After move from Russia, Georgia high jumper’s career revitalized

Elena Kulichenko is trying to make Olympics for Cyprus
Elena Kulichenko competes for the University of Georgia at the 2024 SEC Indoor Track Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Credit: Univ of Georgia/Wesley Hitt

Credit: Univ of Georgia/Wesley Hitt

Elena Kulichenko competes for the University of Georgia at the 2024 SEC Indoor Track Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

As she was emerging as one of the world’s better amateur high jumpers, Russia’s Elena Kulichenko faced many challenges.

Because of bans on Russian athletes because of doping scandals, Kulichenko could not compete in international under-18 competitions. Difficult relationships with her coach and Russia’s sports federation further complicated matters. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Kulichenko came to a crossroads.

“I wanted to quit track, but then I was like, ‘Let’s give it another shot,’” Kulichenko said. “If it’s going to turn out good, that’s great. If not, whatever, I’m ready to quit.”

Now four years down the line, Kulichenko has revitalized her career at Georgia. The 21-year-old junior is well on her way to competing for an NCAA championship in June and an Olympic medal in Paris later this summer.

During the outdoor season this spring, Kulichenko won at three consecutive meets and jumped a new personal-record 1.93 meters (six feet, four inches). She is No. 2 in the NCAA Division I women’s high jump rankings, behind Texas A&M’s Lamara Distin.

She and Distin will face off this weekend at the SEC outdoor championships in Gainesville, Florida.

“Her consistency is just absolutely incredible right now,” UGA jumps coach Ryan Baily said of Kulichenko, “which I think is going to really help set her up for the big stage. A lot of athletes can be good by hitting a good mark, but the great ones are great consistently.”

Kulichenko defeated Distin, who’s from Jamaica, for the first time at Florida’s Tom Jones Memorial Invitational on April 13. In addition to being favorites for both the SEC and NCAA titles, they likely will be two of the youngest Olympic high jump hopefuls at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

After finishing third in last year’s NCAA high jump final to help the Bulldogs to a 10th-place finish, Kulichenko has assumed more of a leadership role this season, said Matt Garlitz, the team’s associate director of athletic performance.

“I think she cares more about the team’s success, and she knows that if she does really well, the team is gonna do really well,” Garlitz said. “She’s one of the ones that we count on, and she takes that to heart.”

After spending one year at a university in Russia, Kulichenko made the switch to Georgia ahead of the 2022 season. The transition initially was challenging – Kulichenko recalled a few times she “almost passed out” in practice – but she said she has grown to appreciate UGA’s ability to provide athletes with an environment to “grow into” a professional career.

“Not only in Russia, but in Europe, in general, there are some, like, 16-year-olds who are signing contracts and going to professional sport,” Kulichenko said. “It’s so much pressure, and you kind of need to grow up to it. And that’s why I feel that college sports are so cool, because you’re still adapting.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, months after Kulichenko moved to Athens. She received hate messages online from people in Europe who thought her decision to move here was motivated by the invasion.

Kulichenko, who has relatives in both Russia and Ukraine, said she found it easier in some ways to deal with the situation from afar. Most of the questions and comments from teammates and others were just about whether she was OK.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are bad,’” Kulichenko said. “It wasn’t like that. Because in Europe it was bad. Not even just like Russia, Ukraine – it was in the whole of Europe.”

With the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban athletes from competing under the Russian flag in the Paris Games, Kulichenko finds herself in a unique spot as a Russian-born athlete.

“I know how hard it is for athletes there,” she said. “There are people who have, like, world-leading marks and they just can’t go (to the Olympics).”

If she qualifies for the Olympics, Kulichenko will compete for Cyprus. She initiated the switch in 2020, something she was able to do because her father conducts business in Cyprus. She began competing for Cyprus at international meets in 2023, winning the European U-23 championships and placing second in the World University Games that year.

“Right now I’m just really grateful for Cyprus, that they’ve been able to support me and then gave me this opportunity to go in general,” Kulichenko said. “I’m not even trying to think ‘what if.’ You just have to be grateful for the moment.”

With a jump of 1.97 meters or higher, Kulichenko would meet the automatic entry standard for Paris. But as long as she posts a jump that ranks among the world’s top 32 this year, a place in the Olympics is hers.

“It’s always been a dream (of mine) to go to the Olympics,” Kulichenko said. “And now that it’s that close, and I know what I’m capable of, it’s just like, ‘Go hard.’”

Gunter Schroeder is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.