31 August 2011Daegu, Korea - Russia has a proud middle distance tradition for women, especially in the 800 metres, and newly crowned World Steeplechase champion Yulia Zaripova had hoped to join it.
As a junior and running under her maiden name Yuliya Zarudneva, Zaripova put her efforts into competing in the 800m. In 2005, at the age of 19, she managed to get her personal best time down to a credible 2:05.44. While that was good enough to take third in the Russian Junior Championships, Zaripova sensed that she was never going to achieve greatness in the two-lap race. Discouraged, she essentially left the sport, and didn't compete for the next two years.
But in September, 2008, at the urging of her coach, Mikhail Kuznetsov, she tried the steeplechase. Her first result wasn't spectacular (10:12.52), but it was a start.
"I was running 800 metres and middle distances," Zaripova recalled after her victory last night in 9:07.03, a 2011 World leader and the fourth fastest time ever in history. "After 2008, I came back to my coach Mikhail Kuznetzov and he proposed to me to change to the steeplechase. The main reason behind it was that I could stay a national team member. That was due to the steeplechase."
But Kuznetsov, who also coaches Tatyana Petrova, the 2006 European Championships and 2007 IAAF World Championships and silver medallist, saw Zaripova's potential. He shifted her training and racing program to emphasize more endurance events, like cross country (she was third in the U23 division of the 2008 European Championships); and 2000 to 5000 metre track races. To keep her speed, she also ran a 1500-meter race here and there.
By 2009, Kuznetsov's programme was bearing fruit. Zaripova had greatly improved her endurance, but she was also getting a lot faster, developing the speed and power necessary to compete well in the steeplechase. She won the 2009 Russian Indoor Championships at 3000 metres in a personal best 8:54.50, and finished seventh at the European Indoor Championships at 3000 metres.
But it was at the Russian Team Championships in Sochi in May, 2009, where Zaripova had her coming out party. She won the 3000m Steeplechase in a world class 9:34.47, beating her next-closest rival by 48 seconds. Just two weeks later, she improved to a then World leading 9:23.23, and two weeks after that at the Russian Championships in Cheboksary, she ran an eye-popping 9:13.18 to win the national title. That set her up for the IAAF World Championships in August, 2009, where she won the silver medal and ran a spectacular 9:08.39. She was now a steeplechaser.
"Of course, I like it and it is very interesting for me: the barriers, the water barrier, and everything that is around," Zaripova said last night. "So now, I like it and it is my event."
The rest is history. Zaripova won the both the European and Continental Cup titles last year as a prelude to her victory last night. She, husband Ildar and coach Kuznetsov celebrated in the athlete's village last night, and the celebration continued at the Nike hospitality suite this morning. There, after playing table tennis with last night's 800m bronze medallist Yuriy Borzakovskiy, she was presented with a bottle of Dom Pérignon in a Nike shoe box.
But soon Zaripova will be back to training. She said that she cannot let her success affect either her work ethic as an athlete, or how she is as a person.
"It's the plan to work towards the Olympic Games, step by step with my victories," she said. "And, of course, I think I am still the same person I was before. Nothing major changed."
David Monti for the IAAF