For Russian hammer thrower Sofiya Palkina, 2015 has been a breakthrough year.
In February she improved the national youth record for a 3kg implement, sending her hammer flying to 71.68m. The five-metre improvement on her PB made her an early favourite for the gold medal at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015.
The latest in a long line of top Russian throwers, Palkina is familiar with the heroes of her event. “On YouTube I’ve watched the throws of Yuriy Sedykh, Olga Kuzenkova and Tatyana Lysenko,” said Palkina. “Of course I’ve tried to pick up some useful technical tips from watching them, but mainly I watch my own videos, because I think I have my own style and I want to keep it.”
Palkina currently owns the three best throws in the world this season with no other youth girl having surpassed the 70-metre barrier. Her improvement this year came as a natural progression following her increased training load.
After graduating from ninth grade of school in her home town of Tolyatti on the Volga River, Palkina entered the sports college. From October until the end of February, she was training twice a day at a camp in Sochi.
“It is much easier for me to study in the college,” said Palkina. “Here, every one of us does different sports. The teachers are used to this way of life with the students constantly being away on training camps. Also, my fellow students know how it feels to be an athlete. I have friends in college and we always cheer for each other.”
A career in sport is her long-term goal, but Palkina finds time for studies and other interests. “I am much better in exact sciences and I love mathematics,” she said. “I also like reading in my free time. My latest favourite book is a detective story by Agatha Christie.”
Coming from a non-sporting family, Palkina lives with her mother and her grandparents, and none of them have ever done sports at a serious level. Palkina started out as a runner until she was noticed at a school event by her present coach Vladimir Bykov.
“It was just so easy for me to run, and the coach asked me if I was interested in some field events,” said Palkina. “I was, and very soon I started throwing better than I could have ever expected. Since then, hammer throw has become my life.”
Though she sometimes misses the kind of regular childhood her friends may enjoy, Palkina still finds lots of benefits in focusing on a sporting career at a young age. Not many girls of her age can boast that they have already been to Kazakhstan, Germany and even Brazil.
“My first foreign trip happened two years ago, when I made the national team for the European Youth Olympic festival in Utrecht,” says Palkina. “Everything was just perfect, but it was so much like my image of the Olympic Games, and I felt so nervous to wear the national vest. I couldn't cope with my emotions and I performed badly and finished only fifth, which is my probably biggest disappointment up to now.”
Just a few months later, Palkina was more successful in Brasilia at the World Gymnasiade, the international multi-sport championships for school-age children, where she finished second.
“My main memory is how hot it was there, just incredibly hot! We tried to do some sightseeing after the competition, but very soon had to run back to our air-conditioned hotel. I also remember the longest flight in my life. But in the end of course I enjoyed the trip; it’s cool to see other countries and continents.”
Realistically, another trip to Brazil in 2016 for the Rio Olympic Games seems unlikely for Palkina, who turned 17 just a month ago. But she has already started throwing the senior 4kg implement and set a PB of 58.89m when winning the national junior title last year.
“I think I’m much stronger than last year, and my PB with a 4kg hammer would also be better,” said Palkina. “I'd love to try to improve it, but unfortunately right now there is no chance, we just couldn’t find the right competition to fit into my schedule. And I don't throw this hammer in training as I have to focus on my technique.”
Palkina will have plenty of time to work with the 4kg hammer before turning a senior in 2018. Her main focus for now, of course, involves another trip to the other side of the world where she hopes to cap a successful summer by taking gold in Cali.
Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF