Going by his current competitive form, it promises to be a memorable year for Ukraine's European Cross Country champion Sergiy Lebid.
The Ukrainian, who has won his two races so far this year, is hoping to make the podium in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne in March, as well as later attempting to equal Paulo Guerra’s four victories in the Europeans, and in between he hopes to make an impression on the track in Paris at the World Championships this summer.
Yet perhaps the biggest day of his year will come at the end of April when he marries former middle-distance runner Yelena Gorodnichova.
If the rest of 2003 goes as well as his recent victories on the outskirts of Milan and in Belfast, then Lebid will be a happy man.
The 27-year-old has come a long way since he ran in the inaugural European Cross Country Championships in Alnwick (in the north east of England) in 1994 as a teenager, placing 79th. At the time he was Ukraine’s junior cross country champion, and he went on to place 33rd in the World juniors later that winter, but the ‘Europeans’ are where he has really made his name.
His country lies sixth on the all-time medal table for the event, with three golds, a silver and a bronze, and Lebid has won them all. So it is little wonder that the championship holds a special place in his heart, as he says: “I have not missed one. I have run it every year since it started in 1994 and I would like to go down in history as the athlete who wins it the most times.
“If I can defend my title in Edinburgh later this year I will equal Paulo Guerra’s four wins, but I want to keep winning it. I do not have a figure in mind, just to win the championship as many times as I can.
“Winning medals at major championships is important to me, and after two more races next month I will train hard in the Caucasian Mountains with the World Cross Country in Lausanne my focus. I train very hard, preparing myself for the finish of a race, which is why I have developed my strong kick. I work on it in training.”
Lebid’s next outing will be for his Italian club Cover Verbania in the European Clubs’ Cross Country in Spain on February 2 and then in the national clubs’ championships a week later. He won the European Clubs’ in 2001, a rare occasion when the Portuguese did not provide the winner. In the previous 11 years before his victory, Domingos Castro or Paulo Guerra had triumphed 10 times – the exception being a victory for Mohamed Mourhit, ironically the man who denied Lebid the world cross country title in Ostend two years ago.
Lebid ‘went Italian’ following his first European cross country success in 1998. He won his title there in Ferrara and later decided to link up with Italian manager Gianni Demadonna and join an Italian club. He now spends much of his time there, saying the Ukraine is far too cold to train during the winter, and he therefore spends just one month per year back home.
Looking back at his early sporting years in the Ukraine, he recalls: “I won a few schools’ competitions in 1987 and from there I was sent to a sports school in Dnepropeerovsk. But they only did football, basketball or jogging, there was no serious running at all so all I did was jog. I started training more seriously from 1992 and in ’93 I linked up with coach Lofizkiy who guided me for many years before he retired.
“It was 1997 before I really got into good shape, when I won my first medal (bronze) in the European Cross Country Championships, and things have gone well for me since.”
Lebid is recognised mainly for his cross country exploits, although he did finish seventh in the 5000m at the Sydney Olympics, and took the bronze at the European Championships in Munich last summer.
He also has several other track titles to his name. He won the 5000m at the national championships in 1995, ’96, ’99, 2000 and ’01, as well the World Student Games over the same distance in 1999, while he has also been Ukraine’s 1500m champion (in 1998) which perhaps explains where his exceptional finishing kick comes from. Opponents find that unless they have shaken off the powerfully-built, fearless Ukrainian before the closing stages, they usually have to settle for second place.
You sense with his great strength and ability to run away from rivals in the closing stages, that he could become a top marathon runner in the future. He admits: “I very much like running on the roads, and the track, not just cross country, although that is where my greatest successes have been.”
However, none of those successes have brought as big a smile to his face as the one he will wear when he marries his long-time fiancée in April. Lebid confirms: “Yelena used to be a 4:05 1500m runner but she no longer runs. She got injured … and now she is preparing for marriage. We are looking forward to it.”
Bob Frank for the IAAF
Lebid’s European Cross Country Championships record
1994 - 79th
1995 - 11th
1996 - 58th
1997 - 3rd
1998 - 1st
1999 - 7th
2000 - 2nd
2001 - 1st
2002 - 1st