European High Jump champion Alexander Shustov (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News

European title in hand, Shustov now looking towards global stage

Reigning European and national champion Aleksandr Shustov is one of half a dozen Russian high jumpers who make up the bulk of the world’s best. In 2010, the 26-year-old not only won the biggest title available to him, but signaled that he’s on the verge of moving up that ladder even higher.

In 2010, Shustov improved his career bests to 2.32m indoors and 2.33m outdoors, and last week picked up right where he left off by equaling his indoor PB in his 2011 debut in Yekaterinburg. He followed with a 2.27m leap to win in Chelyabinsk last Sunday (9) an is planning a full slate of indoor competitions leading up to the Russian indoor championships where he hopes to earn a spot on the squad bound for the European indoor championships in Paris. For Russian high jumpers, earning team selection is about as difficult a task as it is for American sprinters and Kenyan distance runners.

Russian selectors make it even more challenging, taking into account factors beyond a single performance at a selection meet. Despite finishing second at the national championships last winter, Shustov was passed over for a spot on the 2010 squad for the World Indoor Championships, a situation he hopes to avoid in the future.

“I agree with Ivan Ukov’s opinion to make the selection system the same as in the USA – strictly based on results. The first three at the national championships get onto the national team.”

But, he added, “I decided for myself, in order to exclude all questions with selection, that I must be stronger than my rivals, if not physically, than psychologically, and also to get focused not only on being selected, but on the further competition under the flag of the national team.”

Psychological preparation is a key element for all athletes, an aspect Shustov says he needs to take full advantage of.

“I do not use professional psychologists. Simply, with time, I learn more about myself and how to control and manage own condition and emotions. I don’t have other options. I am not as strong as many of my rivals, and not as fast.”

“But I try to be stronger psychologically, and as a result our chances get equal. Preparing to complete an exercise I try to pass every movement through my head, instead of doing it by intuition. And it often turns out, that after this, it gets easier to do this or that exercise.”

Despite that self-actualisation, Shustov credits many others who have assisted in his rise from a 2.23m jumper in 2005 to the European champion in 2010

“There are people who set an example for me and I learn a lot from them,” Shustov said. “This is my coach, my parents and (2000 Olympic champion) Sergey Klyugin.”

He has a particularly strong reverence for his coach, Yevgeniy Zagorulko.

“My coach is a separate topic of conversation. One can find a lot of drawbacks in him or many peculiarities which are not to his liking, but this is an individual opinion. For me my coach is a father, a mentor and an idol. He does not have weak sides, and if such appear, he turns his drawbacks into merits, power and advantage. The chief is a keen hunter and it seems to me he has got a sixth sense, which allows him to understand the athlete very well and see his potential abilities. My coach is not afraid to take the responsibility for what he says or does, and I admire him.”

“Before I got into his group in 2004, I was trained for six years by my parents, professional athletes in the past. My father was a decathlete and my mother a long jumper. Now my Dad is retired and just leads a healthy lifestyle, and my mom is a PhD, the Dean of the physical training faculty of Moscow State Regional University.”

Shustov first met Klyugin in 2004 when he trained in Zagorulko’s group. “From Sergey I learned to think and knowingly use my body, realising its abilities completely, and also many technical methods of working with weight, and the high jump itself. I learned from him the right behavior at competitions and positive and respectful attitude to people.”

Friends and rivals

“I am a sociable person, but there are guys with whom I feel especially comfortable,” Shustov said. “These are the decathletes - maybe because I trained for the Decathlon before. As for my attitude to other high jumpers - we are all rivals in the sector, but outside it, I am friends with many of them, for example with Ivan Ukhov."

"I have always been on friendly terms with him. His transfer to another coach did not change this. We only meet less often now, since we have different training schedules. Before Ivan left our group, we always shared a room when the group went to training camps. My coach says: ‘You are gladiators. Share shelter, food, be friends, but once you walk out into the arena you must fight, throwing away everything else. And after the fight is finished, forget about it, despite the result, and continue sharing everything.’”

Improved consistency in 2010, despite battling injuries

Looking back, it’s easy to understand why Shustov clearly believes that 2010 witnessed his best season. In addition to his national and European titles, his consistency improved markedly. He produced three 2.33m performances outdoors and a pair at 2.32m, between February and August.

“The only upset occurred at the IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup, where I injured my take-off foot right before the start of the competition. So I had to watch the competition from the bleachers.”

Injuries have been chasing Shustov since 2009. Competing in rainy conditions at the Notturna di Milano that year, he slipped and tore an inner medial knee ligament on his take off leg. He won the competition nonetheless with a 2.28m leap and didn’t have surgery. He went on to finish fourth at the national championships at 2.29m, and in August won the National Cup with a 2.30m clearance. “I could not jump higher because the leg didn’t tolerate it.”

At the beginning of last winter Shustov injured his foot jumping on hard surfaces and only took part in fifve competitions.

“I was treated with physical therapy and rested. I finally overcame the injures by the summer.”

“I learned to forget about pain and concentrate on my work. It was much harder to cope with fear, especially in Barcelona. It was raining as in Milan, but I still got through it.” Like his friend Ukhov, Shustov does not use high jump shoes, but rather triple jump spikes, which is dictated by the old foot injury.

Looking towards Daegu

“The main task for the near future is the final rehabilitation after the injury in Split, and to get a good strength and technical base for the summer season 2011. After last summer, I followed doctors’ orders and didn’t train for a month.” He used the time wisely, spending it with his wife and six-month old son, Sergey. “Sinking into the everyday life of a family with a small baby.”

Shustov’s wife, Yekaterina Kondratyeva, a sprinter who ran on World indoor record-breaking quartet in the 4x200m Relay in 2005, did her best to free Shustov of his household chores after the birth of their son to allow him to concentrate on training. At the beginning of November Shustov attended a high altitude (1850-2050m) training camp in Tsahkadzor, Armenia, where his main purpose was to improve his power-lifting workouts and jumping technique, and also to strengthen ligaments in his foot and knee. This also included a lot of hiking in the mountains at 1900m -2819m altitude. 

“To continue improving my personal best it is necessary to create a base by improving speed and force. I have got a lot of reserve for this,” Shustov said. “However, the ability to think and psychological determination often play important role, and I must also improve on this. As my Chief says, ‘the head must be cold and the heart hot.’”

Shustov said he and his coach haven’t set any specific goals for the winter season, but they still have high hopes.

“I’ll compete in several competitions and at the trials for the European Championships in Paris. If I get onto the team I shall do my best to perform well.”

“At the beginning of the summer season I shall strive to earning a spot for the World Championships in Daegu.” With reigning World champion Yaroslav Rybakov gaining automatic entry, he’ll have plenty of compatriot company. But he knows the task is still a daunting one. 

“This time four athletes will go, but it will still be tough. I think at World Champs in Korea the main challengers for the victory will be Russians. And our chances improve with the fourth extra athlete.”

Yelena Kurdyumova and Sergey Porada for the IAAF