Anna Kozina, special to RBTH

Masters of water:
Soviet and Russian swimming legends to join Kazan competitors

RBTH profiles four renowned Russian aquatic athletes
From July 24 to Aug. 9, Kazan is the host city for the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. It is the first International Swimming Federation (FINA) event of this scale to be held in Russia, and the national team is under the spotlight. Even if the Russian team does not have a realistic chance of winning all events, supporters are hoping for miracles and the advantage of being the home team. All the more so since the history of Soviet and Russian aquatic sports is characterized by world-beating champions.

Vladimir Salnikov

At the age of 20, swimmer Vladimir Salnikov became an undisputed hero of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Although due to the U.S boycott - called in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - in the absence of his main rivals from the US team, including 1976 Montreal Olympic double champion, Brian Goodell, Salnikov's results speak for themselves. He won three gold medals, for 800 meters, 1,500 meters and the 4х200 meters freestyle relay. Salnikov broke the world record for his favorite 1,500 meters race, for the first time ever completing it in less than 15 minutes, at 14.58,27.

"It was my dream to break the world record, though I was not in the best of moods. I had been waiting to meet American athletes for so long," Salnikov recalls. "There was a moment during that race when I decided that there would be no record: somewhere around 1,100–1,200 meters I felt completely exhausted, all I could hope for was just to win the race. But I told myself: it's now or never. And I pushed forward even harder."
Vladimir Salnikov was a Soviet sports star and standard-bearer of the national team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Source: RIA Novosti, Imago/Legion Media
There were many dark periods in Salnikov's sporting career - both personal and political challenges. The USSR boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Salnikov could have won gold too. He had to cope with parting from his long-serving coach Igor Koshkin, who did not believe that his star pupil, a 'veteran' by the standards of the day, could compete for medals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But it was in South Korea where, eight years after his Moscow triumph, Salnikov won a sensational fourth Olympic victory. He shared it with his wife Marina, who became his coach, manager and physiotherapist.

His Russian fans are hoping that Salnikov will be on winning form again at the FINA World Championship in Kazan - though, of course, in the Masters category.

Salnikov, who is president of the Russian Swimming Federation, is keen to exchange the confines of his office for a more familiar aquatic environment. However, there can be no talk of him competing in the 1,500 meter race. This time Salnikov will have to become a sprinter. The champion has already started training for 50 meter and 100 meter races - taking a characteristically counter intuitive approach: "I now practice for 3,000 meters," Salnikov said in an interview with the Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "It is not about showing a result no matter the cost. Competitions in the Masters category very much value the Olympic principle: it's participating that counts."

Alexander Popov

Alongside Vladimir Salnikov, the only other Soviet/Russian swimmer to have won four Olympic gold medals is Alexander Popov (50 and 100 meter freestyle at Barcelona-92 and Atlanta-96).

Just like Salnikov, throughout his career, Popov had to compete with the Americans, sometimes winning surprise victories against all expectations. This was the case at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when then president of the United States, Bill Clinton, came to watch the 50 meter freestyle finals expecting to present the gold medal to local favorite, Garry Hall, only to see the gold go to Alexander Popov.

All it takes to win an Olympic gold medal is to make just one step. But a very hard step. However, it is this step that makes an Olympic champion different from just a world champion.

Alexander Popov
In 1996 Popov won two Olympic gold medals. Source: TASS
We may soon hear of new victories by a Popov. In May 2014, the Russian R-Sport news agency reported that Alexander Popov's oldest son, 17-year-old Vladimir, is training with the famous specialist Gennady Turetsky, who helped Alexander achieve his gold triumphs. Popov himself never wanted his sons to became professional swimmers.

"I would not wish it upon my sons to go through what I had to go through," he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "I think two professional swimmers in one family, me and my wife Darya, is quite enough."

Perhaps Popov is saying this because he is very demanding, both of himself and of the new generation that has followed him.

"We can train world or European championship medalists, even European championship winners. But Olympics Games is a completely different kettle of fish," he once said after the national team had yet again returned from an Olympics without a single gold medal. "All it takes to win an Olympic gold medal is to make just one step. But a very hard step. However, it is this step that makes an Olympic champion different from just a world champion."

Dmitry Sautin

The last time the legendary Dmitry Sautin took part in a diving competition was in 2010. He officially retired in 2014, having devoted 31 years of his life to the sport.
In one interview, Sautin confessed that he sometimes wishes he had quit after the 2008 Olympic Games, which were not very successful for him. A single silver medal, in the three-meter springboard, was, of course, not enough for an athlete who is known as the best diver of the 20th century. Five times world champion, Sautin is the only person to have ever won eight Olympic medals in diving, including two gold ones (in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000).
Dmitry Sautin and his coach Tatyana Starodubtseva. Source: TASS
And yet Sautin's first Olympic medal was a bronze, at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Moreover, he won it wearing somebody else's trunks.

"I left mine in my room," Sautin told Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "While others were sleeping between training sessions, I would explore the Olympic village and wander around Barcelona. I was just a kid, born in the Soviet Union and had seen nothing else. Needless to say, I was dizzy with everything I saw. To cut a long story short, in the rush to prepare for the start, I forgot my trunks at the hotel. I was saved by the Mexican Fernando Platas, who himself came only in the 17th position. We later became friends. He is now the Mexican sports minister."

At the World Championships in Kazan, Sautin is ready to return to the springboard, to take part in the Masters tournament. Dmitry is always prepared to try new things. For example, for the fun of it, he has tried his hand at a new discipline, synchronized diving, together with the young athlete Diana Chapliyeva.

Anastasia Davydova

Russian synchronized swimmers have won all the most significant tournaments and competitions since 1997. Anastasia Yermakova and Anastasia Davydova, who won four gold medals at the Olympics in Athens and Beijing, have even made it into the Guinness Book of Records for having the most medals in the discipline. At the 2012 Games in London, Davydova set a new personal record, winning her fifth Olympic medal.

One would think that her most difficult Olympics were the 2012 London Games, for which she began to train after an 18-month break. Not so. Her most difficult games were the 2000 Athens Olympics.

"The pressure was unreal," Davydova told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, "I was competing alongside Nastya Yermakova - we had both just left the junior team - and were up against an experienced duet from Japan, trying to prove that we were real leaders. Then, Olympic champions Maria Kiseleva and Olga Brusnikina returned and for two years we fought with them for the right to represent Russia at the Games. Each training session for us was like an Olympic competition. During the team competition in Athens, there was a glitch with the music and we had to perform without music. All in all, in terms of physical and emotional stress, the Athens Olympics is the one that stands out."
Source: PhotoXPress
During group training sessions in the pool, it was always easy to recognize Davydova thanks to her famous tattoo: she has a flock of multi-colored butterflies tattooed on her back, thighs and shoulders. During competitions, she covered them up with foundation cream. Now, as secretary-general of the Russian Olympic Committee, she has to be very careful when choosing dresses for formal occasions to make sure they meet standards of business etiquette.
At the championship in Kazan, Davydova is looking forward to seeing the new mixed duet event, in which Alexander Maltsev and Darina Valitova will represent Russia.

"It is great to see men join our sport," says Davydova. "Men can do strength elements, lifts and throws. In future, it may be possible to create something interesting in a '4x4' group. However, so far very few boys persevere in our sport. I started training a group of six, but now only one of them is left."

Story by Anna Kozina
Edited by Alexey Mosko, Nick Holdsworth
Photo credits : RIA Novosti, TASS, Getty Images, EPA, PhotoXPress, Reuters,, Imago/Legion Media
Design and layout by Alexey Mosko
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