martes, 26 de julio de 2011

What's Up with Ukrainian girls

Hrystyna Stuy, Olesya Povh, Nataliya Pohrebnyak and Mariya Ryemyen after their victorious relay race
 at the 2011 Team European Championships, held in Stockholm 
 It came as a surprise, as a big upset. Once the German team had failed to complete their heat, France and Russia were unanimously favoured to dominate the Barcelona European Championships female 4x100 relay final.  The latter had three out of four members of the Olympic gold medallist squad, while the former counted with Myriam Soumaré and Veronique Mang, medallists in the sprint single events, Lina-Jacques Sébastien, finalist at the 200 metres, and no less than European record holder Christine Arron to anchor the team. Yet an unheralded Ukrainian quartet, with all their members younger than 23 years, beat the whole field in an impressive 42.29, the best winning time in the championships in 20 years and the 2010 best mark in the world, also smashing the existing national record of 42.96. (1) It was the first medal of any colour in the event at the Europeans for a nation used to finish in fourth place, and the second in a major championship, after their bronze at Saint-Denis 2003 World Championships, in the only occasion they have reached a final at Worlds or Olympic level to the date.  
Three of the four Ukrainian squad members in Barcelona had already competed together previously in Bergen, on occasion of the European Team Championship, where they offered a first glimpse of their talent, finishing in third place, after Russia and France, but ahead of powerhouses like Germany and Great Britain.  For the big contest of the year was added 20-year-old Elizaveta Bryzhina, winner in Bergen and freshly minted silver medallist in Barcelona, always at the 200 metres distance, with a huge PB of 22.44.  In the final, every member of the relay performed to perfection.  Olesya Povh was the fastest out of the blocks of the whole field; Nataliya Pohrebnyak ran a decisive backstretch long leg; Mariya Ryemyen was flawless in the bend; and Bryzhina culminated everybody’s work with an outstanding final acceleration, overcoming Polish anchor Veronika Wedler and holding French Christine Arron, to get a shock victory.  Especially inspired were the changeovers.  The first one between Povh and Pohrebnyak and the final one between Ryemyen and Bryzhina were technically among the best ever seen on a race track.

                Once more it was proved for relay races as important is speed as meticulous team preparation.  The United States due to their large choice of awesome sprinters never repeat twice the same team at major championships. Besides, workouts which join together the four recruited members are occasional and disaster arrives quite often as we could see in Berlin, where both US 4x100 squads failed in their respective heats. Curiously, relays have a rich tradition in American colleges as we can see at contests as Penn Relays but they are neglected in professional track and field.  On the other hand, the Ukrainian girls claim to have train on their changeovers for years and thus we can easily understand their flawless technique and international success.  As an indication, the main Ukrainian sprinters have raced together three times already this summer, while Jeter, Myers, Barber and Felix has done it just once. Yet, a casual All-America team beat the revelation of the year at the inaugural Continental Cup, where Pohrebnyak complained about tiredness and too much relaxation after a long and intense season and also… about Ryemyen “leaving her mark too soon and so losing a little of our rhythm”. (2) Even the best prepared teams can make mistakes sometimes!   
       This new generation of Ukrainian sprinters, which have covered the national emptiness in the sector since double world champion Zhanna Pintusevich-Block retired, first appeal the attention because of their youthful image.  Nataliya Pohrebnyak dyes her hair pink, brown or blond and have a tattooed dragon but “I do not paint my nails like the rest of the girls”(2) Mariya Ryemyen likes piercings very much… and so on.  Many interviews try to deal with this dilemma of teenage fun and professional sport sacrifice. Bryzhina says her coach understands we live only one life and allows her trainee go dancing and singing karaoke sometimes.  In the other cases they just talk about assuming that success is related to hard work.  Mariya Ryemyen knows the time she can dedicate to her passion of drawing never will be enough and she and Olesya Povh understand they could not visit Paris’ wonders during their stage for the European indoors, because it would have disturbed their focus on their races. (3) Eventually, athletics become fun and passion all the same and an ambition as well.  Pohrebnyak says she is a drug addict of track and field and do not even need a boyfriend.  Ryemyen talks about the beauty of racing, which requires such qualities as speed, strength and grace. (4)  

Yelizaveta Bryzhina anchors Ukrainian 4x100 relay to gold at Barcelona European Championships
Photo: George Herringshaw
                Before their senior breakthrough in Barcelona,  Nataliya Pohrebnyak (5) and Yelizaveta Bryzhina (6) had earned some distinctions in age categories. The former won the silver medal at the 2009 U-23 European Championships and was the first among the Barcelona relay winners in being named for major senior competitions as Beijing Olympic Games, despite being one year younger than Povh and Ryemyen, who had modest results in their teen years.  The latter also won a silver medal, at the 2007 European Juniors.  Yelizaveta is the daughter of two Ukrainian track and field legends, Viktor Bryzgin and Olga Wladykina-Bryzgina, and thus since her put her feet on a track has quite a big responsibility on her shoulders.
        Both her parents had been relay Olympic champions in Seoul 1988, representing the Soviet Union: Viktor in the 4x100 and Olga in the 4x400, anchoring her team to the current world record, ahead of no less than Florence Griffith-Joyner.  She was also World and Olympic winner in the single 400 metres event and finished runner-up in the race Marita Koch established the still existing world record at 1985 Canberra World Cup, becoming herself the 4th best performer all time as of today.  The gifted daughter is also training under their parents coach, Volodymyr Fedorets, who believes “she took from her father her speed and lack of nerves; from her mother her dedication; and what is her own is her extraordinarily strong sense of purpose, a thirst of winning." (7)

Olesya Povh at the 2011  European Indoor Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe

2010 was Bryzhina’s year but in 2011 they are Olesya Povh and Mariya Ryemyen who are making the limelights.  These two awesome Ukrainian sprinters train together and also share an appartement in Zaporizhzhya. Povh (8) had an outstanding breakthrough indoor season (9) at her favourite event, the 60 metres, remaining unbeaten the whole campaign, setting the European best mark of the winter (7.13), besides dipping 10 other times under 7.20, and topping it with the European title at the distance.  Ryemyen (10) was second to her in every race, including the decisive one in Paris, where a third compatriot, Hrystyna Stuy, finished just 1 hundredth of a second short of the bronze, what would have meant a clean sweep of the medals in the event.  
The Ukrainian Cup, held in Yalta during the last day of May started the summer season in the country in style, with three male javelin throwers over 80 metres, three women under 1:59.40 at the 800 metres distance, four others beyond 14.20 at triple jump and another two under 55 seconds at the 400 hurdles, among other excellent results.  Among the speedsters, Nataliya Pohrebnyak scored an 11.17 PB at the 100, while Povh also obtained a huge PB of 22.58, again ahead of Ryemyen (22.84).  The excellent health of track and field in the country brought to another outstanding collective performance at the European Team Championship, where Ukraine achieved a historic third place overall. Ryemyen won the 200 metres, Povh finished runner-up at the 100 and the relay performed once more flawlessly, beating again the best European squads.
Mariya Ryemyen at the 2011 European Indoor Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe

The old continent seems to be in recovery days at the sprinting events, after some years where only Kim Gevaert and the veteran Arron could face North American and Caribbean specialists.  Last year, at the 200 metres, the seven athletes who finished the race dipped under 22.70 in Barcelona, a feat only Gevaert could do in the precedent edition of the championships, and had not been seen at area level since Berlin Wall’s fall.  Neither French nor Russians sprinters are in the same form this year for the moment and Verena Sailer, the 100 metres continental champion is injured, but Ivet Lalova is back under 10 seconds territory, after overcoming a career threatening injury, Jodie Williams continues her meteoric progression and the Ukrainian new generation has proved especially solid and reliable.  Only Bryzhina is having a disappointing year and her seasonal best is just 23.03. This fact might jeopordize her selection for Daegu Worlds, with three other girls (Povh, Ryemyen and Darya Pizhankova), ahead in the world lists, all of them with the A standard.  She is likely to be replaced in the relay event as well by Stuy (11), who already ran the anchor leg at last European Team Champs or by the same Pizhankova.  On the other hand, Ryemyen and Povh, despite not having outstanding PBs yet (11.21/22.68 the former and 11.24/22.58 the latter), have rarely finished a race worst than third during the whole year and both seem bound to Daegu finals and... there who knows!  On paper, Povh is going to be more oriented to the 100 metres event for the Worlds and Ryemyen to the 200.  
Pizhankova (12), who used to be a long jump specialist, has moved to the track with amazing success, grabbing at the U-23 Europeans in Ostrava the 200 metres gold, the 100 silver and… no wonder, another gold as a member of the 4x100 squad, along with Olena Yanovska, Viktoriya Pyatachenko and Ulyana Levska.  So more girls are ready to take over if needed, only one year after Pohrebnyak and company made their big breakthrough in Barcelona.  Only in Junior category, where, by the way, Germany achieved an astounding continental best, improving a record set back in the eighties, Ukrainian girls were missed in the relay.  Will be able this new amazing 4x100 powerhouse to challenge USA, Jamaica or the Bahamas at the upcoming World Championships and Olympic Games?   

Ulyana Lepska,  Darya Pizhankova, Viktoriya Pyatachenko and Olena Yanovska  from the Ukrainian relay 4x100 on the European U-23 Champs podium, along with Russian and French teams.


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