MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian high jumper Ivan Ukhov says kicking a drinking habit has not only changed his life but helped him achieve his childhood dream of becoming an Olympic champion.
The 26-year-old, who won gold in London with a leap of 2.38 meters and now has more lofty goals for his career, does not like to talk about the past nor discuss his previous escapades - only saying that he is “completely reformed now”.
“I just want to concentrate on my future, not go back to my old life. It’s in the past,” he told Reuters in an interview, organized by sporting goods company Nike.
Ukhov, who now prides himself on being a devoted husband and a loving father, even chopped off his shaggy hair following his gold-medal performance to symbolize his changed lifestyle.
Since his August triumph, the usually shy Russian has become an instant media darling at home, doing numerous interviews and photo shoots - something he has been reluctant to do in the past.
“It’s been almost a constant whirlwind, the press has been following me from place to place,” said Ukhov, sporting a shorter, more conventional haircut.
“It’s not something I really enjoy but I understand it’s now a must. Sometimes it makes you feel almost like a hero.”
Four years ago, he was portrayed as a villain after showing up drunk at a meet in Lausanne after mixing vodka and Red Bull.
Unsurprisingly, he failed each attempt to clear the bar and the video clip of his exploits on YouTube received more than a million hits in a week.
He faced a one-year ban for his antics but escaped punishment after agreeing to reimburse the Swiss organizers their expenses.
He was able to overcome his problems after moving from his native Chelyabinsk, in the Urals, to Moscow and hooking up with his new coach, Sergei Klyugin, following the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Chelyabinsk sports bosses had completely ignored him, they thought he was finished,” Klyugin, himself an Olympic high jump champion from Sydney 2000, told Reuters.
“I offered him my help and we’ve been working together since. It may surprise a lot of people but Ivan is a really nice guy, not jealous or anything like that.”
Asked what sets Ukhov apart from other elite high jumpers, Klyugin said: “I would say he’s ‘a bit crazy’, but in a good way. He has a great physique for a high jumper but his biggest asset is his mind. He just doesn’t have any mental barriers whatsoever when it comes to jumping record heights.”
Ukhov’s mental toughness was tested to the limit in London, when his jumping vest was stolen midway through the competition.
“I had put it on my bag as I always do after each attempt but it just disappeared. Someone might have stolen it,” said Ukhov, who was forced to make one of his jumps in a light-blue T-shirt instead of his national team kit.
“I was afraid I could be disqualified for not wearing a proper uniform but in the end it turned out just fine.”
He asked compatriot and 2008 Olympic champion Andrei Silnov to give him a spare shirt after he discovered the loss.
“I was going crazy, I didn’t know what to do but luckily Andrei came to my rescue. He had finished by then so he offered me his vest,” Ukhov recalled.
“Now I see it as symbolic that I won gold in his shirt. I guess Andrei being the 2008 champion just passed me the good luck.”
The nervous stress, however, sapped too much energy and prevented him from setting an Olympic record, he said.
“I felt that record was well within my grasp,” said Ukhov, who had one failed attempt at 2.40 in the London rain to try to better American Charles Austin’s mark of 2.39, set at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“Also, the photographers were distracting me by taking pictures of me while I was trying to concentrate on my run-up. Then, I had to wait while a medal ceremony for another event was taking place and I lost some of my jumping rhythm.”
Having achieved his lifelong dream, Ukhov has set a new target.
He wants to become the first men’s high jumper to successfully defend his Olympic title and to break one of the oldest world records in athletics - the 2.45-metre mark set by Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor in 1993.
“Of course, winning in Rio in 2016 is one of my big goals,” said Ukhov, who has recorded four of the world’s best six jumps this year while his personal best of 2.40 was achieved in 2009.
”Until now, no (male) high jumper...was able to repeat their success so if I can do it, it would make history.
“But Rio is four years from now, so my next goal is to break Sotomayor’s record. I’ll definitely try it next year,” he added.
Reporting by Gennady Fyodorov, editing by Mark Meadows