sábado, 31 de diciembre de 2011

Olga Kaniskina: Best Athlete of the Last Five Years

Olga Kaniskina wins the gold medal at 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
           After her flawless season with a 100% of victories and three world titles, it seems impossible not to select Vivian Cheruiyot as best athlete of 2011 (though the IAAF got it). Otherwise, how about bestowing awards for longer term performances, as best sportsman of the last decade or foremost track and field competitor during a complete four years Olympic cycle? If we look for the longest and most outstanding dominance in an event in recent times, the chosen one would be without a doubt race walker Olga Kaniskina, with the only close rivalry of shot put champion Valerie Adams, but this one suffered one major defeat last year at the World Indoor championships. On the other hand, Kaniskina, since she climbed to the top of an international podium for the first time at Osaka Worlds in 2007 at age 22, has never relinquished to nobody that privileged spot in an important competition; thus leading, along with counterpart Valeriy Borchin, the imperial supremacy of the Saransk school, which has swept all three walking events gold medals at the last two editions of the World championships.  http://www.moti-athletics-20wk-w.blogspot.com/2011/08/sandro-damilano-versus-viktor-chegin.html  Olga Kaniskina has grabbed three straight world titles in Osaka, Berlin and Daegu, becoming the only race walker in doing so, and she is also up for entering the books as the first female who gets to defend an Olympic gold medal in the specialty. Besides, Olga is the only athlete in the circuit in both sexes who currently owns the Triple Crown, as reigning Olympic, world and continental champion in a single event. Incomprehensibly she has never been even nominated by the IAAF for any of its annual awards but we know the distinctions usually go to track runners. Yet, as consolation, the race walker number one was named best sportsman of the year in her home country in 2009 by a prestigious magazine.     

Olga Kaniskina from the mountains and the forests
           Olga Nikolayevna Kaniskina was born the 19th January 1985 in Saransk, Republic of Mordovia, the capital city of race walking, but her family comes from the nearby country. (1) Up on a hill, into the forests, stands mum’s village, Podlesnaya Tavlya. Not far away you can see Napolnaya Tavlya, where dad was born. They moved to Saransk after their marriage. On that land, a ski resort is being built currently. In week ends and holidays, Kaniskina returns to that lovely place to visit granny and other relatives. Yet Tavlya will always recall Olga her mum, who died as the future race walking champion was just 8 years of age. She suffered of high blood pressure and was sent to hospital, where she was given a wrong injection... Some people think it is easier to overcome the lost as it happens as the daughter is very young, but it is not… There is a sadness you must live with for all your life. Olga remembers her mother as a very kind and radiant young woman. She always wanted to be like her. Dad says Olga has inherited her same smile and, according to her primary school teacher Clara Pasyaeva, her same sweet personality too: “she used to be an intelligent, beautiful, tender and affectionate girl and at the same time really serious and hard-working on regard to her duties. Someone who deserves not only a good sportsman but a very bright man.” (1) Despite everybody, including his mother-in-law, advised him to get married again, dad never wanted to. Thereafter he cooks, cleans and takes care affectionately of her daughter and younger son Vasiliy. Olga calls dad her teddy bear and recognised to have grown with him as a spoiled girl, but at the same time always was ashamed every time she broke a word given to him. (2)  It always was and still is a close-knit family: after the races, dad is the first person Olga calls and also her brother, who has now become a strong, reliable and supportive man for her. 
             No matter the great champion she has become nowadays, Kaniskina was not especially fond of sport as a young girl, despite admiring Irina Stankina and Yelena Nikolayeva. Encouraged by classmates she joined Lyudmila Fedorovna Rusyakina to try race walking as every Saransk kid does. Yet she did not like it at all: “This is the first lesson and the last.” (1) However her coach convinced her to practise running instead and she did it just to communicate with her friends. Surprisingly, Rusyakina enrolled 14-year-old Olga to take part at the 1999 national championships at the walking event, given her some technique basics. The young girl crossed the line last in that race, while the commentator would say: “Here comes the last competitor: look at her technique.” (3) Olga's face turned red of shame but at the same time felt flattered for the comment. She won a chocolate bar (1) or a candy (4), depending on the versions. Olga was back then a fragile girl, ill all the time: not to be forgotten she is just 1,59m, weights 43kg and her shoe size is 35!! Yet, once she took seriously training, she became stronger and improved quickly. 

Olga Kaniskina competing under the rain in Beijing
        Rusyakina recommended Olga to Viktor Chegin, but he was reluctant to take her, so she must insist and eventually convinced the guru of Russian race walking to enrol the hopeful in the High Performance Centre in 2004, as a member of the second national team, under Vera Nacharkina. For the first time Kaniskina was training twice a day and accordingly obtained a good sixth place at the Russian junior championships, but the ambitious girl was half-happy with the result. (4) Anyway, Chegin had realised about Kaniskina's potential and decided to incorporate her to his own team in the beginning of 2005, arguing she had chances for a big progression. Thereafter, Olga´s career took off. Both Rusyakina and Chegin coincide when they pointed at the Beijing Olympic champion strong points: willingness, capacity of work and an excellent technique. The former believes “Kaniskina had no natural talent. All her victories are the result of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. She stunned among all my charges for her seriousness and maturity.” In similar terms, Chegin states “I have had more talented race walkers but none as workaholic, obedient and responsible. She trains with the men and endures tough exercices and high mileage nobody else does.” (1) He also thinks Kaniskina is a very special girl: “One of the greats said a man can be considered an intellectual but if he is wicked and envious he is nothing. Human intelligence is defined by its kindness and it belongs to Olga. She is very good, a real winner and always will fight honestly to the end." (5)
            The athete itself also has a high opinion of her coach. In the beginning she was afraid of him but now understands his sense of discipline and acknowledges she would be nothing in sport without the help she has received from him. Besides she credits Chegin as someone really committed with his work, to the point he supervises every workout, which is the key for his charges' technical improvement. (1) If in words of Kaniskina her dad is her “teddy bear”, Chegin is a second father: “a broody hen looking after us."

          Humour is a sign of healthy spirit and Olga Kaniskina has a fine explanation about how to focus in an important race: “I do not count the steps, I do not sing and I do not think in a loved one. I just concentrate on my technique, because otherwise it deteriorates and the speed drops. Go relaxed as if gliding on the solar beam.” (2) And indeed in her best days Kaniskina seems to be floating in the air, without gravity, a slider towards the sun or a faraway star.


              2005 was the year Olga Kaniskina entered the world elite, dipping for the first time under 1:30 at the 20km distance; then winning her first international medal, a silver one, at the U23 championship, held at the German city of Erfurt, after compatriot Irina Petrova. The following year she continued her swift escalade, with stunning victories at both winter and summer Russian Championships. At the former she clocked a sensational 1:26:02, which led the world seasonal lists. Yet when it mattered most, Olga still lacked stability: at the World Cup in La Coruña, she finished just 5th, while Petrova struck the bronze medal. Her more fancied compatriot was the Russian number one for Goteborg European championships but on the eve of the race she had to withdraw due to appendicitis and the athletic world never knew about her anymore. Kaniskina was the improvised leader of the team but Chegin advised her to never head the race, even if she could, because, as being unknown by the judges, he thought she would be for sure disqualified. The always obedient Olga finished second, after Belarusian star Ryta Turava. (4) At the 2007 European Cup in Leamington, both athletes repeated placement but Turava did not enter that summer World Championships and Kaniskina enjoyed her chance to grab an uncontested victory, under high humidity and heat conditions. In Osaka she followed simple tactics: she surged right from the start and never gave up her superior pace. Then she completed her outstanding year, with a special victory at her hometown, on occasion of the IAAF race walking challenge final. (6) Nikolay Merkuskhin, Head of the Republic of Mordovia, rewarded the world champion with a two-bedroom apartment. After further international victories she would be offered another house, three cars and bestowed several honorific mentions, which shows the high relevance race walkers’ prowess are allowed in Saransk.

Olga Kaniskina is awarded by Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev

            The Olympic year started with a new triumph for Olga Kaniskina at the winter national championships, clocking a no-homologated world record, because of the absence of international judges; then another one at the World Cup, held at the Russian town of Cheboksary, where she fell a mere second short of Olympiada Ivanova’s world best. It is maybe the only distinction which lacks in Kaniskina’s curriculum, yet considering she has two fastest timings than Vera Sokolova’s official record. Nevertheless at the big occasions Olga is unbeatable and she achieved another gun to tape easy victory at Beijing Olympic Games, this time around under the rain. Belarus Turava had been back but she was not in good shape. Thereafter, she would also disappear from the walking elite. After crossing the line, Olga was approached by Russian journalists, who asked which was her new dream, after getting the two most prestigious global titles: “to have a bun”, answered the overjoyed champion. (7) Kaniskina’s joke  made the highlights of the national newspapers. 

          In 2009 Olga Kaniskina accomplished her all-time best in late February in Adler (1:24:56). She was narrowly beaten at a shorter distance in Krakow by Beijing silver medallist Kjersti Platzer, but again had no opposition at the World championship in Berlin, where she defended her crown, this time surging mid-race. The following season, Olga was infringed another minor defeat at the winter Russian championship, where she finished just fourth, but silenced all the doubters at Barcelona European championships, where she killed the race in similar fashion than in Berlin, walking 2 straight kilometres at 4:12 pace. Russia swept all three places of the podium for the first time in the history of the event, after Anisya Kirdyapkina crossed the line second and Vera Sokolova third. (8)
            This year, Olga Kaniskina won all four races she entered, including Rio Maior, Sesto San Giovanni, the World championships and the IAAF race walking challenge final in La Coruña. In Daegu she completed a hat trick of golden medals but it was her hardest victory to the date. First she was challenged by Kirdyapkina’s attack; then witnessed how her small advantage was shortened by Chinese Hong Liu, who has progressed hugely in her technique under Sandro Damilano. Olga did not dare to look behind and was not sure of her victory until the very end.  It is worth considering Kaniskina was not at her 100%, because her preparation was hiccupped by a sinusitis and a hurting knee. After ending her season, the Russian wonder was given arthroscopic treatment and she looks with optimism towards the new Olympic year.

            In Kaniskina’s world there is not much time for fun. Too much dedication is needed to get to the top in sport and there are so many young girls pushing hard, who can take your place if you start to relax. Olga is not easy to be seen in a pub, karaoke or restaurant but she enjoys reading when she has the chance. Anyway she has some good friends as discus thrower Darya Pischalnikova. She gets angry when talking about her friend’s 33 months ban because of tampering, which she believes unfair. (2)  Once Olga stated she did not have time neither for boyfriends nor for children. She said as she had some free time she had to choose between having some fun and taking a rest. These days when asked anew she argues she was very young when talking like that, and, as for now, she would rather keep her private life for herself. (3) Is the most desired girl of the Republic of Mordovia hiding currently a secret love to her legion of admirers? 

            Olga Kaniskina is also an accomplished student. She has graduated in Mathematics, after a couple of busy years, when she had to get some extra hours to study, after her sportive duties. Modestly she said she entered maths because it was easy, and for having some earnings through a scholarship, as she was not a famous race walker yet. Notwithstanding a teacher remembers, as Olga was very young, she was able to find three different ways of proving the Pythagoras theorem. (1) The three times world champion is also about entering politics in order to contribute to the development of her region. (3) And if everything else fails she is really skilful with patterns and dressmaking and would easily become an accomplished tailor if needed.
            Despite not having much time for parties, Olga Kaniskina has great memories of her years competing all over the world. She remembers her first trip abroad to Erfurt, where she had the chance for a night walk to admire the peerless architecture of the old German city. She recalls too the polite people of Osaka, where she kept a conversation with a girl through drawings. (9) The first victories, the first trips, are always the most emotive. Still being an upcoming athlete she had to be grateful of the unexpected help of Ryta Turava, as she entered in oxygen debt trying to follow the Belarusian demanding rhythm: “Breathe! Breathe deeply! Breathe in! Breathe out! …” (5) Soon Olga became herself a children role model as well; an unbreakable champion under any circumstances and conditions. “In Saransk when it rains it is very cold. Your limbs seem made of wood. Yet in Beijing, it was refreshing and warm.”(10) And as the rain stops the sun comes out with its most radiant smile.    

 Come rain or Come shine (Olga Kaniskina)

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