Updated 10 August 2012
Olga KANISKINA, Russia (20km Race Walk)
Born: 19 January 1985, Saransk
Coach: Viktor Chegin
Olga Kaniskina earned her first prize in Race Walking in 1999 at the Russian Championships. However, this was neither glory nor money – it was candy for last place. “I will never forget my debut,” Kaniskina smiles. “I joined the group at 14, but somehow I did not like Race Walking at the beginning and started running. My coach just asked me to compete at the National Championships in Race Walking and showed me basic technique. The distance was only 3km and I was the last to finish.” And she added, laughing: “This was unforgettable!”
That last place turned out to be a motivation for Kaniskina to go on with Race Walking. For the next four years she was regularly training once a day, combining sports with school. “This was just for fun, nothing professional,” Kaniskina said. Her next big event was the Russian Junior Championships, in Cheboksary, in 2003.
At 10km Kaniskina finished somewhere in the middle but was spotted by the guru of Russian Race Walking – Viktor Chegin. Chegin, the head of the Mordovian Race Walking centre, invited Olga to the second staff of the national team coached by Vera Nacharkina. This was the real start of Kaniskina’s professional career.
“Summer 2004 was just amazing,” Kaniskina recalled. “For the first time in my life I was training twice a day. Accordingly, my training volume doubled. And, between training, I was watching the Olympic Games in Athens. I so much supported our athletes but I could not imagine that, in four years, I would be on their place.”
In 2004 Kaniskina was 6th at the Russian Junior Championships. “That was not so good considering that I was already at the second staff of the national team,” she said. “But again, there was some good luck following me. Viktor Chegin again saw something in my walk, and from the winter of 2005 I was already training in his group, with the first staff of the Russian team.”
This time the results did not make Kaniskina wait. In 2005 she finished second at the Russian U23 Championships and qualified for the European U23 Championships in Erfurt, Germany. “This was my first trip abroad, I was rather nervous,” Kaniskina said. “Still I managed to finish second. This was good, considering that it was only my second year in professional Race Walking.”
The 2006 season was, for Kaniskina, her first in the seniors. She won the National Trials with the PB 1:26.02 and so qualified for her first international senior event – the World Cup in La Coruña. Ambitious Kaniskina regarded the 5th place there as disappointment. “I came to La Coruña as a world leader. Now I realise this was just because nobody had seriously raced before, but back in 2006 this was a pressure. I walked three minutes slower than my PB. Not because I was not in shape. No, I just lacked stability and experience at the big events.”
It did not take Kaniskina long to recover from the disappointment. She won the National Championships, in Saransk, and qualified for her first European Championships, in Göteborg. “In Saransk I walked even slower than in La Coruña, but do not get me wrong,” Kaniskina said. “At the National Trials, in the last kilometres I was walking completely alone. My coach was even shouting at me: “Don’t be in a hurry, there is nobody around!”
Göteborg started for the Russian Race Walking team with an emergency. The team leader, Irina Petrova, was taken to the hospital the night before the start with appendicitis. Young and promising Kaniskina was obviously not an equal compensation for the experienced Petrova. “In our sport it is very important that the judges know you, know your technique,” Kaniskina explained. “I was not known at all, so Viktor Chegin strictly told me: “Don’t walk first even if you feel you can. Otherwise you for sure will be disqualified.”
Kaniskina obeyed, and finished second after the Belarusian Rita Turava. “Your time to win comes later,” Chegin, who was satisfied with Olga, said.
The 2007 season was, for Kaniskina, her last in the U23 category. She was third at the Russian winter championships in seniors (and first in U23) and qualified for the European Cup in Leamington, England. There she was again second – and again lost to Turava. “For the first 10km we were walking in a big group,” Kaniskina recalled. “By the 15th km there was only two of us. For some time she was even helping me, walking ahead but not too far. But then she sped up and I didn’t manage to keep the pace.”
With this silver medal Kaniskina qualified for her first World Championships – in 2007 in Osaka. “Rita Turava didn’t compete there, so it was easier,” Kaniskina smiled. Her performance gave nobody else a chance. Probably the only mistake was made at the very start at the stadium when Kaniskina, accompanied by two other Russians, walked out to the track one lap earlier than needed. “But it was not our fault,” Kaniskina said. The Japanese volunteer with the flag showed us to go out. I was surprised but followed his gesture. We realised very soon that he was wrong and got back to the group. No, I did not get nervous at all. It was not that bad.”
Kaniskina’s tactics at the World Championships were simple. She was simply to follow her own pace. Very soon it turned out that the pace of Kaniskina and her compatriot, Tatyana Shemyakina, was much faster than the group’s. And then that Kaniskina’s pace was much faster than Shemyakina’s. At 5km Kaniskina’s advantage over Shemyakina was 20 seconds, at 10km it was 44 seconds, at 15km it was 1.04.
“When I was alone during the last laps I got the second warning from the judges,” Kaniskina said. “From this moment I almost stopped racing, I was walking much slower than even at training. In my slowest training, my pace is 5 minutes a kilometre. In Osaka, in my last kilometres I walked 6 minutes. Can you imagine? The coaches were waiting for me at the finish and got nervous. So much time passed. ‘Where is she?” (laughing). But I just could not afford any risk. I did not want to be disqualified. And after all the time is not important, what is important is only the victory.
“And what was funny, as it turned out later I had only one warning. That was just the mistake of the electronic scoreboard. The coaches told me there was one warning, but I thought they were lying to me to keep me calm.”
After the World Championships Kaniskina returned home as a princess. She was invited to see the mayor, got her first own flat, and all the fame possible in the republic where Race Walking is as popular as football is in much of the rest of the world. Did she have any rest afterwards? “Yes, there was a couple of weeks rest. But for me rest is when I have one training a day instead of the usual two. We don’t have rest in the common meaning, without training at all. It is a bit tiring because I never can go, for example, to the beach and always have to stay at home. But my coach understands me, and if I want I can, for example, go to see my grandmother in the country, or my parents come to see me. Just Race Walking is my life, I can’t abandon it.”
The 2008 season started for Kaniskina with the one thing – fighting for the World record. At the National Championships in winter she dramatically, by one and a half minutes, improved the one set by fellow Russian Olympiada Ivanova in 2005. However, the record was not ratified as there were no international judges at the competition.
Her next attempt was at the World Cup in Cheboksary. With the support of the home crowd, Kaniskina won but missed the record by just one second. “Olga is great, but I am happy the record is still mine,” smiled Ivanova in Cheboksary. “I did not think about the record and am happy just with my victory,” Kaniskina replied. “I knew I was close but decided not to speed up at the last kilometres. No need to risk my victory and place at the Olympic team because of the record. It is even for the better I did not beat it. It will be additional motivation for me to train harder.”
Always rational, Kaniskina wanted to have full assurance of the Olympic spot. Generally, according to the rules established by the national federation, she, the same as four other Russian World champions from Osaka, had already secured a place at the national team, without selection. But Kaniskina was the only one of the World champions who competed at the trials (as the World Cup was the official trials for the Russian athletes) and earned the place at the team herself. “It was the decision of my coach to compete,” Kaniskina said. “He thought it would be good to compete with the world’s strongest athletes and to prove everything once more.”
If in Osaka Kaniskina had to fight against exhausting heat, in Beijing she faced pouring rain. For extremely light, tiny Olga walking against the rain and on the puddles was a huge disadvantage. “I did not think about it, on the contrary, I was happy when the rain started,” Kaniskina smiled. “It was much better than in Osaka where it was so hot and humid. In Beijing the rain was nice and refreshing. I felt sorry when it stopped because I immediately was hot.”
Telling this, all wet through, Kaniskina was already the Olympic champion. She won it in a style that left no doubts – leading from the first and till the last kilometer. The only moment she slowed down was before the finish, again like in Osaka. Only the reason this time was different. “In Beijing we had to walk on rubber, which was new for me,”Kaniskina explained. “At home two weeks before leaving for Beijing we had been training on the track in order to get used to the softer surface. Still, it was fine in the race. Even when the gap was getting smaller, I never had any doubts I would stand it. I just so much wanted to win that I knew I would not let any one take the first place away from me. I slowed down before the stadium because there was no rubber there and it was slippery. I was afraid to slip and to fall down. This was the problem, not that I got too tired.”
“After the finish I felt like I wanted to cry but I could not,” Kaniskina continued. “I don’t know how to explain, it was like the tears were near but they never came out. I just could not realise I made my dream come true. I thought may be I would cry at the award ceremony but at the moment I did not feel like crying any more. I was listening to the anthem and enjoying the whole situation a lot.” It’s worth to note Kaniskina is one of the very few Russian athletes who knows the whole anthem by heart.
Even with her tough training regime, Kaniskina has always been more than just an athlete. She is studying mathematics at the Mordovian State University in Saransk, and reading a lot of fiction books. “There is a funny story about my reading,” Kaniskina smiled. “Once a journalist asked me what I was reading at the moment, and I said – Maurice Druon, “The Accursed Kings.” He interpreted it as if I liked French literature in general, and since then everybody asks me why. Moreover, even in the Olympic information system in Beijing it was written that I specially liked French literature! What to say, I like it, but it’s nothing special – it was just the book I was reading at the moment.”
For the question what is her source of inspiration Kaniskina has only one answer – her family. Her mother died when Kaniskina was 8 years old. Since then Kaniskina’s closest circle consists of her father, brother and grandmother. “Before my win in Beijing my brother sent me an SMS,” Kaniskina told. “I would not say what it was, but it was special. He never writes just banalities. He is a person who can find the words that will stay with me for long, something I would return to again and again.”
After the Beijing triumph Kaniskina naturally returned to Race Walking. In February she won the Russian Championships in Adler with the new un-official World record 1:24:56, which again was not ratified as there were no international judges at the competition. In spring 2009, she for the first time competed at two stages of the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, winning it in China and placing second at 10 km in Poland.
“What is your source of motivation, you’ve won already everything,” the media questioned Kaniskina at the press conference after her gold race at the World Championships in Berlin. She had done everything in the style we’ve got used to – made a gap after the first third of the distance, and then did not let anybody close it. After the finish her competitors fell down to the ground exhausted. Kaniskina was jumping with the Russian flag as if she could easily walk another 20km.
“I never think of motivation. It is just a natural goal for me to do my best every single day,” Kaniskina tried to explain. “My sister told me that she had seen in Mordovia how young girls make the same hairstyle as I have and call it “Kaniskina’s.” They try to copy not only my walking but also my looks! It is huge responsibility for me to be such an example for someone.”
At the 2010 European Championships, in Barcelona, Kaniskina was again the example for everyone. Her triumph was even more special because the Russian walkers took the entire podium – Anisya Kirdyapkina was second and Vera Sokolova third. “I could not even dream about such a result,” Kaniskina smiled. “It was especially important for me to win in Barcelona because I had never been the European champion before. But even now I don’t think I have done everything in sports. For example, the European Cup is still not in my collection…”
In the lead-up to the 2011 World Championships, Kaniskina did not wish to talk about her goals for Daegu, but all one needed was to look at her awards – and everything became clear even without words.
And indeed Kaniskina, who two years before had become the first woman to take back-to-back wins at the World Championships 20km, added a third straight title to her impressive collection.
“I love what I do, so I don’t need any additional reasons for going to the start,” Kaniskina declared after the race. “At the start line I am just like everyone else. I never think how many medals I have and how many competitions I’ve won. All my thoughts are about the next competition.
And rather than her competitors – none of whom seriously challenged Kaniskina, who stayed just ahead of the pack before surging implacably ahead in the last 5km – it was an invisible enemy that some dared think could topple her from her throne.
“After the competition I was told that everybody who had been shown on the covers of the daily programme, failed. I am on the cover of today’s programme, so don’t be superstitious and you can do everything,” Kaniskina proclaimed, before admitting, “Frankly speaking I didn’t know about it before the start. I’m grateful to everybody who knew about this trend at the World Championship, but didn’t tell me about it before the start.”
The Daegu title, together with her wins in Rio Maior and Sesto San Giovanni, also allowed Kaniskina to sweep first place in the 2011 IAAF Race Walking Challenge.
The triple World champion, unbeaten since February 2010, competed indoors in 2012, over 5000m at the Russian Winter meeting in February, but was forced to drop out, felling unwell.
She aimed to redress this setback at the World Race Walking Cup in her home town of Saransk, where was ready for her second World Cup win after Cheboksary 2008. However the expectations were ruined by the finish spurt of Kaniskina's younger teammate Yelena Lashmanova, who managed on the final kilometres to take the win from experienced Olga.
“I am not disappointed, everything is ok,” Kaniskina said after the competition. “Yelena had been training specially for the World Cup as this was her chance to qualify for the Olympics. I've already got my spot on the team. I am happy that it was the Russian victory and happy for my team mate. Concerning my preparation, everything is according to the plan. I will peak my shape in London.”
5 km: 20:38.2 (2005)
10 km: 41:42 (2009)
20 km: 1:24:56 (2009)
5/10/20km: 2005: 20:38.2/-/1:29:25; 2006: 20:42.01/43:12/1:26:02; 2007: -/44:33/1:26.47; 2008: -/-/1:25:11; 2009: -/41:42/1:24:56; 2010: -/43:03/1:27:44; 2011: -/-/1:28:35; 2012: -/-/1:28.33
2005 2nd Russian Championships (Saransk, 20km) 1:29:25
2005 2nd European Championships U23 (Erfurt, 20km) 1:33:33
2006 1st Russian Championships (Adler, 20km) 1:26.02
2006 5th World Race Walking Cup (La Coruña, 20km) 1:28:59
2006 1st Russian Championships (Saransk, 20km) 1:32:06
2006 2nd European Championships (Göteborg, 20km) 1:28:35
2007 3rd Russian Winter Championships (Adler, 20km) 1:29:02
2007 2nd European Race Walking Cup (Leamington, 20km) 1:28:13
2007 1st World Championships (Osaka, 20km) 1:30:09
2007 1st Race Walking Challenge Final (Saransk, 20km) 1:26:47
2008 1st Russian Winter Championships (Adler, 20km) 1:25:11
2008 1st World Cup (Cheboksary, 20km) 1:25.42
2008 1st Olympic Games (Beijing, 20km) 1:26.31
2009 1st Russian Winter Championships (Adler, 20km) 1:24:56
2009 1st Race Walking Challenge (Wuxi, 20km) 1:28.00
2009 2nd Race Walking Challenge (Krakow, 10km) 41.42
2009 1st World Championships (Berlin, 20km) 1:28:09
2010 4th Russian Winter Championships (Adler, 20km) 1:28:26
2010 1st European Championships (Barcelona, 20km) 1:27:44
2011 1st Race Walking Challenge (Rio Maior, 20km) 1:28.35
2011 1st Race Walking Challenge (Sesto San Giovanni, 20km) 1:29:32
2011 1st World Championships (Daegu, 20km) 1:29.42
2012 2nd World Cup (Saransk) 1:28.33
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. Copyright IAAF 2008-2012.