Created 22 July 2012
Tatyana FIROVA, Russia (400 m)
Born: 10 October 1982, Sarov, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast
Lives: Moscow region
1.74 / 59 kg
Coach: Sergey Popov
“She is one of the best team fighters I’ve ever met,” Russian head coach Valentin Maslakov once said about Firova. Her medal collection proves Maslakov was right. Firova won two Olympic silvers, World and European Championships gold – actually everything one can dream of, apart from the Olympic gold medal. But all this was achieved in the relay. And for Firova this does make a difference.
“To be honest, it was painful to think that I could do something only as part of the team,” Firova says. “Every athlete wants to be the best, to be the star individually. I had a mixed feeling after each of my relay medals. From the one side, I really love running relays, and usually do my best races there. But from the other, I doubted: will it some time happen when I will stay on the podium just by myself?”
The career of Russia’s best relay runner started in the small town of Sarov, in central part of the country. The place is famous mainly because of its school of cross country skiing. “Naturally I also tried to ski,” Firova recalls. “But I didn’t like it. I felt cold and my legs and arms were frozen. I thought that I would never agree to go to ski again.”
Searching for some warmer place to spend her time, Firova joined the local swimming club. For four years, from 7 to 11 years old, Tatyana was training here. Till the time when she met her first athletics coach – Marina Mochkayeva.
“She was a young coach, and it was her first ever group.” Firova says. “Maybe that’s why she really gave us her soul. I was one of the best there, and naturally liked it. Soon I gave up swimming and concentrated on running middle distances.”
Firova’s early results suggested she could become a solid athlete. She won the European Juniors in 2001, then was third at the European U23 Championships 2003, and a year later became a national champion in her age group. This was already under Tatyana’s new coach – Alexander Abramov, whom she joined at 17. Mochkayeva still lacked experience to coach a professional athlete.
“I am very grateful to my coaches and especially to my parents, who did not make me choose between studies and professional sports,” Firova says. “I had good marks at school, and specially liked physics and mathematics. I think it’s typical for our family, as my elder sister became an economist. But unlike her, I saw my future in athletics. And my parents did not insist on a different career for me, although maybe they wanted to. All of the girls I had trained with gave up sports at 17, when they entered different universities. I was the only one who stayed in athletics.”
Firova also entered the local university, but a year later had to leave it. While she was away for the European Juniors 2001, she missed an important exam. And when Tatyana came back home, she discovered she was no longer a student.
“I can admit it: at the moment sports seemed much more important for me than anything else,” Firova comments. “I have always been emotional, so I just screamed: ‘How could you fire me if I have just won the European Championships?!’ It was a matter of principle for me to never come back there. I took back my papers and later entered another university, in Moscow, which I successfully finished.”
In 2004 Firova made big progress, as she lowered her PB to 50.44, finished 4th at the national championships and at just 21 qualified to her first Olympic Games, in Athens, with the relay. Theoretically Firova deserved to run in the final. But after her solid performance in the semis, Russian coaches still preferred in the final round to replace Firova with the more experienced Natalya Nazarova.
“It is coaches’ decision and I don’t want to discuss it,” Firova says. “I liked it a lot in Athens, especially because there were lots of Russian-speaking people on the stands. They cheered for me so loudly in the semis that I did not even feel very nervous. It hurt, yes, I’m not gonna lie, when the girls went to the victory ceremony, and I received my medal some time after, without any ceremony at all. My medal looks the same as theirs – but for me it’s not the same.”
The next two years, Firova again had to put up with running only in the heat of the national relay. On paper, in these two years she became the European and the World champion. But her emotion did not much differ from the one in Athens. In 2007 Firova, for the very first time in her senior career, did not qualify for any championships at all.
“I was thinking to quit,” Firova recalls the times after she finished 6th at the national trials 2007. “I did not see any perspective why I should stay. I felt I had the potential, but I had really no idea how to fulfill it. I had a complicated relationship with my coach, and it took us more than a year to finally split. But at the moment when I almost decided to stop running altogether, I thought: ‘What am I gonna do in life? What can give me as strong emotions as sports did?’ And I did not find the answer. That’s why I am still on the track.”
Five months before the Beijing Games, Firova decided to change her coach. She joined the group of Sergey Popov (who worked for years with the former 1500m World champion Tatyana Tomasheva) and moved to the Moscow region. Tatyana got a flat, located close to the stadium, from the local government.
“It was the time when adrenaline was boiling inside me,” Firova smiles. “New coach, completely new training methods, moving from one town to another, and also I had to finish my University studies. It was hard, but so very interesting that now I even miss that period.”
Firova’s new coach, Sergey Popov, specialised on middle distance training. But Tatyana was so eager to work with him that she even agreed to switch to 800m. “Mentally I was ready for that,” Tatyana admits. “But after the first few training sessions, the coach said: ‘No, Tanya, maybe later. But now you haven’t done on 400 m everything you can.’”
Inspired by her life changes, Firova was 3rd at the national trials and qualified for Beijing in the individual race and also in the relay final. There Firova won her second Olympic silver medal – but it felt very different from Athens 2004.
“For my future, running in the individual Olympic final was even more important than the Olympic medal in the relay,” Firova said. “The 6th place made me believe I had the potential. And then, when I was standing on the podium after the relay, I finally got the feeling I missed back in Athens. It was satisfaction. The feeling that all my hard work was not in vain.”
The true satisfaction came to Firova one year and a half later, in early spring 2010. At the World Indoors, in Doha, Tatyana won individual silver, behind American Debbie Dunn. Unbelievable that it took Firova almost 7 years since her success at the European U23 Championships to win another individual medal on the international level.
“It felt as if I had been constantly knocking at the door for years, but it was closed. And then I suddenly noticed that there was another entrance. It was open, and so easy to find, but somehow I never saw it before. I was crying. I realised that for someone it could be “just another silver from the World Indoors” – but for me it meant everything,” Firova recalls.
This silver also broke the stereotype that Firova was only an outdoor runner. Coach Popov managed to adjust Tatyana’s style for indoor halls. “I lack speed on the first 200 m. Outdoors it is bad, but not critical, as my second part of the race is much stronger. But indoors, if you are not among the leaders after the first lap, it is almost impossible to win. Actually that’s why I lost to Debbie Dunn. I even had some power left after the finish, but it was too late,” Firova said.
In Doha, only part of Firova’s dream came true. In summer 2010, in Barcelona, her triumph was complete. Tatyana became European champion both individually and in the relay, and also for the first time in her long career managed to run under 50 seconds, setting her 49.89 PB.
“If I had won with some 50.01 – it would be totally different,” Firova smiled. “For every 400m runner, the sub-50 result is a dream. I was ready to run like that long time ago, but I think I lacked self confidence to perform what I can. I lost before the start mentally, looking at other girls and thinking that I am worse than they are. I even started to copy different techniques and lost my own style. My coach was very much disappointed about that, he said: ‘Tanya, you are one of the very few international athletes who can run 400m based on technique and not physical power. It is sinful to forget this and run just like everybody does.’ I have long strides, I use kinematics of the race. That is why I can save power for the finish, and my second half is usually better than the first one. But it took me more than a year to find back my own style.”
What is also interesting about Firova is that her life is not only about sports. For several years Tatyana has been taking English lessons. And in Barcelona, before her individual final, she decided to read a book. “It was by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and I first thought it must be something warm and positive like ‘The Little Prince.’ But the book ‘The Wisdom of the Sands’ turned out to be extremely serious. It was really funny back in Barcelona: time to go to the warm-up, and I can’t stop thinking about what we are living for. I think this book helped me a lot: it occupied my mind, and there was no time to get nervous,” Firova recalls.
After the black stripe in 2011, when Tatyana did not qualify to the World Championships in Daegu, in 2012 at the national trials Firova set her new PB, 49.72 and finished 3rd. This means in London 2012 she will run both the individual distance and, if nothing extraordinary happens, the relay final. For Firova it does make a difference.
2000: 53.69; 2001: 52.94; 2002: 53.72; 2003: 51.43; 2004: 50.44; 2005: 50.41; 2006: 50.08; 2007: 50.98; 2008: 50.11; 2009: 50.59; 2010: 49.89; 2011: 50.84; 2012: 49.72.
2001 1st (400) European Junior Championships (Grosseto) 52.94
2003 1st (400) Russian U23 Championships (Cheboksary) 51.68
2003 3rd (400) European U23 Championships (Bydgoszcz) 52.14
2003 1st (400) Universiade (Daegu) 51.81
2003 1st (4x400) Universiade (Daegu) 3:31.63
2004 1st (400) Russian U23 Championships (Tula) 51.30
2004 (4x400, heat) Olympic Games (Athens) RUS won silver without her) 3:23.52
2005 (4x400, heat) World Championships (Helsinki) (RUS won gold without her) 3:20.32
2006 (4x400, heat) European Champs (Göteborg) (RUS won gold without her) 3:25.86
2008 3rd (400) Russian Championships (Kazan) 50.25
2008 6th (400) Olympic Games (Beijing) 50.11
2008 2nd (4x400) Olympic Games (Beijing) 3:18.82
2008 7th (400) World Athletics Final (Stuttgart) 51.85
2009 3rd (4x400) World Championships (Berlin) 3:21.64
2010 2nd (400) World Indoor Championships (Doha) 51.13
2010 2nd (4x400) World Indoor Championships (Doha) 3:27.44
2010 3rd (400) Russian Championships (Saransk) 50.88
2010 1st (400) European Championships (Barcelona) 49.89
2010 1st (4x400) European Championships (Barcelona) 3:21.26
2010 3rd (400) Continental Cup (Split) 50.45
2010 2nd (4x400) Continental Cup (Split) 3:26.58
2011 1st (4x400) European Team Championships (Stockholm) 3:27.17
2012 3rd (400) Russian Championships (Cheboksary) 49.72
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. Copyright IAAF 2012.