Updated 03 August 2012
Mariya ABAKUMOVA, Russia
Born: 15 January 1986, Stavropol
Coach: Alexander Sinitzin
Despite being the only Russian Olympic medallist in the women’s Javelin Throw in many years, Mariya Abakumova still considers her career is at the very start. When, in the last round of competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she was overtaken by the Czech, Barbora Spotakova, Abakumova rather won the silver than lost the gold. Compared to the previous year, she improved her PB by six metres!
"I don't want people to think that I've come from nowhere,” Abakumova reflected. "I was the European Junior champion in 2005, I competed at the World Championhips 2007, and overall I've been on the national team for years. If you look at my results, I've been improving my PB every year. Ok, maybe not that dramatically, but every year I was throwing a little bit better than the previous one. I mean, I’ve been progressing all through my career. I am not an athlete to show the result and then disappear forever. Yes, I am still unstable, but after all I am only 23. I feel my potential and have big plans for the future.”
Abakumova in childhood tried many sports, including, quite surprisingly, rhythmic gymnastics. "But I was too tall and big, so soon they expelled me because I was not skinny enough," Abakumova laughed. After that there was football, swimming, tennis, and finally athletics. "Once I even got invited to box, but to be serious, I think only athletics could be my sport,” she said. “My mother is an athletics coach. She used to be an athlete herself, but not professionally, and later she entered the University in St. Petersburg and studies became her priority over sport.”
At about eight she started athletics in Stavropol with her first coach Lyudmila Komarova. She was doing Heptathlon, with an accent on Javelin, Shot Put and sprint hurdles. “I was quite good in Heptathlon, or, to be exact, in six events out of seven,” she recalled. Abakumova couldn’t keep from laughing again when thinking about this. “The seventh one, 800m, was my nightmare. I don’t have the words to explain how hard it was. I could hardly reach the finish line in 3:05, all in pain and struggling. Brr! It’s good I soon stopped the Heptathlon.”
The natural way out was to choose one event and forget about that much hated 800m. Abakumova decided to concentrate on sprint hurdles. At about 16, at the Russian Youth Championships, she hit a hurdle in a race and got badly injured. That was the end to her short hurdles career. “I looked very funny in hurdles,” Abakumova smiled. “I was big, strong and was always running, as my mother said, on the verge of falling down. I used to crash the hurdles all the time, even break them, but thanks to my physical strength I still was fast. I guess that injury also happened because of my terrible technique. But it was like a lesson of life for me: everything that happens is for the better.”
Because of the leg injury Abakumova could not run for half a year. This was too much to wait, so she decided to try something where the running speed was not that important. Abakumova started the Javelin Throw. In her very first competition in the javelin, at the 2002 Russian Championships, Abakumova placed second, and the following year she was 4th at the World Youth Championships. After that there were no doubts which event to choose.
“First everybody was shocked to see me,” Abakumova said. “People kept asking: ‘Who is this girl, what is she doing in the javelin?’ I wish you could see my first javelin throws. I’ve always had enormous physical strength, so huge that it was very hard to transfer it into the throw. At times it would be easier if I was a bit weaker! I had a huge run up, about 50 metres, even longer than the boys. I was running with full speed, then stopped, and just threw the javelin as far as I could. This physical strength, and my desire to win, were great. I could win almost without any technique at all. Actually the coaches were wondering how I did not get injured, as my style was just dangerous.
“By the way, I know there are people who keep criticising my technique now. I’d like just to ask people to remember how old I am and how long I have been in the event. I am perfectly aware that my throwing technique is far from good. But I am working on it and I am improving. And I think one could as well think the opposite way: if she can throw 70m like this, what would it be if she masters the right movement? It just hurts when people think I get everything so easy and do not appreciate my effort. I don’t get anything from the heavens, I work on every aspect of my throw.”
Abakumova went on progressing very fast. In 2005 she set the Russian junior record – 59.53 in winning the national junior championships and won the European Junior Championships, in Kaunas, the next season came third at the senior Russian Championships (58.29). At the time she changed her coach and started training with Alexander Sinitzin. “It was high time to change the coach,” Abakumova reflects. “I needed some higher level, and I was happy I did find the person who could give me so much in terms of technique. However, it was very hard in the beginning. He started to change my technique, and first my throw was a terrible mixture of my old movement and the new tips he was trying to implement. That’s why the season 2007 was not my best one.”
Still, in 2007 Abakumova qualified for her first World Championships, in Osaka, where she placed 7th, which was considered a good result. “For my age this felt great,” she said. “I remember in Osaka I was specially cheering for Barbara Spotakova. I don’t know why, it just amazed me that the person could throw this far. After the competition was over I congratulated her with the victory, and she answered: ‘Wait, your time will come soon.’ Who could think back then that she was that right!
“The Olympics has always been the main priority for my coach. The thing is, he has had some good athletes in the past (such as discus thrower Dmitry Shevchenko) but they never managed to win an Olympic medal. He was dreaming to bring up an Olympic champion. He managed to peak my shape at the Olympics just perfect. I’ve never before felt better, full of energy and concentrated on the throw. Plus six metres added to my PB from the last year – that was fantastic!”
At the Olympics in Beijing Abakumova produced a great show. She was leading with the PB and National record of 70.78m until the very last round, when the reigning World champion Spotakova threw the javelin to the European record 71.42. In the mixed zone Abakumova was crying. It seemed not because of disappointment or joy – but because of the feeling that she had done everything possible.
“I have been accumulating this energy in myself for the whole year, and here, in Beijing, I gave it all,” Abakumova said. “You know, I think this energy inside was even too much for me, I couldn’t keep it! In my last days before the start in Beijing I managed: to break my computer and my mobile phone, to tear my trousers and even to lose the key to my room in the Olympic village. The girls – my room-mates - had to leave the key for me under the carpet at the entrance. I was just afraid to tell the coach I had lost the key, he would be so angry.”
Did she consider the silver as a loss? Definitely not. “I needed this medal so much, I was dreaming about it, but could not believe it would come so soon,” she said. “I have much time ahead and I’ll do my best to win the gold in London (2012 Olympics). But, in Beijing, any medal for me was great… Do you know why I cried in the mixed zone? The press asked me what I wanted at the moment, and I just imagined how I would enter a new flat, go to the shower… because for two years after I moved from my native Stavropol to Krasnodar, I had been living in the dorm.
“You wouldn’t believe, the surface of my room was just six square metres. There were bags with my equipment everywhere. There was once a fire, at times no water, and even mice! I cried when I thought how I would go to the bath normally, at my own home, my own – only mine – room. Now after the Olympics I’ve got a two-room apartment in Krasnodar, where I live with my parents. But, to everyone who can be envious, I answer: I have suffered and honestly earned my success.”
Abakumova’s overwhelming joy at the Olympics was clouded only with the words of the Olympic champion, Spotakova. The Czech was quoted saying that she was happy to win the gold and beat the Russian on the day of the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. “I never understood what I had to do with the historical events which happened even before I was born,” Abakumova said. “I respect Spotakova as a brilliant athlete, as the World record holder. But I can’t agree with some words she is saying about me.”
After the Olympic celebration Abakumova went on with her great throws, winning the Russian Winter Championships in Adler with 65.21. “I think I was still full of this energy from Beijing, it was like boiling inside,” Abakumova said. “Even from the half run up I was throwing 65 metres in training. It was gone only by May, when I felt my shape was kind of down. But I trained some more, and after the win in Ostrava, over Spotakova and Obergfoll, my confidence was back.”
The blow to Abakumova’s confidence occurred at the 2009 Russian Championships and trials in Cheboksary, where she sensationally lost to the 34-year old Valeria Zabruskova, with the modest throw 60.72. “Maybe I was really too confident in myself,” Abakumova admitted. “But still it’s good this happened at the trials and not at the World Champs. I feel I have the shape for far throws, the thing is now to find my best technique. Hopefully, I’ll show my best in Berlin.”
What Abakumova actually produced in Berlin was a great show, but definitely not her best. Her sensational qualification throw of 68.92 became the new season lead. In the final such result would have been more than enough for the victory. But Abakumova, again suffering from her unstable technique, managed to win “only” the bronze medal with the throw of 66.06. For her it was really “only” bronze, despite being the first World Championships medal in the career.
“I think after the qualification I was dreaming about the gold too much,” Mariya reflected. “I felt like I was the strongest, like nobody else had the chance to win. But the competition proved the psychology is sometimes more important than the physical strength. The German Steffi Nerius did her best throw in the first attempt, and after that no one of could cope with the pressure…”
While searching for technical and psychological stability, Abakumova found an unusual way out. Her grandmother in Stavropol is a big fan of yoga. She prepared for Abakumova special phrases which she repeats to herself in the hard moments of competition. Like another great Russian athlete Yelena Isinbaeva, Abakumova would not tell the world what the words are. But the fact is, they help her to feel better. “After Berlin, my grandmother turned into a big athletics fan, she never misses my competitions on TV,” Abakumova admitted.
The start of the new season 2010 was for Abakumova just fantastic. At the very first ever Diamond League meeting in May in Doha she produced the new World lead and one of the best throws in her career – 68.89m. This seemed to be the new Abakumova – the leader but not the underdog any more. The stars however were not on her side.
Right after Doha, Abakumova injured her knee. First it was slight pain, then so strong that it did not allow her to run. The medical verdict was: meniscus problem and immediate surgery. “They said there was a possibility not to come back to sports afterwards,” Abakumova said. “When I heard this, for several days I could not stop crying… How can it be, that I am so young, strong, ambitious, and have to finish it all now?! Fortunately we found another doctor. And he said everything was not that serious. I just had to ease off the trainings and do special rehabilitation.”
In a month Abakumova was back to full training. But the fear to injure the knee again remained. “It does not hurt now, but I always remember about it,” said Abakumova after her European Champs qualification.
When Abakumova, usually strong in the preliminaries, hardly made it to the Barcelona final, making the qualification standard in her last attempt, it became obvious: the injury was too serious to hope for medals. Abakumova was fighting, produced her best throw in the last attempt again, but 61.46 was good enough only for the 5th place.
“May be it’s a black stripe for me,” Mariya said. “But let it better be now, than next year at the World Champs or at the Olympics. May be it’s a sign that I should ease the pressure and give myself a little rest. I am not going to say that the European Champs was a disaster. Yes, I did not win a medal, but I learnt something new about my javelin. I learnt that wonders are not possible in sports: if you lack training because of injury, even great desire would not help you to win.”
The black stripe for Abakumova was over already less than a month later. She got the invitation to compete for Europe in the Continental Cup just by chance – because Barbara Spotakova got injured. But Abakumova perfectly used this chance and won the competition with a throw of 68.14m.
“It was like a present for me,” Abakumova recalls. “After the Europeans I took 10 days rest in Odessa with my boyfriend, and then returned to training in Krasnodar. I was constantly questioning myself: “Why am I working so hard now, when there are only few small commercial meetings left?” But one day our chief coach called me and said that I was to replace Spotakova at the Continental Cup. I was so happy that the hard work was not in vain that completely forgot about my disappointment from the European Champs!”
In the new season 2011 Abakumova shocked the athletics world saying that she could lift 140 kg from her chest. She even visibly got much stronger and proved with her throws that the impressive figure was not just boasting.
“Generally I try not to talk much about my trainings in the press, but I was so emotional about the new personal record in weightlifting that could not but tell about it,” Abakumova admits. “In the preparation to the season 2011 we made a stress on the power training. Power is not a problem for me, I improve very fast here. The next, Olympic season, we with my coach will make a stress on the technique and try to transmit this additional power into farther throws.”
Starting her season again with the victory in the opening Diamond League meeting Doha 68.89m), Abakumova was then only 4th at the European Team Championships, losing to all of her main rivals. However this did not disappoint Mariya ahead of the World Championships.
“I know that if I manage to stay focused and perform my best technique, everything is gonna be perfect,” Abakumova said. “Now when I made myself known on the elite level, I have to control my emotions and prove that I can make my best throw when it is needed.”
In Daegu Abakumova chose perfect moments to produce her two best throws. In her second attempt she threw the javelin to 71.25 m. When Spotakova answered in her 5th attempt with 71.58 m, Abakumova immediately responded with another national record – 71.99 m. After the competition Mariya was crying – and these were tears of both happiness and pain.
“I injured my heel and was not even sure how I could compete in the final,” Abakumova said. “I could hardly run, and in qualification even threw from steps, without the run-up. In the final I decided to take a risk and make just one good attempt. When I saw how far it was, I was shocked, I wanted to cry immediately. But when Barbora again surpassed me, I knew I could make it. I had no pressure as I was injured, nothing to lose. I could just pray that my leg would let me do another throw...”
Coach Sinitzin has promised to shave off his moustache if Abakumova becomes the Olympic champion. “I am very curious to see how he’ll look without the moustache, so I’ll try hard in London,” Abakumova laughed. Her plans for the distant future also include the 2013 World Championships, in Moscow, and possibly marriage and childbirth afterwards.
71.99 NR (2011)
2003: 51.41; 2004: 58.26; 2005: 59.53; 2006: 60.12; 2007: 64.28; 2008: 70.78; 2009: 68.92; 2010: 68.89. 2011: 71.99 NR; 2012: 66.86.
2003 4th World Youth Championships (Sherbrooke) 51.41
2004 q World Junior Championships (Grosseto) 43.95
2005 3rd European Winter Throwing Cup (Mersin) 59.06
2005 8th World Universiade (Izmir) 53.48
2005 1st European Junior Championships (Kaunas) 57.11
2005 7th European Cup (Florence) 55.00
2006 3rd International Match: Italy-China-Russia (Florence) 60.12
2007 1st European Winter Throwing Cup (Yalta) 59.42
2007 2nd European Champion Clubs Cup (Albufeira) 64.28
2007 6th European U23 Championships (Debrecen) 54.25
2007 7th World Championships (Osaka) 61.43
2007 2nd CISM World Military Games (Hyderabad) 59.60
2008 1st European Winter Throwing Cup - U23 (Split) 62.07
2008 2nd European Cup (Annecy) 61.78
2008 2nd Olympic Games (Beijing) 70.78 NR
2009 1st European Winter Throwing Cup (Los Realejos) 61.87
2009 1st European Champions Clubs Cup (Castellon) 63.41
2009 3rd European Team Championships (Leiria) 62.01
2009 3rd World Championships (Berlin) 66.06
2009 1st World Athletics Final (Thessaloniki) 64.60
2010 2nd European Winter Throwing Cup (Arles) 65.21
2010 3rd European Team Championships (Bergen) 58.24
2010 5th European Championships (Barcelona) 61.46
2011 1st Russian Winter Championships (Adler) 65.12
2011 4th European Team Championships (Stockholm) 64.21
2011 1st Russian Championships (Cheboksary) 66.05
2011 1st World Championships (Daegu) 71.99
2012 1st Russian Championships (Cheboksary) 64.41
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. Copyright IAAF 2009-2012.