Wednesday, 01 September 2010

Focus on Athletes - Svetlana Feofanova

Svetlana Feofanova of Russia   (Getty Images)

Svetlana Feofanova of Russia (Getty Images)

Updated 1 September 2010

Svetlana FEOFANOVA, Russia (Pole Vault)
Born: 16 July 1980, Moscow; 1.63m, 50kg.
Coach: Evgeny Bondarenko


Svetlana Feofanova turned to the pole vault at the age of 17. At the time she had been a member of the Russian junior gymnastics team and was even among the candidates for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic team. Competing at the same Russian Championships, in 1995-6, as the famed gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, seven times Olympic medallist and now member of the State Duma, is still among the honours of which Feofanova is most proud.

Coming from a not so wealthy family, Feofanova soon started to understand the value of hard work. “My mother in turn with the elder sister took me to the gymnastics club, twice a day,” Feofanova recalled. ”In the meantime, between training, I went to school. It was the same school where (ice hockey star) Pavel Bure and (figure skater) Yekaterina Gordeeva had also studied once. I was rather good in studies and specially liked computers. And, in eleven years in gymnastics, I did not miss a single training.”

It was just a happy coincidence that pole vaulters used to do stretching at the same gym where Feofanova was training. While 17 is young for most sports, it is not for gymnastics, in which it is the natural time for retirement. The gymnastics coach, Vladimir Safonov, came up to Feofanova and suggested that she change sports. “Why not?” Feofanova thought, as she was not having significant success in gymnastics. And she went to the athletics stadium to look for the coach.

By another happy coincidence, Feofanova met the young and ambitious Evgeny Bondarenko (incidentally, Bondarenko is married to Jolanda Chen, the former World record holder in triple jump and now a Russian TV journalist).

“At first, the pole vault seemed very dangerous to me compared to gymnastics,” Feofanova recalled.  “When you fall down from the jump it’s one thing, but when you fall down from the height of about four metres it’s completely another.” Still, progress was quick.  With a 3.60m clearance as her first result in official competition, in 1997, within three years she improved her best to an internationally competitive 4.50m.

By that time, in 2000, American Stacy Dragila had just become the first Olympic champion in women’s pole vault with her victory in Sydney.  She was the undisputed No.1 at the time but Feofanova did not regard her as unbeatable. “I just go out there and fulfill my job, no matter who my competitors are,” the Russian said. “I always give 100 per cent and I also try not to pay attention to what is going on around me. As a true athlete, my goal is always to win. Both at the local competitions and at the Olympics, I try to show my maximum. Otherwise, why compete?”

Dragila still managed to be ahead of the ambitious Feofanova at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton but this seemed to be her swan-song. A brilliant 4.78m from Feofanova in 2002 ushered in a new leader. In 2002, Feofanova set five indoor World records, won the European titles indoors and out and, during the 2003 indoor season, set three World records and won the World title in Birmingham, before going on to become outdoor World champion in Paris.

Dragila was behind but, for Feofanova, there was no time to dwell on celebration. On 13 July 2003 her compatriot, Yelena Isinbayeva, set her first outdoor World record (4.82m).

The close fight between Feofanova and Isinbayeva in the 2004 Olympic season turned out to be one of the best moments on the athletics calendar. Setting World records almost in turn, these two athletes created a wonderful intrigue – who is going to win at the Olympics?

In Russia, most people believed in Isinbayeva. She seemed to be fresher and stronger than the tiny Feofanova. The situation was aggravated by the internal conflict between the two. Feofanova and Isinbayeva hardly said ‘hello’ to each other on the sector. “I don’t like people who always place themselves higher,” Feofanova said. “I don’t like it when people think too much of themselves and hardly pay attention to others. No matter how high you jump, you should always stay first of all a person.”

4.70m – this is the height where the real battle started in Athens. Feofanova and Anna Rogowska, from Poland, were successful at the first attempt while Isinbayeva hit the bar. Hoping for gold, Isinbayeva carried two attempts to 4.75m. She failed with her first attempt while Feofanova was successful at her second attempt and Rogowska was eliminated.

Only one jump for Isinbayeva stood between Feofanova and Olympic gold. Now Svetlana does not like to recall this moment. The moment that may have changed everything for her. Back then in Athens Isinbayeva realised that her only chance was jumping 4.80 and then 4.85m. Feofanova could not manage both heights hitting the bar in her last attempt on 4.85m. On the wave of courage Isinbayeva placed the bar at the height of the new World record – 4.91m and managed it. Feofanova had the willpower to admit: “Yes, I was close, but that evening I hardly could jump 4.91m”.

The year after the Olympics was, for Feofanova, one of relaxation and treatment for injury. “I almost missed the winter season, making only two starts, because I was tired mentally and physically,” she said. “I started training for the outdoors but soon got injured. The back hernia did not let me compete. In the whole summer of 2005 I was trying to get better using different methods like acupuncture,”
                 
Upon her return in 2006, it was an era of clear dominance by Isinbayeva. But in the winter of 2006 the world saw a new Feofanova. New in the appearance, changing her usual pony tail to the elegant model look. However, she jumped much lower than before the injury, finishing only third in the World Indoors, in Moscow, and fourth in the European Championships, in Göteborg.

The 2007 European Indoors, in Birmingham, signalled a first big victory for Feofanova after comeback but it was achieved in the absence of Isinbayeva. However, the outdoor season proved that her victory was not by chance. Step by step, Feofanova improved, recording 4.82m at the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, her best result in more than three years.

At the World Championships, in Osaka, Feofanova took the bronze, finishing close to the silver taken by the Czech, Katerina Badurova.  In the Golden League season Feofanova was close to depriving Isinbayeva of a $500,000 jackpot. “I never compete to do a trick to anyone or to deprive her of the money,” Feofanova said. “I only try to show my best.”

A brilliant past with 11 World records (nine indoors, two outdoors) and an amazing comeback – this story line is obviously the attraction for the world media. Unlike Isinbayeva, Feofanova does not like to be the centre of attention. Funny, talkative and open with friends, with journalists she seems very much closed. “Why talk about myself?” she asks. “My results can tell you everything. I try to save my energy for the people who are really dear to me, and of course for the sports. I hate this world of glamour when people are pretending to be something.”

Isinbayeva said: “For me, Svetlana in the sector is a great motivation. Other girls may show one result and then disappear, while Svetlana is always here. I need competitors to show my best result, so I am happy she returned.”

Feofanova responds:  “I am happy to learn I am a motivation for Yelena. But, for me, she is not a motivation at all. I just do not pay attention to her. You know, I think this attitude that there is Isinbayeva and there are all others was created on purpose and now is actively pressured. What am I going to do to change it? Jump 5.02 m (World record at the time) of course! Or, to be serious, 4,90m can be enough.

“I am so envious, everybody around me is setting personal bests, and mine is still so high. My next goal is to improve it – jump higher than 4.88m.” Doing this in the Olympic season would turn her into a hot favourite again.

The 2008 indoor season started for Feofanova with a win at the Russian Championships with a modest 4.60, while Isinbayeva set a World record 4.95 in her first competition, in Donetsk, on 16 February. But, the day after her World record, Isinbayeva travelled to the Laureus World Sports Awards, in St Petersburg, where she sat next to President Vladimir Putin and made a speech, while Feofanova prepared for her best result of the season

In Bydgoszcz, Feofanova had problems only at 4.51, making it on the third attempt. She cleared her season’s best 4.71 at the first attempt while Isinbayeva failed in her first jump at 4.76 and moved to two attempts at 4.81, but failed, leaving her with a best of 4.61. This was the first loss for Isinbayeva after a 23-competition win streak.

What does it mean for Feofanova? As usual, she plays with hints and tries not to reveal her true feeling. “In Bydgoszcz I was jumping really badly,” she said. “I am not satisfied with my jumps at all. I try to improve in Valencia. And I won’t comment on any of my competitors.”

Feofanova's hopes to improve at the World Indoors in Valencia failed dramatically. While Isinbayeva jumped 4.75 m - quite an accessible result for Svetlana, this time she managed to clear only 4.60 m. Of course the difference between the two, Yelena and Svetlana, was evidently not only in the jumps. This difference lies in sponsors' and media attention, in the way of training and, most important, in personality. While Isinbayeva made a tough decision to leave her native Volgograd and move for training to Italy, Feofanova hardly goes out of Moscow. "Even before the World Indoors I was training only in Moscow and did not go out for any training camps. I have all necessary conditions here. I love my city, always miss it and my friends and use every chance to stay here", Svetlana says. No need to explain, the training conditions at the super-modern center in Italian Formia and the middle-aged CSKA venue in Moscow are quite different, and not in favour of the Russian one.

The 2008 outdoor season first seemed for Feofanova the continuation of the black stripe in Valencia. She was jumping average results of 4.65-4.70m at the commercial meetings, only once - at the IAAF Super Grand Prix in Madrid, clearing the bar at 4.75m. Yelena at the same time seemed to gain her best shape, setting two brilliant World records in Rome and Monte Carlo. Yes, Feofanova won the Russian national trials and formally went to the Olympics as number one on the team, but what did it mean considering Isinbayeva's absence in Kazan?

In winter, especially after the sensation in Bydgoszcz, Feofanova’s chances were estimated by the specialists even higher than at the 2004 Olympics. However it turned to be a complete reverse in summer, with Isinbayeva shining and Feofanova again in her shadow. "I won't comment on Yelena's results, don't even ask me about it. I can comment only on what I see and know. I even did not see her records, as I had already left the stadium. As soon as I have my results - I will proudly talk about them. But not now." Feofanova's sports rage was obvious. The question was if this rage and huge experience at her third Olympics would be accompanied by brilliant shape.

Actually, they were not. Feofanova’s shape in Beijing was quite strong. She jumped exactly the same height as 4 years before in Athens – 4.75m. This time it brought her the bronze Olympic medal behind Isinbayeva and American Jennifer Stuczynski. But was it enough for Feofanova while Isinbayeva jumped a World record 5.05m and won her second consecutive Olympic title?

After the final, Feofanova was crying. “These were the tears of joy,” she explained. “Four years ago I was coming to Athens as the reigning World champion and with a season best 4.88m. Psychologically, I was sure that I was the best, the strongest in the field. Ok, may be only Lena could stand on the same level with me. But in Beijing everything was different. To be honest, I knew that I was going to fight maximum for the silver. And I was extremely happy to win a medal when I was not the strongest one. It is a completely different feeling when you are not a favourite. This bronze for me is a great achievement.”

After the second Olympic medal, Feofanova gave herself some time to celebrate. She missed the indoor season and went for a long vacation to Indonesia instead. At the same time she changed her manager from Mikhail Gusev to Mark Block. “Stop the gossip about my retirement, I am going to compete again,” Feofanova said to the media. “My husband and my coach want to see me jumping. And I want it as well.”

In summer 2009 Feofanova did not have much time for jumping. She had a season best of 4.70m at the Golden Gala in Rome, and 6 days later at the next Golden League stage in Paris got a serious arm injury. “I felt pain, but the doctors at first did not understand it was that serious,” Feofanova recalls. “I continued my training and even hoped to compete at the national trials. Very soon I understood it was completely impossible. And then the doctors revealed that my arm was broken!”

The World Championships in Berlin and Isinbayeva’s sensational loss, Feofanova was watching on TV. In September she resumed her own training for the indoor season. Did she consider missing the indoors in order to fully recover from the injury? “I am not that superstitious, but I’ve noticed that when I miss the indoor season the following summer for me is always a disaster,” Feofanova laughed. “I really think I need competitions to stay in shape. Before I was doing up to 10 competitions in winter, now it’s only four. I really hope the economic slowdown will be overcome and there appear some more winter tournaments in Europe!”

The Isinbayeva - Feofanova duel is no longer on the agenda for both of them. Isinbayeva lost the World Championships to the Pole Anna Rogowska, while Feofanova did not retreat from the concept of home-based training, although her results have not been growing recently. “Lena lives her own life, and I live mine. I still have some motivation in sports, and I love it. But the main thing for me now is to show my best result at the main start of the season. If this happens – I will be happy. No matter how high jumps any of my competitors.”

Her dream to perform the best jump at the main start of the season came fully true in Doha. The 4.80 m leap was the highest indoor jump for Feofanova in six years, but still this was not enough for the gold. Even beating Isinbayeva, who suffered her second sensational defeat after Berlin, Feofanova lost on countdown to Fabiana Murer from Brazil.

“And still I am happy with the silver”, said Feofanova in Doha, remaining faithful to her theory of judging herself by results and not places. “I was feeling great, it was my best shape in years. I think I could have jumped much higher than 4.80m, may be even 4.90m, but I wanted it too much. Because of this extra desire I was hurrying up in my jumps and did not perform technically well. Anyway, second place with 4.80m feels great. It means I am still progressing after so many years”.

Feofanova’s progress in summer happened in terms of places and not results. Her best of 4.75m outdoors remained on the same level as in the recent years. But in the absence of Isinbayeva, who decided to miss the season, Feofanova finally became the queen of the pole vault.

“It is Lena’s business why she is not jumping, I cannot comment on it,” Feofanova now clearly does not want to continue with their conflict, which was only aggravated by multiple interviews in the press. Moreover, after Isinbayeva’s defeat in Berlin, the role of the captain of the Russian national athletics team was transferred to Feofanova. That was vote of the team, who wanted to see Svetlana as their leader for three competitions running – the World Indoors in Doha, the European Team Championships in Bergen and European Championships in Barcelona. Calm, confident and with a great sense of humor, it was Feofanova who won the sympathies of almost all her fellow athletes.

In summer 2010 the captain Feofanova finally won her title and captured the gold medal at the European Champs in Barcelona by jumping 4.75m on the first attempt. That was one of the 10 gold medals of the Russian team – but maybe the most precious one in terms how long it took for Feofanova to become number one again.

“I am the happiest person on the planet,” she smiled after listened to the Russian national anthem in Barcelona. “I have done everything I could and finally it brought me the gold. No, I never thought it was my destiny to be always second, after all I’ve had a very bright career, but… Being first is just a special feeling.”

While Isinbayeva’s come back is planned for winter, Feofanova is clearly in shape to fight again. She now regularly shows her best jumps at the most important moments of the season. “The main point is to stay away from injuries. I don’t think I have much time left in the pole vault, and everything I can do I want to do now. I don’t think about Isinbayeva, Murer or anybody else, I think about myself. And I know that I can jump higher,” Feofanova smiles.         

Yearly Progression
1997: 3.60; 1998: 3.90; 1999: 4.10; 2000: 4.50; 2001: 4.75; 2002: 4.78: 2003: 4.75/4.80i; 2004: 4.88; 2005: 4.70i; 2006: 4.70; 2007: 4.82; 2008: 4.75. 2009: 4.70. 2010: 4.80i.

Personal Bests
4.88  (2004)
4.85i (2004)

Career Highlights
2001     2nd       World Indoor Championships (Lisbon)             4.51
2001     2nd       World Championships (Edmonton)                       4.75
2001     2nd    Grand Prix Final (Melbourne)                                 4.45
2002     1st       European Indoor Championships (Vienna)           4.75        
2002     1st    European Championships (Munich)                      4.60
2002     2nd      World Cup (Madrid)                                                  4.40
2003     1st    European Indoor Cup (Leipzig)                                 4.65
2003     1st      World Indoor Championships (Birmingham)           4.80
2003     1st       World Championships in Athletics (Paris)                4.75
2003     2nd      World Athletics Final (Monaco)                             4.60
2004     3rd    World Indoor Championships (Budapest)          4.70
2004     2nd      Olympic Games (Athens)                                          4.75
2006     3rd       World Indoor Championships (Moscow)                   4.70
2006     4th    European Championships (Göteborg)                   4.50
2007     1st    European Indoor Championships (Birmingham)        4.76
2007     3rd       World Championships in Athletics (Osaka)                   4.75
2007     3rd    World Athletics Final (Stuttgart)                                4.82
2008     1st     Russian Indoor Championships (Moscow)                4.60  
2008     5th    World Indoor Championships (Valencia)                    4.60
2008     1st    Russian Championships (Kazan)                                 4.70
2008     3rd    Olympic Games (Beijing)                                               4.75
2008     2nd    World Athletics Final (Stuttgart)                              4.70
2010     1st    Russian Indoor Championships (Moscow)              4.75
2010     2nd    World Indoor Championships (Doha)                       4.80
2010     1st    European Team Championships (Bergen)             4.65
2010     1st    European Championships (Barcelona)                   4.75


Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF “Focus on Athletes” project.
Copyright IAAF 2008-2010.