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Alexander Tretyakov: Sliding for skeleton gold

Alexander Tretyakov's career is the story of a Krasnoyarsk lad whose achievements got the entire country hooked on the previously unheard-of sport of skeleton.

Alexander Tretyakov during a men's skeleton training session at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Source: Vasily Ponomarev / RIA Novosti

Ilya Sobolev, special to RBTH

Skeleton – a sliding discipline in which an individual athlete lies on a small sled and rides it down an ice track – was never a particularly prominent winter sport in Russia, though a national skeleton federation was established in 1992. Russian skeletonists were few and far between, and never made it into the top 10. But the emergence of Alexander Tretyakov really changed this, elevating the popularity of skeleton in Russia to a whole new level.

Tretyakov began his sporting career in track and field, then switched to bobsledding. His story is reminiscent of the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, in which Jamaican runners who fail to get selected for the summer Olympics so decide to enter the winter Games instead - as bobsledders. But Tretyakov did not stay long in bobsledding because, according to him, the sport requires some serious body weight and he never managed to gain enough pounds.

So he decided to take up skeleton instead. "My curiosity overcame my fear; I wanted to see what lay ahead of me," Tretyakov says of his first skeleton ride. "I reached the finish line without capsizing. I did not quite understand how I got there, everything flashed past so quickly. But I immediately decided to learn to ride consciously, to be able to steer."

At first, Tretyakov was only good at the starting pushes thanks to his track-and-field past. His riding itself lacked polish, and the inexperienced athlete made frequent mistakes, epitomized by his performance at his first Olympics in Turin in 2006. He demonstrated the best starting pushes in both tries, and led the race for the first half of the track, but then lost his advantage through errors. As a result, Tretyakov finished 15th. Even then, however, experts tipped the athlete for a great future.

Their predictions did not take long to come true: Tretyakov came third in the 2006-07 World Cup overall ranking and went on to win the trophy two years later, winning no victories but demonstrating steady results, though he did chalk up a win in the final event of the season in Salt Lake City.

In 2009, Tretyakov won bronze at the Lake Placid Championship. This meant that at his second Olympic Games, in Vancouver, he was no longer merely a decent skeletonist but now one of the favorites. Tretyakov came in third, winning his first Olympic medal.

Tretyakov's career continued to evolve, and in 2011 he won silver at the World Championship. The gold winner, Martins Dukurs from Latvia, was quite impressed: "Sasha [Alexander] is a star for having held out. Knowing how to use your potential to the full when you need it is very important in professional sports."

Dukurs was less impressed at the 2013 World Championship in St Moritz, Switzerland, when Tretyakov pushed him back into second place and became the first Russian skeletonist to win a gold.

Inevitably, the relations between the two athletes have changed as Tretyakov has emerged as a challenger to Dukurs. Tretyakov used to refer to Dukurs as a friend, but now a certain degree of tension has appeared. Dukurs may well become Tretyakov's main rival in the race for the Sochi gold. The two have been going head to head in the current season, taking turns on top of the podium at the first two stages. In the subsequent events, Dukurs won twice but came eighth once; Tretyakov, by contrast, has been a constant presence in the top five.

Willi Schneider, the head coach of the Russian skeleton team, dismisses the threat posed by Dukurs. "Let him win everything," Schneider smiles. "He won everywhere last season except for the World Cup in St Moritz."

When Tretyakov competed against Dukurs at the Skeleton World Cup in Sochi last February the Latvian came out on top. This year, however, the Russian athlete will be running in a home Olympic event, which should give him a mental edge. It was also in Sochi that the Russian Championship was held last October, at which Tretyakov set a new personal record. The national team also has the advantage of having trained in Krasnaya Polyana before the New Year.

"We as fans hold high hopes for Zubkov [Alexander Zubkov, the leader of the Russian bobsledding team] and Tretyakov," says George Bedjamov, president of the Russian Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton. "They are psychologically prepared to perform well at Sochi. Both are experienced athletes, these will not be their first Games, and both have a lot of experience performing at major international events."

Tretyakov is quite calm. The preparations for Sochi are going to plan. If Schneider is to be believed, the Russian athlete made "impressive progress" at the three North American stages of the current season – indeed, Tretyakov twice broke his own starting push record.

"My primary goal is to keep to my personal record at Sochi, to demonstrate a decent starting push, as well as good speed and time results," Tretyakov says. "As for the overall result... If I feel that I have really showed my best I will be happy with any result."

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