In front of the home crowd in the Ukraine, pole vaulter Sergei Bubka's feet go cold. In Moscow, too, he tends to choke, often finishing in second or third place.
But like many Soviets, Bubka digs down deep to rise to the occasion -- and above the bar -- on foreign soil. On his first outing abroad, in the 1983 World Track and Field Championships in Helsinki, he vaulted nearly a foot above his best in the pregame trials and took first place at 18 feet 8 inches.
In a series of articles in the popular Soviet sports newspaper Sovietskii Sport last year, he remembered his 1984 trip to Los Angeles, Cleveland and New York as a series of new sensations: a rush of interviews, television cameras and "sportsmen swimming in diamonds."
Bubka, the 22-year-old holder of the outdoor world vault record of 19-8 1/4, has made a career of pitting his will against the odds.
Vladimir Geskin, an editor at Sovietskii Sport, compares Bubka's personality to those of hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak and world chess champion Gary Kasparov.
Geskin said both Bubka and Kasparov "are open-hearted, frank, direct, but Bubka is more industrious."
Bubka began serious training at a young age. The son of a military officer and a nurse, he began vaulting at 10 and competing at 12.
When he was 15, he moved four hours away from his home in the small Ukrainian town of Voroshilovgrad to the city of Donetz to receive more advanced training. His father had left home, said a fan who has followed his career closely, and the young Bubka threw himself into his sport.
In Donetz, he lived in a dormitory for four years, surviving on borscht and heavy training. His older brother and close companion, Vasili, also a vaulter who lived in the same dorm, provided the borscht. Bubka's coaches pressed him unusually hard during his training. Overcoming those challenges paid off. As Bubka wrote last year in a newspaper article, "I respect people who can take risks."
Bubka always trained with boys three or four years older. And after he took ninth place in the tryouts in Moscow for the 1983 Helsinki championships, his coach, despite strong protest from the other coaches, talked Bubka onto the team.
Bubka went on to win the gold in Helsinki, his first major title.
Part of his secret is a heavy pole. At nearly 35 pounds, it is intended for a much heavier vaulter. "It gives me the maximum capacity for the spring," he wrote in a Sovietskii Sport article.
Bubka lives in a small apartment in Donetz with his wife, Lilya, 20, and son Vitali, born last June. His wife of two years is a gymnast and trainer.
A student at the local physical education institute, Bubka spends up to five hours a day in school and two to three training. A hometown hero, he speaks occasionally at meetings of sports clubs and other groups. When he finishes his career as a vaulter, Geskin said, he wants to become a sports promoter rather than a trainer.