At the start of her career, high jumper Anna Chicherova amassed a wide range of awards, but the most coveted gold medals eluded her. After taking time out to have her baby daughter, a brand new Chicherova emerged in the form of Nika, who unwittingly helped her mother win World and Olympic gold.
“I sat on the bench in the changing room, took off my spikes, and stretched out my legs to get a look at my swollen foot. When my coach came in, I said: ‘That’s it, Yevgeniy, I've had enough.’”
With this, Chicherova, who had just taken the silver medal at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, said her farewell to the world of track and field – at least for a year, but possibly forever.
“What are you going to do?” asked a somewhat taken aback Zagorulko.
“Well, first I’ll take maternity leave, and then I’ll see.”
“Maternity leave is a good choice...”
Unlike the media, Zagorulko had no need to press Chicherova further about her reasons for taking a break. Chicherova had been through so much leading up to her make-or-break year, 2009. It had been a constant cycle of pain, surgery, lengthy recovery, a new season when she’d always come second or third, and then more pain – with every step and every jump.
“If only someone could wave a wand and give me new legs, I'd fly through life,” she had said with a sad smile.
No fairy godmother came to the rescue, but the following autumn, with the arrival of little Nika, her life was to change like magic and become better than any fairy tale.
Anthem in a lift
The final months of Chicherova’s pregnancy fell in the summer of 2010, a time that most Moscow residents recall as being a nightmare. Extreme heat led to forest fires that smothered Moscow in an acrid smoke, burning the eyes and throat.
“I absolutely couldn’t eat in the heat – only fruit and light salads,” said Chicherova. “But thankfully, Nika was born a healthy, normal baby and I quickly regained my normal weight after the birth.”
After spending about six months in the maternal whirl, Chicherova slipped back easily into her athletics regime. Her return was so swift and straightforward that it occurred to her that, maybe if she’d had a baby earlier, she’d have had more medal success in the past.
“Partly I regretted not having Nika earlier,” said Chicherova. “But then I realised that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes opportunities only come to us when we are ready for them. So, in my case, I had to go through pain, injuries, and under-achievement in order to fully appreciate the joys of what life has brought now.”
This new, unknown, mind-blowing happiness that came with becoming a mother transformed Chicherova. Her whole persona changed and she became relaxed, smiling and natural. Not that she was ever surly but, after spring 2011, her jumping was no longer hard work; it was exhilarating and that was obvious to everyone.
In her first competition following her return, she jumped a world-leading 1.96m. She then went on to break the Russian record with 2.07m and win gold at the World Championships in Daegu, underlining her status as a contender to one day break the World record of 2.09m.
Within one summer Chicherova had achieved more than she ever had done before.
“Even though my Olympic gold is more important, my Daegu victory gave me the most amazing feeling in the world,” said Chicherova. “I wish everyone could experience that kind of euphoria once in their lifetime. It was as if, prior to this year, I was wearing blinkers. I was obsessed with my problems and shortcomings, but 2011 brought full harmony into my life.”
Within the space of two years, Chicherova won everything an athlete could dream of, becoming World and Olympic Champion. First came her victory over Croatian Blanka Vlasic at the 2011 World Championships, and a year later the Russian national anthem filled every corner of the Olympic Stadium in her honour.
After gold in Daegu 2011, Chicherova and her friend, javelin thrower Mariya Abakumova, had sung their national anthem at the top of their voices in their hotel lift – another sign of the new care-free Chicherova.
“Before my daughter was born, I was much too concerned about what other people would think about me,” said Chicherova. “Perhaps other people didn’t realise it, but I was not a very confident person. Once Nika was born, I became more courageous. It is as if I now have some sort of anchor inside of me. I still worry about little things, but my worries do not interfere with the inner freedom I feel in my soul.”
Anything but gold is a failure
Chicherova’s revolution was not only spiritual but also physical. In 2011, for the first time in many years, she had not suffered any pain or injuries. During pregnancy her body had had the chance to recover from the tough physical demands of training, and endless travel and competitions. She returned to the arena refreshed and eager to jump. She was like never before.
But by winter 2011-2012, the old problems started to haunt her again: back pain, ligament and tendon pain. With two months to go to the London Olympics, Chicherova was injured in training when weights accidentally fell off the bar and she put her back into spasm when jumping aside. The most important competition of her life was fast approaching and she was unable to train properly.
Once at the Olympic Village, she even considered withdrawing from the games altogether, as she lay crying with pain on a massage table. And perhaps, three years earlier, that is exactly what she would have done. But instead she gathered herself together, went out to the competition arena and won gold.
“At London 2012 I had decided that any medal but gold would be a loss for me,” says Chicherova. “I’d been dreaming about that gold all my life, and perhaps the 2012 Games would be my last chance. I was not interested in any other medals.”
Coach’s strict approach
Last autumn in Barcelona, legendary jumper Dick Fosbury was introduced to Chicherova at the IAAF Centenary celebrations. The American was thrilled to hear Chicherova’s story of her recovery after childbirth but disagreed with her on one crucial point.
“Anna, if I were your coach, I would never let you take your baby with you to competitions.”
Chicherova just laughed. Nika had already accompanied her to Portugal and Sochi. Even her uncompromising coach Zagorulko had got used to the constant presence of the tiny spectator.
Ten years ago, when Chicherova first met Yevgeniy Zagorulko, he had drafted a plan for her for a month of independent training. Chicherova still keeps this crumpled piece of paper in her notebook which contains mantras such as: “Anna, it’s all down to you,” and: “After 7.00pm, you can open your mouth only to talk, not to eat,” along with with her ideal weight, 55kg, circled in red at the bottom of the page.
Interestingly, this is more or less what she still weighs, and Zagorulko still drafts training schedules for his favourite student on old-fashioned graph paper, refusing to use a computer.
“During the years we’ve been together, I suppose the only thing that has changed is that I now have some say in things,” said Chicherova. “Before, I just did what I was told. But when Nika came along, Yevgeniy started treating me differently. There are some things that are physically impossible for me to do during training, so he trusts me and changes my training programme.
“However, we still maintain the same basic relationship dynamic,” she added. “He leads and I follow. It seems to be a winning formula.”
Natalia Maryanchik for SPIKES magazine
Supported by the IAAF and the Russian athletics federation, SPIKES has a Russian edition this year, with three issues coming out ahead of the IAAF World Championships in Moscow this August. You can follow SPIKES on Twitter – @spikesmag