When the world’s top 1500m runners assemble at the start line, it’s difficult to confuse Tatyana Tomashova with the others. With her long ponytail - the longest in the sport? - dangling to her waist, the 30-year-old Russian clearly stands out. But Tomashova has stood out for another reason since making a permanent switch to the metric mile: with back-to-back World Championships and an Olympic silver medal to her credit, she has surged, much like her long sustained finishing kick, to the pinnacle of her event.
Gradually ‘finding’ her distance
While she was a competitive middle and long distance runner for some time, it was only over the past three seasons that she finally found what would become her trademark distance.
It was the 3000m that suited her best - she was the Grand Prix winner in 2001 and runner-up in 2002 over the distance - but after the discipline was eliminated from major international competitions, Tomashova decided to move up to the 5000. But the longer distance didn’t bring her much luck. She could run the race well during one day competitions - she has a personal best of 14.39.22 - but she was having a difficult time running the 12 ½ lap races at multi-day events. Tired after the rounds, Tomashova simply didn’t have enough time to recuperate for the final and the results showed. At the 2000 Olmpics in Sydney she was a distant 13th; the following year at the World Championships in Edmonton, she was 10th.
This left Tomashova and her coach Sergei Popov seeking an answer to a reasonable question: “What should we do next?”
As often happens, the answer was prompted by life. For four consecutive years Tomashova competed in The Kremlin Mile, an event that also served as the Russian National Championships. Winning each time, these victories led to her permanent switch to the 1500m. The shorter distance allowed Tomashova to recuperate more quickly in multi-round competitions, and her success came just as quickly. As early as 2002 she succeeded in winning medals at all major international events that year - bronze at the European Championships and the European Cup, and silver at the World Cup in Madrid.
‘Surprise’ World title in Paris-St. Denis
The following year in Paris St. Denis, she produced a tactically brilliant performance to capture her unexpected World title. Running comfortably over the first two laps, she began her surge with 600 metres to go en route to her 3:58.52 victory, a personal best and her first sub-four minute race.
But she couldn’t duplicate that run in Athens the following year. In the final at Olympic Stadium, she improved to 3:58.12 but a tactical error - waiting a little too long to unleash her kick - cost her the gold, and she had to settle for silver behind Briton Kelly Holmes. With that experience still fresh in her mind in Helsinki last August, she didn’t make the same mistake twice, and successfully defended her global title, winning in 4:00.35, more than a second clear of runner-up Olga Yegorova.
Tomashova is now a Queen of sorts among middle distance runners, if still relatively unheralded. She has won medals in major competitions in each of the past four seasons, capped by her two World titles. The silver medal from Athens was a response of a kind to detractors who saw her earlier successes as a fluke.
Was she sure that she’d win in Helsinki?
“I never permit myself to even to think about the medals I can win in future,” she said. “Maybe somebody would say that that is superstitious but I do not think about my victory before the start. I’m trying to concentrate myself on the tough struggle that will be for sure in store for me. In Paris in 2003 I was really happy. And though I never admit it in public I would be as happy as I was in the Stade de France for gaining future victories at the same top level.”
Tomashova celebrated her 30th birthday six weeks before her Helsinki win. Will her success continue, or will Helsinki be the peak of her nearly two decade long athletics career?
“I don’t want to look forward too much,” she said. “Though there is always the unforgettable example of Ekaterina Podkopaeva who gained her victory at 1500m at the indoor World Championships at the age of 44. Now I do feel quite happy with my success in the World Championships and that I am well known among athletics fans all over the world. But for the moment I’m not going to live with these nice memories. I’ll be running up to the moment I’ll still be able to clock excellent results and win at top level tournaments and to defeat strong opponents.
“I’d like to take part at the 2008 Olympics,” she continued. “That may turn out to be my third Olympic Games. At least I’ll do my utmost in order that this dream will come true. And let it be in Beijing like it should be. Let’s live and see. But I will always continue runing to win.”
Nickolai Dolgoplov and Rostislav Orlov for the IAAF