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Nikita Kryukov: Russia’s best cross-country skier

The masters of cross-country ski racing are ready to face off at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Many Russian skiers may lay claim to a medal, but sprinter Nikita Kryukov stands out, even among the hometown heroes.

Kryukov’s first major success came in 2008, when he won the Russian championship, and the following year he claimed his first World Cup title. Source: RIA Novosti

Ilya Trisvyatskiy, special to RBTH

According to the results of a national poll conducted by television network Rossiya2, Russia’s best athlete of 2013 wasn’t pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva or hockey great Pavel Datsyuk, but cross-country skier Nikia Kryukov. The skier, who specializes in sprint races, won the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games in the individual classic and took first place in the classic sprint and team sprint (together with Alexei Petukhov) at last year’s FIS Nordic World Ski Championship.

Although he began as a specialist in the classic style, Kryukov gradually evolved into a more universal skier, and began to show good results in skate skiing as well. Although there have been some changes in the Olympic ski events since the Vancouver Games, Kryukov is still expected to make it to the podium in Sochi. The individual free sprint will be held on Feb. 11 and the team classic sprint will take place on Feb. 19 at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Center in Krasnaya Polyana.

Road to the Olympics

Nikita Kryukov was born on May 30, 1985, in the Moscow Region town of Dzerzhinsky. He took up cross-country skiing at the age of seven, and his mentor, the renowned Yury Kaminsky, is now the head coach of the Russian men’s sprint team.  

“For several years, I was a physical education teacher at a Dzerzhinsky secondary school. At the time, I’d just started coaching and I subscribed to a number of journals on training methodology and read a great deal about theories of physical education in Europe,” said Kaminsky, speaking about his background.

“I wanted to combine our techniques with foreign methods to observe the effect. The director and I decided to experiment and increase the standard two hours of physical education per week to five hours. I took a group of children from the second and third grades and began to work with them, taking into account their physical development. After a year, we tested them. I asked other teachers to invite high school students to take the test, and my students, children of five and six years old, tested higher in terms of endurance and athleticism. Nikita Kryukov came from this group.” 

Kryukov’s first major success came in 2008, when he won the Russian championship, and the following year he claimed his first World Cup title. Although he went into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as a dark horse rather than a favorite, it was Kryukov who brought Russia its first gold medal in the 2010 Games. 

In the final race, Kryukov finished neck and neck with teammate Alexander Panzhinsky, edging him out by only a few inches. Two weeks later, Kryukov was awarded the title “Honored Master of Sport.”

“At 14 I’d already begun to dream of being an Olympic champion,” said Kryukov.  “The guys I skied with laughed at me, but I never gave up my dream.”

When Kryukov was voted Russia’s top sportsman in 2013, he was happy for himself and also for the exposure for his sport. Cross-country racing has been overshadowed by biathlon. The combination ski/shoot event is often televised live, attracting a core audience of fans.

“I was very pleased that a skier had prevailed over other types of athletes,” said Kryukov. “My victories and those of my teammates got people actively following the sport and turning out to watch. We’ll continue to support our sport, and I hope that the Olympics will help.”

Kryukov was named to the team heading to Sochi in December, before many of his teammates. This season, he won two World Cup sprint titles, both in classic style races – the individual competition in Asiago, Italy and the team sprint with Maxim Vylegzhanina in Nove Mesto, in the Czech Republic.  

Said Coach Kaminsky, “Once again, Kryukov proved that he is very strong.”

In several interviews, Kryukov has noted the role his Orthodox faith has played in his development, but he is tight-lipped about his personal life. Kryukov’s mother, Svetlana Fridrikhovna, quoted her son as saying, “until Sochi, I won’t have any personal life. There’s only one goal – the Olympics. Everything else will come later, if I’m lucky.”

Not a sure thing

Kryukov will have his work cut out for him in Sochi. This season, Norwegian Anders Gloeersen and Sweden’s Calre Halfvarsson both won World Cup freestyle sprints while American Simi Hamilton and Russian Sergei Ustyugov distinguished themselves at the Tour de Ski. Italian Federico Pellegrino has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching the finals four times but twice failing to make it to the podium.

Additionally, a number of favorites have given several stages of the World Cup a miss in order to avoid showing their hands. In Sochi, several Norwegians will have a crack at taking a medal while Finn Martti Julhae also has serious potential.

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