Updated 19 February 2008
Yelena SLESARENKO, Russia (high jump)
Born: 28 February 1982, Volgograd; 1.79m, 54 kg.
Lives: Volgograd and Zhukovsky, Moscow region
Coach: Boris Gorkov
One of the most elegant of athletes, Yelena Slesarenko came into athletics on a platform of frustration as a dancer. From the ages of 3 to 12, she danced with no thought of a future in professional athletics but the course of her life changed when, having started choreography school a year earlier than most children, she was put on hold before being allowed to enter college.
“When I was told at the entrance commission that I was too young, and I had to wait a year to take the exams, right away I lost all the motivation in choreography,” Slesarenko recalled. At much the same time as she exited the stage door as a dancer, she entered as an athlete.
“My first coach, Marina Apanasenko, is a friend of my parents,” Slesarenko said, explaining the events that led to the switch. “We were living nearby, her daughter Lera is of the same age as me, and we are also friends. I used to come to training from time to time, and we were playing and just had fun there. But, after I gave up dancing, I said to Marina that I really wanted to start athletics seriously.”
In order to build a base for the future, to begin with Slesarenko took part in most disciplines. Results came quickly and she gained regional youth prizes in long jump, sprints, sprint hurdles and high jump. She remembers when she first realised the range of big high jumpers. “Once, even before I started athletics seriously, we were watching TV with my father,” she recalled. “There was Javier Sotomayor jumping and my father explained to me that the bar was set at a height much higher than the ceiling of our flat. This really impressed me.”
But the story of Slesarenko’s switch to high jump has another, more practical, angle. She was a tall and thin girl and soon it became evident to Apanasenko that she had potential in the high jump and that she needed to concentrate on it. However, that time, in the mid 1990s, was a hard period for Russia economically and many coaches had to leave their jobs to make their living.
Yet one leading Russian coach, Boris Gorkov, after trying business, made a decision to return to athletics in 1996 when Slesarenko was14. Apanasenko invited Gorkov to Slesarenko’s training and right away he took her to his new group. So Apanasenko transferred Slesarenko to Gorkov, who remains her personal coach up to now.
Slesarenko’s first success came in 1997 when she won the silver medal at the Russian Youth Championships in Vladimir. The gold went to Marina Kuptsova – the future silver medalist of the 2003 World Championships in Paris. “I have been competing with Kuptsova and Anna Chicherova from the junior tournaments and up to nowadays,” Slesarenko said. I’ve never been the World junior champion like Marina (in 1998) but I managed to win the Olympics later on (in 2004). I really feel like we are moving forward together, side by side, and motivating each other.”
Support from the people close to you is always important and especially at the very start of the career. Slesarenko was lucky in this sense: “I remember, also in 1997, I went to Lipetsk to the first regional tournament in my life,” she recalled. “I did not have anything of my own, so my friend gave me her spikes, the coach gave me a bag, and so on. But when I returned home with the victory my mother bought me all new equipment. It was so important for me as it not only helped in training but also gave me new motivation. My parents have always been very supportive. They were not professional athletes but they know a lot about sports.”
The ability to learn from the past is one of the obligatory features of every big athlete. Slesarenko has definitely learnt: “I remember myself and try to help young athletes in any way I can. For example, I pass the spikes I do not use any more to young girls. For them this is really important. I am happy if just a little bit can help someone to jump high.”
In 2002 Slesarenko went to her first European Indoor Championships, in Vienna, where she finished 5th (1.97m). In the summer of 2003, she was 3rd at the Universiade in Daegu (1.96m) but did not qualify for the World Championships, in Paris. “The 2003 outdoor season was very important for me,” Slesarenko reflected. “I was consistently jumping about 1.92m and it became my first Golden League season. Travelling all around Europe, competing with the best athletes at the event, was great experience for me. I was learning, looking around, and gaining in power. This laid the ground for my success in 2004.”
The 2004 Olympic season began for Slesarenko with her first 2.00m clearance. “I first jumped 2.00m at the Gubernator Cup in my home (city of) Volgograd. I was in such good shape, and felt so confident, that at the last training before the start I said to my coach: ‘Be sure, tomorrow I jump two metres.’ He doubted it but I did what I promised.”
Winning gold at the 2004 World Indoor Championships, in Budapest, with a PB of 2.04m, gave clear evidence that Slesarenko would be a hot favourite for the Olympics and her victory in Athens is the highest point of her career so far. She jumped all the eight heights, including the national record of 2.06m, on the first attempt and did not give a chance to her main opponent, Hestrie Cloete, from South Africa, the double world champion.
Slesarenko also made three attempts at the world record height of 2.10m but lack of concentration let her down. “Generally I think that, with the jump of about 2.05 - 2.06m, it is realistic to think about beating the world record,” she said. “But, back then in Athens, I was too happy after winning the gold to stay motivated. I am such an athlete that, for me, the Olympics are really the main competition. Everything in between is not so important. After Athens I can say that my main award is already with me, at home. This gives me huge confidence.”
The confidence gained in Athens was not accompanied by motivation and good health and, feeling exhausted, Slesarenko missed the 2005 indoor season. Neither was her return outdoors successful. She had to withdraw from the World Championships, in Helsinki, through injury the day before the start. She said: “My knee was slightly hurting for the whole season but, in Helsinki, at the warm-up, I tried to do hurdles and the pain got so strong that I had to withdraw. Helsinki 2005 is definitely one of the biggest disappointments in my career.”
Continuing training while injured, and favouring the other leg, led to a stress fracture and she missed the rest of 2005 season. Slesarenko’s comeback in 2006 was a triumph as she retained her title at the World Indoor Championships, in Moscow, with 2.02m. But that summer she managed only 1.99m for 5th at the European Championships, in Gothenburg.
The 2007 season proved a difficult one for Slesarenko. She jumped her best height for three years, won the first Golden League meeting in Oslo, but then ran into the start of Blanka Vlasic’s dominant period. Jumping a PB 2.07m, and being wonderfully consistent, the Croatian did not give her competitors a chance. “I try not to think too much about Blanka,” Slesarenko said. “I can only applaud her willpower and self sacrifice. “I notice, for example, that at the competitions she does not go out for dinner, trying to lose weight. I know it is very difficult to make yourself stay in the room when everybody around is going out. At home it is much easier than at the competitions where there are so many temptations Blanka was waiting for her moment of glory for long, and now she is here.”
The competiton between Slesarenko and Vlasic may look strange as the latter is 15cm taller than the former. Still it is not decisive as Slesarenko takes advantage in speed and perfect coordination. Slesarenko was only 4th at the World Championships in Osaka. “It was just bad luck,” she said. “I had a chance to jump 2.03m but did not realise it. It is sport, such things happen.”
When you see Slesarenko out of the sector alone this means her husband, Alexander, the doctor of the Russian athletics team, had serious reasons to stay at home. They try to be always together – Lena and Sasha as they are called in Russian - always supporting each other. “Alexander for me is the second coach, the doctor, the psychologist – everything,” she said.
“We even have a special system of gestures so he can give me advice at the stadium. Sometimes he makes a video of my jumps and we watch it together between the attempts and try to find the mistakes. Of course, my coach (Gorkov) does not need this but he has been a professional in high jumping for so long.”
After the Olympics Slesarenko started to live in two cities – her native Volgograd and Zhukovsky in the Moscow region. “In winter I usually train in Volgograd,” she said. “My parents, friends and relatives live there and I want to stay close to them. Moreover I live near the stadium and it’s very convenient. But in summer I prefer Zhukovsky as it is not far from the Moscow airports and I have to travel abroad very often.”
In Valencia, Slesarenko is trying to win her third World Indoor title in a row. Although her main goal for the year is of course the Olympics, a good result in Valencia, and especially the defeat of Vlasic, would give her huge confidence. “I notice that life is like a zebra – white stripes go in turn with black,” she said. “I can’t remember a single athlete in the women high jump who managed to stay in the best shape for at least two seasons in a row.
“Just remember – we had Hestrie Cloete, Kajsa Bergqvist, Tia Hellebaut, once each of them seemed undefeatable. There was time when even Lena Slesarenko was so strong that it seemed that this was never going to end. Especially it seemed to herself. Now we have the white stripe for Blanka. But I believe that another white stripe for me starts in Beijing.”
2000:1.88; 2001: 1.88; 2002: 1.97; 2003: 1.96; 2004: 2.06; 2005: 2.00; 2006: 2.00; 2007: 2.02; 2008: 2.02.
2002 5th European Indoor Championships (Vienna) 1.90
2003 3rd Universiade (Daegu) 1.94
2004 2nd European Indoor Cup (Leipzig) 1.96
2004 1st World Indoor Championships (Budapest) 2.04
2004 1st European Cup (Bydgoszcz) 2.04
2004 1st Olympic Games (Athens) 2.06
2004 1st World Athletics Final (Monaco) 2.01
2006 1st World Indoor Championships (Moscow) 2.02
2006 5th European Championships (Gothenburg) 1.99
2006 1st World Cup (Athens) 1.97
2007 4th World Championships (Osaka) 2.00
2007 4th World Athletics Final (Stuttgart) 1.94
2008 1st Russian Indoor Championships (Moscow) 2.01
2008 1st Brnenska Latka Valosun (Brno) 2.02
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008.