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A change of discipline at the age of 27 has finally paid off in the form of a gold medal at what was supposed to be her last major championship race. Natalya Antyukh has won plenty of medals durign her career, but nothing as big as this one.
On Wednesday evening the Russian became the Olympic champion in the 400 m Hurdles in London. She may now be tempted to continue for at least one more year with the next World Championships set to be staged on home soil in Moscow in 2013.
With the eighth fastest time ever and a World lead for 2012 Antyukh won the final, clocking 52.70 seconds. “This has been very special. I can not find words to describe it, I still can not believe that I have won,” the 31-year-old said.
Originally Antyukh was a 400m runner. And at a relatively young age she had already been successful. When she was 20 she won the 400m at the European Indoor Championships in 2002. Two years later she competed at the Olympics for the first time.
In Athens 2004 she took a bronze medal in her event and won an additional silver with the Russian 4x400m relay. It was that year when she clocked her personal best of 49.85 seconds.
“Taking third in my first Olympics was superb at that time since I was just 23 years old,” she says. But there was not much progress in the coming years and after she had missed qualifying for the Russian Olympic team in 2008 she thought about a change.
“I thought about going back to the roots. Because when I was a junior athlete I was running the hurdles as well. Of course it was quite a risk and it was a very difficult decision to make. But my coach gave me a lot of support during this transition time. For her it was an experiment as well,” recalls Antyukh, who is coached by Yekaterina Kulikova.
In her first year as a hurdler she made the Russian World Championships team, reached the final in Berlin and placed sixth. One year later she won what was still her biggest gold medal, taking the European title in Barcelona.
After that she started thinking about the Olympic Games. “I did not expect that I could become the Olympic champion. But I thought about a medal.” A year later she was on the podium again, collecting a bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu.
This season did not start too well. “I had a health problem. But then I recovered and worked very hard,” says Antyukh, who praised her coaching team and especially Kulikova. “It is now ten years that we work together. Today before the final she just said to me: ‘God is with you my girl’. Afterwards she said nothing, she only cried.”
After she had crossed the line she was not sure if she had won and waited for the result on the scoreboard. She had lost her rhythm before the last hurdle and Lashinda Demus was able to close the gap quite a bit. “The last hurdle was very difficult. And I felt that one of my opponents came close on my right side. So I had no idea if I had won or not after crossing the line.”
Antyukh improved her personal best by 0.22 seconds in London and she now is relatively close to the World record of fellow Russian Yuliya Pechonkina (52.34). “To have run a personal best here is amazing, but I did not think about the World record,” said Antyukh, who turned down requests for international TV interviews, “because I do not want to have that much attention.”
Asked about her limits and a possible World record attempt she explained: “I do not know where my limit is. I still have some problems regarding my technique. I am not sure if my next race will be faster or slower. Each competition is different.”
But the first major question will now be if she will continue her career. “Originally I had decided to quit after the Olympic Games. But after this I will think about it again and will discuss it with my coach.”
Regarding the Olympics London will most probably be her last Games. “I want to live a different life in future, because I want to have a family with children.”
However there may well be another race for her to come in London. There is no decision yet, but Russian officials could well opt to field her in the 4x400m relay.