Mariya Savinova (L) of Russia crosses the line to win the women's 800m gold medal with Jennifer Meadows (GBR) in silver (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Overcoming reluctance to change the key in Savinova’s rapid rise

In a season that brought her the World indoor title and the European crown outdoors, it wasn’t a big surprise that 800m standout Mariya Savinova was voted the Russian athlete of the year for 2010. But that she’s managed to collect such honours after just three ‘serious’ years in the sport indicates that more can certainly come from the 25-year-old two-lap standout.

Savinova, now 25, opened her long 2010 season with wins at the Russian Winter indoor meeting and the national indoor championships before taking a convincing victory at the World Indoor Championships in Doha.

“I must admit that there were several factors that were of real help for me,” she said. “I was sure that I could make it. Then again, I had targeted the golden medal a long time ago. And I did my utmost to achieve the aim.”

It’s evident that Savinova’s career is on the rise. In addition to her Doha triumph, she’s taken two other significant titles over the past two seasons: the European indoor title in 2009 and the continental outdoor title last summer in Barcelona. She also collected four victories at Russian national championships. She set her personal best in 2010 clocking 1:57.56 in Eugene which stood as the second fastest in the world this year. And her current coach, Vladimir Kazarin, is certain that Savinova has potential she’s yet to realise.

From dancing roots to the global athletics stage

But her sport career can certainly be termed as ‘unusual’. It’s not typical to say the least. Savinova, born on 13 August 1985 in Cheliabinsk in the Urals, has only ‘seriously’ engaged herself in athletics for just three years.

She began her sporting career as a dancer, an activity she was involved in for more than six years. Then another six-year period followed in another sport, badminton. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she finally became acquainted with track and field when she began to accompany a friend to Cheliabinsk’s athletics stadium. Her friend quit the sport after six months, but Savinova decided to continue to train in a group under the eyes of her first coach, Tatyana Maslova.

Luckily for Savinova, Maslova turned out to be not only a high class coach but a big-hearted person with a warm soul. She saw the glimpses of talent in her new, but not-so-young disciple. And it was Maslova who was pivotal in helping Savinova gain strength and confidence. In less than two years Savinova celebrated her first notable victory when she took the Russian junior indoor title, a deed she repeated several more times.

After six years, Maslova came to realise that Savinova’s training regimen needed to be drastically changed in order for her to move to the next level. She asked Vladimir Kazarin, a prominent coach from nearby Yekaterinburg, to take on the gifted athlete. Kazarin obliged and invited ‘Masha’ to his group.

Move to new coach and new environment not to her liking, initially

At that time Kazarin was already known as a strong 800m coach. One of his athletes, Natalya Khruschelyova, won 800m bronze at the 2003 World Championships. Another, Larisa Chzhao, took the European indoor 800m title in 2005. The following year another, Olesya Krasnomovets, captured two gold medals at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow.

But in December of 2007, when the time came for Savinova to relocate, she wasn’t particularly happy about the move. Her old coach’s initiative wasn’t met with the greatest of enthusiast. She didn’t want to leave the city she admired, and her family and close friends, behind. But Maslova managed to persuade them both and Savinova finally agreed to the move.

“Yes, at that time I wasn’t intending to leave my city and my coach Tatyana,” Savinova admits. “It was so comfortable for me to live in my home and to be in the group of the coach I adored. I didn’t want any changes. But Maslova had a real vision. And she convinced me that in order to run faster changes were required.”

And the changes were dramatic, she remembers. “I took it all very seriously but finally I got persuaded that it was the only way to improve. I finally understood that it was absolutely necessary. Now there are no regrets.”

Earns nickname ‘the chess player’

The first steps in Kazarin’s group were far from ideal.

“Mariya started in my group in December of 2007,” Kazarin recalls. “And there was a kind of misunderstanding during the initial period. I even began to weigh the possibility of parting with Mariya. She was a bit capricious.”

“For example,” Kazarin continues, “she was sure that some weight training exercises were not needed. She was afraid of ‘spoiling’ her figure. But still, finally she made the proper choice and now we are in complete and total understanding with Masha.” He describes their training process as ‘creative’.

“We’ve been training together for three years, but honestly, I don’t know yet what Masha is truly capable for. Believe me, she is able to run two rounds very, very fast. But that is not our main aim. For the time being Savinova is running to win.”

“There is a handful of athletes who are so gifted physically and at the same time so penetrating in the course of things. Do you know what here nickname is in her inner circle? She is called a ‘chess player’ since she has the ability to see several moves ahead.”

Peak mistimed in 2009

This talent was evident for those who witnessed Savinova’s performances in Doha and Barcelona. But a question arises: Why couldn’t the Russian finish better than fifth at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin?

“I don’t consider my performance in Berlin to be a great failure,” Savinova insists. “It was my first championship at such a high level. But the disappointment is, up to now, inside me.”

So what happened then in 2009? Savinova and Kazarin accepted an invitation to compete at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia that spring, a decision that in hindsight, Kazarin says, prevented them from preparing properly for the World Championships. Kazarin believes that Savinova peaked too early, and arrived in Berlin exhausted both mentally and physically. But that experience was taken into careful consideration as the pair embarked on their 2010 campaign.

Coach: ‘Capable of extraordinary times’

Now, three years into their partnership, Kazarin says that Savinova is capable of extraordinary times. If everything goes well, he says, she is certainly capable of 1:54 territory. What does he mean by “everything”? Given good weather conditions, solid pacemaking and her highest level of fitness, Savinova “may perform a miracle”. But they aren’t specifically targeting fast times. For the time being, winning is the key objective, and ensuring that she can remain among the world’s best for as long as possible.

2010 also saw in improvement in her speed and her endurance. In the winter of 2010 she improved her personal best in the 400m to 52.05, and while her official PB in the 600m in 1:26.11, she clocked 1:23.5 in one of her final training sessions prior to the World Indoor Championships when Kazarin asked her to run at full speed. In a typical training session, she covers three 1000m runs in under 2:45.

Does this signal a move up to the 1500m? She contested the distance as a junior and while she didn’t manage any national honours, Kazarin says Savinova will try her hand at the event, but primarily to assist with her main two-lap distance.

Next on their agenda? First and foremost a little break. Savinova hasn’t taken any time off from competition over the past three years and for the moment, they’re considering taking the 2011 indoor season off. Then the focus will fall on Daegu and the 2012 Olympic Games.

“The Olympic Games in London is what we targeted together for the future,” Kazarin said. “And all our preparations and plans are being sharpened towards London.”

Nickolai Dolgopolov and Rostislav Orlov for the IAAF