Speed skater Olga Fatkulina: 'I have to become an Olympic champion'

It was at the Adler Arena in Sochi that Russia’s new star of world speed skating won gold in the 1,000m and bronze in the 500m at the 2013 World Championships. Can she do the same at the Olympics?

Fatkulina thinks of herself as an athlete who has not yet achieved anything in particular, she has set her sights high. Source: RIA Novosti

Anna Kozina, for RBTH

Olga Fatkulina, 24, has long been one of Russia's top speed skaters. A four-time national sprint champion and three-time single distance champion, she is the holder of nine national records. But Fatkulina has only recently emerged as a contender in major international competition. She reached the World Cup podium for the first time in the 1,000m event at Harbin, China in 2012.

In 2013, at the World Single Distance Championships, which were held at the Olympic Adler Arena in Sochi, Fatkulina won gold in the 1,000m event,ahead of stars like the Netherlands' Ireen Wust, Canada's Christine Nesbitt, and Heather Richardson of the U.S.. Fatkulina also took bronze in the 500m.

The speed skater's leap to first from her 14th place finish the year before gave the Russian women's team its first gold at the World Single Distance Championships since 2001, when Svetlana Zhurova took bronze in the 500m. The Russian women’s only individual medal in speed skating at the last four Winter Olympics was Zhurova's bronze in the 500m at the 2006 Turin Games.

So far during this Olympic season, Fatkulina has had the opportunity to compete with her main rivals both face-to-face and at a distance. At the World Cup competition in Berlin, Fatkulina won the 500m, although Korea's Olympic champion Lee Sang-Hwa was not on the ice that day. Sang-Hwa who holds the world record for this distance – 36.80 seconds.

Fatkulina says that during races she tries not to think about the clock or about her rivals. Source: Mikhail Mordasov / RIA Novosti

Svetlana Zhurova believes that the focus at the Olympic competition will be on medals, not records. “The records she [Sang-Hwa] has set will boost the Korean's confidence: that she can do it, that she is in good form, and is doing everything right. But she understands that few people remember records, and if she wins an Olympic gold, she will go down in history. The national records set by Fatkulina also raise her confidence.”

In Berlin, Fatkulina was apprehensive about competition from Americans Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe in her favorite distance - the 1,000m. These fears were not unfounded – Fatkulina placed third at this distance. The Russian team coaches, however, were satisfied that Richardson and Bowe were not so very far ahead of their competitor.

The Russian team's senior coach Andrei Savelyev said it is too soon to say that the Americans' advantage over Fatkulina is set in stone. “After the World Cup, the US team will return home and continue training for the Games on high-altitude rinks. Then they will have to adapt to sea level. And that is difficult.”

Because of her performance at the Adler Arena in 2013, Fatkulina already associates the Sochi rink with victory. At the Olympics, she will be competing in three distances: 500, 1000 and 1,500m.

Fatkulina has changed her approach to training this season. For example, she began competing at the 1,500m specifically for training purposes – in order to raise the level of her second lap in the 1,000m.

“I have had to make a clean break from the former Olya: all my plans, my surroundings, my goals. I was training a lot all through the summer. I managed to avoid injuries,” said Fatkulina. “I changed my skates, so that they conformed better to the form of my foot. The old ones were like felt boots. When I was wearing them, I couldn't feel either the rink, or the boot, or the prop.”

Fatkulina says that during races she tries not to think about the clock or about her rivals and she is not averse to learning a thing or two from her competitors, for example, the best way to accelerate in the 500m from Sang-Hwa, and how to take bends from two-time Olympic champion Shani Davis of the United States.

Although Fatkulina thinks of herself as an athlete who has not yet achieved anything in particular, she has set her sights high. When asked what would have to happen for her to respect herself as an athlete at last, she said without a moment's hesitation: “I have to become an Olympic champion – that's all.”

The Russian team's senior coach, Pavel Abratkevich, who heads the sprint group, thinks that this is not beyond her abilities. “This season Olya has come to understand what she is doing all this for. Over the year she has made huge progress in her mindset and has become a world champion. All that's left for her is an Olympic victory.”

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