Russia’s Vera Sokolova with her La Coruña trophy (Getty Images) © Copyright
Vera SOKOLOVA, Russia (20 km Race Walk)
Born: 8 June 1987, Solianoy village, Chuvashia
Lives: Saransk, Mordovia
Height: 1.51m, weight: 42kg
Coaches: Viktor Chegin, Anatoliy Nikolaev
Vera Sokolova’s bio could be quite standard for a Russian walker from the group of the legendary coach Viktor Chegin: several youth and junior titles, steady progress, and finally the big day – qualification to her first senior World Championships in 2009, in Berlin. But there is one detail that makes Sokolova a unique athlete for Russian race walking. Born in Chuvashia republic and coached by Anatoliy Nikolaev and his wife, 1996 Olympic champion Elena Nikolaeva, 1.5 years ago Sokolova moved to Mordovia to join Chegin’s group. It’s worth noting that Chuvashia and Mordovia dominate the event in Russia and are fierce rivals. Moving from one republic to the other was considered unthinkable. Moreover, Viktor Chegin for many years before had never agreed take in his group a senior athlete from another region than Mordovia.
Sokolova first tried race walking in the primary school in her home village, Solianoy, in Chuvashia. “There are only about 65-70 houses in my native village”, Sokolova recalls. After several years of light training she competed at the republic championships in Cheboksary. There Sokolova was noticed by coach Nikolay Rodionov, who invited the talented girl to join his group. At the age of 14, Vera had to leave home and start her serious career in sports.
“First it was very difficult for me”, Sokolova sighs. “At the age when most girls are just having fun, I had to become adult and take care of myself. I was never used to serious training. Moreover, I had to combine it with studies in a new school and new life in a new city. I missed my parents a lot, but there was no time to go to visit them. My village is 60 km away from Cheboksary – too far to go if you need to train several times a day and study. During the first few months I was seriously thinking to give up and return back home. Some of my new acquaintances really did it. But then my mother said: “You should be patient and strong. If this is your goal, try to achieve it”.
It did not take long for Sokolova to realise that her goals were realistic. Already in 2002 she qualified for her first World Junior Championships in Kingston (Jamaica). For a girl from a small village it was also the first ever trip abroad. “This was fantastic!” Sokolova smiles. “I remember I was the youngest in the team, so funny. I even needed a signed document from my parents to leave the country, as by Russian law you can not travel alone if you are below 18. In Jamaica I once went to a beach. I was the only white person there, looked like an alien! In the end there were plenty of impressions, and I was satisfied with the result. 9th place for the beginning was all right”.
After Kingston, Sokolova’s career continued to develop. In 2003, she won the World Youth Championships, the following year came third at the World Juniors. The European Junior title in 2005 and victory in the Junior races at the World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg 2004 and La Coruna in 2006 proved she was getting stronger. It therefore seemed even more strange when, after 2006, Sokolova disappeared from the international circle. Those three years away from the major events meets could easily have been the end of her sports career.
“In 2003, my first coach Nikolay Rodionov went to work in Turkey”, Sokolova recalls. “I stayed in Cheboksary and started working with Anatoliy Nikolaev, the husband and coach of Olympic champion Elena Nikolaeva. It was great in the beginning, and even now I call Elena my “second mother”. She has done really a lot for me, not only in sports but also in my personal life. But when in 2006 Nikolaev was appointed the Sports minister of Chuvashia, he could no longer go to the training camps with me. And Elena could not leave her husband for so long either”.
When at that time Rodionov returned from Turkey it seemed to be relief for Sokolova. Training alone in Race Walk at just 20 years of age could not even theoretically bring any results. But even with Rodionov, Sokolova did not have much luck. “I don’t want to comment on this because he is my first coach and I will always be grateful”, Vera underlined. “But at the beginning of 2008 I was left without a team and a coach. To be honest I already gave up and thought it was my end in sports”.
Sokolova eventually returned to her home village Solianoy. For 8 months she was enjoying life with her parents and friends, and without exhausting training sessions. But then her angel Elena Nikolaeva interfered again. “She saw I was pining without sports”, Vera smiles. “And then Elena asked Viktor Chegin to take me to his group. Without her, it would be extremely hard to get there. But Chegin looked at my walking, and said “yes”. This was another new life for me”.
At the end of 2008 Sokolova moved to Chegin’s training centre in Saransk, Mordovia, and started to represent both Mordovia and Chuvashia at the national meets. Another unthinkable thing, considering the rivalry between the two republics.
Training with Chegin cannot be easy for any athlete, but for Sokolova after an 8-months break it was extremely hard. 10 kilos of extra weight caused knee problems. “I was so much ashamed – just arrived to the group, and already needing medical treatment!” Sokolova says. “I lost about 5 kilos already in the first 1.5 months before the New Year 2009. The remaining 5 also went away very fast. Chegin said he regretted he did not take a photo of me when I first arrived. Compared to how I look now, it would be huge contrast!”
Step by step Sokolova was earning her place in the sun. Already in summer 2009, after less than a year with Chegin, she qualified for her first senior World Championships in Berlin. 14th place was maybe not what she expected, but more than good for an athlete who a year before was about to finish her career. “I know I can do better”, Sokolova says. “But for the first year with Chegin it was good enough. Everything is going on according to plan”.
In 2010 Sokolova was second at the national winter championships and proved to be one of the team leaders. The World Cup in Mexico is going to be the first chance for her to shine on the international senior stage, in absence of the Olympic champion Olga Kaniskina. “We are training together, and I admit that even in training Olga’s pace is faster than mine”, Vera says. “But with everybody else, like Anisya Kirdyapkina for example, I can fight. It is going to be very difficult in Mexico because of the heat and altitude. But I know my goals and promise to do my best not to let them go”.
Another peculiar thing about Sokolova is her small height for race walking – only 1.51 m. “Back in school it was like a hang-up for me”, Vera smiles. “I always had to stand last in the line-up at P.E. lessons, always the smallest in the class! But now I am ok with it. After all, I’ve proved the small height does not stop me from walking fast!”
10,000m Race Walk: 43:11.34 WJR (2005)
10km Race Walk: 42:12 (2009)
20km Race Walk: 1:25:26 (2009)
10/20 km: 2005: 44:09/-; 2006: 43:49/-; 2007: -/1:32:56; 2008: -/1:30:11; 2009: 42:12/1:25:26; 2010: -/1:25:35.
2002 1st (10,000m) Russian Junior Championships (Cheboksary) 46:19.9h
2002 9th (10,000m) World Junior Championships (Kingston) 47:59.14
2003 1st (5000m) World Youth Championships (Sherbrooke) 22:50.23
2003 2nd (10km) European Junior Cup (Cheboksary) 47:02
2004 1st (10km) Russian Junior Winter Championships (Adler) 44:04
2004 3rd (10,000m) World Junior Championships (Grosseto) 46:53.02
2004 1st (10km) World Race Walking Cup Junior race (Naumburg) 45:29
2005 1st (10,000m) European Junior Championships (Kaunas) 43:11.34
2006 3rd (10km) Russian Winter Junior Championships (Adler) 43:49
2006 4th (10,000m) World Junior Championships (Beijing) 46:58.21
2006 1st (10km) World Race Walking Cup Junior (La Coruña) 44:49
2009 10th (20km) European Cup (Metz) 1:36:43
2009 1st (20km) Russian Championships (Cheboksary) 1:27:33
2009 14th (20km) World Championships (Berlin) 1:34:55
2009 2nd (10km) Race Walking Challenge Final (Saransk) 42:12
2010 2nd (20km) Russian Winter Championships (Adler) 1:25:35
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project. Copyright IAAF 2010.