Denis Kudryavtsev is the leader of a group of young and ambitious group of athletes that has awakened interest in the 400m hurdles in Russia after a long hiatus.
However, at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 the 23-year-old succeeded much more than expected, winning the first ever world championships medal in this event for his country, a silver, and in a national record.
His story can be traced back to the last time there was a global athletics competition in the Bird’s Nest stadium.
In 2008, 16-year-old Kudryavtsev, who had just started doing athletics, was glued to his TV screen, watching Russia’s 4x400m team win the bronze medals at the Olympic Games.
The young hurdler obviously couldn’t even imagine that seven years later he would receive a standing ovation at that very stadium.
Turn the clock forward and his first world championships appearance took place in Moscow two years ago, and it wasn’t even planned.
The athlete was focusing mainly on age-group action, namely the European U23 Championships in the Finish city of Tampere.
However, coming into that competition as one of the favourites with a season’s best of 50.12, he fell ill after the first round and didn’t make the final. Just one week later, he bounced back in a spectacular fashion, winning the national title in 49.40.
“I was going to wrap my season up after the nationals and didn’t even think of running that fast but, the next thing I know, I’ve achieved the world championships standard and was set to represent the team,” he recalled.
In Moscow, he didn’t advance past the heats, but he acquired his first experience of competing against one of the athletes he had been admired for years. The lane draw put him in a heat with the two-time Olympic champion Felix Sanchez, and that race was a good indicator of Kudryavtsev’s weaknesses and a starting point for further improvement.
“I had to improve my finish. This is still the part of the race that I need to work on,” Kudryavtsev admitted. “A strong finish in the hurdles is an art. It takes a very long time to master it.”
At the European Championships in Zurich last summer, Kudryavtsev started to get the brush strokes of his art in the right places.
He made a move with 120 metres to go, changed gears and got the bronze, his first international medal.
He was happy with this effort and especially beating Serbia’s 2013 world championships medallist from Emir Bekric.
For days, the Russian has been studying videotapes of his contemporary to come up with the right strategy.
Coming into Beijing, he had another rival in mind, the USA’s 2015 world leader and former world champion Bershawn Jackson.
But, next thing Kudryavtsev knew, it was him in the spotlight, while Jackson went out in the heats.
The Russian set a personal best of 48.51 in the first round, and further improved it to 48.23 in the semi-final, the fastest time of day
“However, I spent too much power in the semi-final, trying to win and get a fast time,” he reflected.
Rolling a six
“I was hoping to get the lane four for the final, but somehow I still ended up in lane six. Not ideal for me, but perhaps even worse for my rivals, having me there, ahead of them.”
As you can tell, Kudryavtsev quite enjoys being the one to beat.
“Mentally, for me it’s easier to be the leader. Knowing, that I’m better and the rivals are afraid of me,” he added, with a laugh.
The Russian brought this attitude to the final, going out hard to an early lead.
He was flawless over the hurdles, maintaining a perfect rhythm. Kudryavtsev later recalled that he ran the first seven hurdles on autopilot, only being conscious of when it was time to switch from 13 to 14 steps between the barriers.
Unfortunately, there was actually someone who had more power at the finish, Kenya’s Nicholas Bett who powered off the final hurdle to win in a world-leading 47.79.
However, there was no hint of disappointment in Kudryavtsev’s voice after the race.
He not only won the silver medal but also broke the long-standing 17-year-old Russian record by 0.01, clocking 48.05.
“We made a point to race at Diamond League meetings and at the European Championships (in 2014), so that I would have competed against all my biggest rivals before the worlds,” explained the athlete. “It helped me to be mentally ready for any race scenario thrown in by any athlete in the field, and to be able to react properly.”
Another reason for his success is his relentlessness in training.
“When something wasn’t going quite well, I was thinking: ‘Let me just do it again, because my rivals would have definitely gotten in right.’ So I would do it over and over again,” he smiled.
“My coach tried to stop me, but would then had to give in and say: “Well done, that’s the willpower!”
As Kudryavtsev accomplished far more than he realistically expected in Beijing, although an injury while warming up for the 4x400m brought a slightly premature end to his season, what will now keep pushing him forward?
“This medal will make me even more fearless, I know that now I can achieve more,” he said. “For me, motivation is born in training. It’s about fighting against your tiredness, shoving the ‘I don’t want to do this’ thoughts as far as possible and pressing on.”
Elena Dyachkova for the IAAF