumper Bogdan Bondarenko at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome (© AFP / Getty Images)
Few athletes have a better handle on the pleasure and the pain that the sport of athletics can generate than Bogdan Bondarenko.
The Ukrainian high jumper has experienced the good times. A stellar age group performer and 2008 world U20 champion, he later snared world and European senior titles and soared to a European record-equalling leap of 2.42m.
Yet in recent seasons the 1.97m tall jumper has suffered the torment of becoming entangled in a web of injury, illness and surgery – and watched his career alarmingly backpedal.
Missing the entire 2018 campaign, you would be forgiven for thinking that Bondarenko, now aged 29, was yesterday’s man in a discipline that is perhaps more suited to youth than many others.
But earlier this month at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome, the storm clouds finally passed. Experiencing the same “feelings” as his halcyon days of 2013 and 2014, he claimed a heart-warming victory with a 2.31m clearance to clinch his first IAAF Diamond league victory since triumphing in the same Olympic Stadium some three years earlier.
“It was an incredible feeling to win and I rejoiced like a child,” admits Bondarenko.
“During that competition I felt like I was flying; not jumping but really flying like years ago. I struggle to think of when I was so happy. Rome reminded me of how much I enjoy competing. It was like three years of pent-up frustration spilt out of me. It was amazing.”
Four-year medal streak
A winner of the 2013 world title in Moscow followed by the 2014 European crown in Zurich placed Bondarenko firmly at the pinnacle of global high jumping. Many predicted a future world record after his brilliant 2.42m clearance – in New York in 2014 – within three centimetres of Javier Sotomayor’s long-standing mark.
However, his streak of medical misfortune was kick-started in 2015 when his foot became infected following a chemical burn and his fitness was badly affected following a lengthy period of antibiotic treatment.
Nonetheless, the season was far from a write-off as the man from Kharkiv still managed to clear a season’s best of 2.37m and took home equal silver – behind Canada’s Derek Drouin – at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
He bounced back for the 2016 campaign and was in the shape of his life following an impressive pre-Olympic training camp in Brazil. However, on the eve of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Bondarenko became ill after being diagnosed with a serious sinus infection. Doctors insisted on surgery, but the athlete – desperate not to miss a second Olympic appearance – chose a course of antibiotics.
With little recollection of the qualification – “I just wanted to save as much strength as possible for my further jumps” – he arrived for the final struggling with a fever and a headache. He entered the competition at 2.25m, not because of some tactical mind game but simply because he felt so weak. Miraculously he cleared 2.33m to take bronze with only his second jump of the entire competition.
“The Olympic medal is the most valuable in my collection,” he explains. “It felt like a gold to me.”
Injury set back
Later in 2016 he underwent a complicated teeth surgery, which was found to be the cause of the ongoing sinus issues, and he only returned to full training later that year.
That winter he struggled with back and ankle injuries but his most serious setback of his career occurred during a gym session at a training camp in South Africa in April 2017 when the patella in his knee moved.
Suffering from acute pain, Bondarenko could no longer carry out technical sessions or lift in the gym throughout the summer season.
Limited to just six competitions that year – including a far from shabby 2.32m effort in Paris – he nonetheless failed to shine at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, finishing a distant ninth with a modest best of 2.25m.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “Even in the mixed zone I was already thinking of what treatment I required and at what point I’ll be able to train properly again as training had become torture.”
After a period of rehab in which he hoped exercises would fix the issue, he reluctantly opted for surgery in October of that year to fix the patella injury.
“It was the hardest rehabilitation in my career,” he explains of his post-surgery recovery. “I did such a huge volume of work. Doctors and specialists said I’d be back training in two months, but it didn’t happen. The exercises didn’t work, and six months after surgery I still felt the same pain.”
Bondarenko abandoned plans to compete during 2018 and doubts started to creep in.
“I questioned myself many times, especially in the very hard moments,” he laments. “Certainly, I had many doubts whether I’ll return and reach the same level as before. I thought about my future career including retirement.”
During these tough times he lent on the support of his coach and father, Viktor, his wife, Iryna Pimenova, the Ukrainian triple jumper, with whom he has a daughter, Yana, born in January last year, and his manager Aivar Karotamm.
Encouraged to stick with the sport, he gorged on mountains of medical books and spent hours scanning the internet to find a solution. He carried out a range of exercises and over time has successfully managed the problem.
“I think that I am now well prepared for a career after retirement as a specialist in knee recovery,” he jokes.
Return to competition
After 21 months away from competition, he made his competitive return last month at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai. However, struggling with foot and back pain in the two weeks leading into the meet, he then lost focus and technical discipline on the day, placing 10th with a best of 2.19m.
“We made a huge analysis of my competitions looking for mistakes and problems,” he explains. “We found them, but the question was ‘how could I improve and correct my jump without jumping in training?’ Before Rome I brainstormed and come up with a new exercise using a rubber resistance band.”
It proved inspired. Rather than use the band to strengthen the muscles and the tendons, he used it to help correct some technical mistakes by bending his body in the right position for the jumping motion.
Focusing on his technique, he compared his successful first-time effort of 2.22m with “flying”. The winning 2.31m height ensured his three-year IAAF Diamond League famine was over and the pressure valve released.
Just 10 days later in Rabat, Bondarenko notched up another IAAF Diamond League victory.
“I am very happy with tonight,” said Bondarenko, who won with first-time clearances at 2.22m and then 2.28m before making one attempt at 2.33m, two centimetres higher than his season’s best.
“I stopped because I had a little injury, but I am OK. I like competing here and I have won here several times. The main thing is that I had the win, another win, and I am in good shape.”
Currently standing joint top of the world list – alongside four other men – his main goal for the rest of the campaign is to remain injury-free with the European Games in Minsk and the Tokyo Olympic qualification mark of 2.33m two other priorities.
But of course the main target is performing when it counts at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 where he hopes to add to his 2013 gold and 2015 silver medals.
“I want to perform in Doha in the appropriate manner and, for me, that means winning a medal,” he adds. “I think it will be difficult to win, not because I won’t be ready, but because we are competing in (Mutaz) Barshim’s home city. I’m sure he’ll be in the best shape ever but I’d like to put up a strong fight.”
He certainly believes his struggles of the past few seasons have forged him into a stronger athlete.
“If you continue to believe and work hard, then nothing is impossible,” he says. “I’m now no longer afraid of anything.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF