Updated 2 May 2008
Denis NIZHEGORODOV, Russia (20/50km Walk)
Born 26 July 1980, Saransk, Mordoviya
Coach: Viktor Chegin
The career in athletics started for Denis Nizhegorodov at the age of 12. His father, Gennady, in 1978 set the national record at 3000m (run) but was forced to give up professional sports early because of illness. No wonder Gennady dreamt that his own ambitions would be accomplished by his son'.
“I started with long distance running and my father was coaching me,” Denis recalled. “I was not bad and, in juniors, I became the champion of the republic of Mordoviya. But to achieve something more was hardly possible in the republic, where there is no tradition in high level running.”
Mordoviya does have tradition, though, in two sports – race walking and Greco-Roman wrestling (Saransk is, for example, the home town of 2004 Olympic champion Alexei Mishin). “I was not born to be a wrestler, so the choice was evident,” Nizhegorodov smiled. In 1998 he finished school and entered the sports faculty of the Mordovian State Pedagogical institute. Here Nizhegorodov met his first and only coach in race walking, Viktor Chegin.
“I liked race walking at once,” Nizhegorodov recalled. “First, it was something completely different from what I was used to in running. Studying techniques was really great. And then race walking gave me a chance to meet people who were really the legends for me. I could not have dreamt beforehand of being near, for example, Irina Stankina, and here I was training in the same team with her.”
Having started with race walking later than his team mates, Nizhegorodov had to work hard to cope with them. He began in the juniors first at 10km then 20km but soon it became evident for him and his coach that he lacked speed for the short distances. However, the increased training volume caused serious injury.
In December 2001, during the training camp in Adler, Nizhegorodov suffered a stress fracture of the leg. The doctors’ forecasts were mostly pessimistic – there was a high possibility that this would be the end of his professional career. For almost a year he had to forget about training. From December until the late autumn his life comprised only medical procedures and his computer. “I suddenly got much free time and at first did not know how to use it,” he said. “But then I opened the computer, the world of Internet and games, and I was not bored anymore.”
Missing the whole 2002 season Nizhegorodov made a brilliant comeback in 2003. At the Russian Championships he made his 50km debut. “The first time you always feel a bit frightened,” he said. “I walked and did not know what to expect from my body, what would happen in the next minutes.” He won the competition and qualified for the World Championships in Paris.
Fifth place at the World Championships was considered a good result. The then three times Olympic champion, Robert Korzeniowski, from Poland won, but paid attention to the rising Russian star. “We talked a little with Robert,” Nizhegorodov said. “He speaks good Russian, as well as six other languages. Robert is a polyglot. And I admire him not only for his sports success but also as a talented and educated person.”
Admiration for Korzeniowski did not stop Nizhegorodov walking faster than the famous Pole’s world record in May 2004. Unfortunately for Nizhegorodov, the mark (3:35:29) was set at the Russian Championships and was not ratified by the IAAF. “My coaches were shouting to me: ‘Stop, you don’t need this now. This is too fast.’ But when you feel you have this potential it’s impossible to make yourself stop and not realise it”, he said.
Even though it was not ratified as a world record, the performance made Nizhegorodov the hot favourite for the 2004 Olympic title in Athens. For Mordoviya, where race walking is probably the second religion, this meant enormous pressure. “I went to Athens like a zombie,” Nizhegorodov said. “I had so many talks with government officials, coaches, all kinds of people.” But it was extra motivation for him, not wishing to let down the expectations of so many people.
Nizhegorodov’s silver medal in Athens made him an instant national hero. It was not that important that he was second behind Korzeniowski. After all, nobody could cope with Robert that day. Historically Russians have high admiration for martyrs. The TV pictures where Nizhegorodov, after the finish, was trying to shake hands with his team mate and bronze medallist Alexei Voevodin but could not, and where a few moments later Denis fell to the ground and was evacuated from the stadium in the ambulance, are never forgotten. Later Nizhegorodov explained: “I remember nothing from the last 1.5km. Really nothing. I was walking just like a machine. It was not pain, I was not suffering at all. It was just like I had been switched off.”
It took Nizhegorodov two days after the finish to gain enough power to walk out of his room. And it took him a year to come back to race walking. During the whole 2005 season he was struck with various injuries and also with huge public attention. “When I came back home from Athens and all these TV shows, interviews, official meetings started, I was dreaming of simply running away to the forest,” he smiled. “I am not a show business person. I feel uncomfortable when I have to be the centre of attention. I value a lot the help that our republic’s authorities provide, and I am very pleased when they invite athletes to some parties during the holidays. It’s ok when it is several times a year, but not every day.”
In 2006 Nizhegorodov was second at the Russian Championships and won the IAAF Race Walking Cup in La Coruña. At the European Championships, in Göteborg, he was disqualified for the first and only time in his career. “It was not fair,” he said. “I was injured and could not straighten my knee. I was ashamed to walk like that, as people could think it was because of bad technique, but there was no way out. I think the judges could have understood I was injured.”
In 2007 he won the national championships at 50km and qualified for the World Championships, in Osaka., where the Russian walkers suffered a sporting disaster. Nizhegorodov, Voevodin and experienced athletes, world leaders Sergey Kirdyapkin and Vladimir Kanaykin, made one of the strongest teams. However, only one of the quartet completed the course. That athlete was Nizhegorodov, who finished fourth.
“I had very big temptation to get out of the course too,” Nizhegorodov said. “After 20km I was feeling awful. It’s normal if you feel like that after 40 - 45km, but if you are almost dying after 20 km, there is no hope for success. I quickly realised there was no chance of a medal for me. Then I saw my team mates were leaving the course. I very much wanted to follow them but thought that it would be a shame if none of the Russians finished. Afterwards I was really a happy person. I was not happy with the 4th place, no. I was happy that everything was over.” Nizhegorodov called Osaka the hardest marathon walk of his career and, of his team-mates that day, he said: “Probably they were feeling even worse than me.”
Hardworking – this word is probably not enough to express what Nizhegorodov is doing every day. “My usual day starts at 7 o’clock with the first training session,” he said. “Then we walk around 14km. The second training starts at 15:00 – 15:30, and is maximum 40km. Also three times a week I have athletics training in the gym, five times a week I have massage, and twice a week go to the sauna.”
The 2008 IAAF World Race Walking Cup, in Cheboksary, has for Nizhegorodov, as well as for all Russians, additional meaning. To make the Russian Olympic team, you have to be in the best eight and also among the best two Russians. The third place in the Olympic squad is guaranteed for the winner of the national championship in summer. “Naturally I will try to qualify in Cheboksary and not leave it until the last moment,” he said. “Then I would be able to concentrate on the Olympics.”
In Beijing 2008 sun and humidity - probably even more fierce than in Athens and Osaka - are again waiting for Nizhegorodov. “I try not to think about it now,” he said. “First I have to qualify. But you know, we have in Russia such a saying. “Russians may die, but they never give up.
20 km: 1:18:20 (2001)
50 km: 3:35:29 (2004)
20/50km: 2000: 1:21:47/-; 2001: 1:18:20/-; 2003: 1:23:23/3:38:23; 2004: -/3:35:29; 2006: -/3:38:02; 2007: -/3:40:53
2003 5th World Championship (50km)
2004 1st Russian Championships (50km)
2004 2nd Olympic Games (50km)
2006 2nd Russian Championships (35km)
2006 1st World Race Walking Cup (50km)
2007 1st Russian Championships (50km)
2007 4th World Championship (50 km)
2008 4th Russian Winter Race Walking Championship (35km)
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. Copyright IAAF 2008.