For many years, Ukrainian Yana Klochkova has been the world’s most dominant female individual medley swimmer—the female equivalent of the USA’s Michael Phelps, only she’s been at the top longer.
Occasionally, Klochkova has lost a 200 meter IM race, though most often she wins the biggest races. But in the 400 meter IM, the sport’s most grueling test of versatility, strength, endurance and strategic thinking, she has been nearly invincible.
Double Olympic champion in Sydney, double gold medalist last July at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Klochkova was focused like a laser beam on repeating her twin triumphs in Athens. The world record holder in the longer medley and the de facto record holder at the sprint distance (China’s Wu Yanyan holds the official world record), she planned on putting up times that would stand for years to come.
Klochkova has also branched out to the distance freestyle at major events, winning silver in Sydney in the 800 meters (8:22.66) and gold in several major meets in the 400 meter free.
Just how dominant has Klochkova been? Since 1999, she has won:
- Olympic Games 2 gold, 1 silver
- World Championships 4 gold, 2 silver
- SC World Championships 9 gold, 2 silver
- European Championships 9 gold, 1 silver
- TOTAL 24 gold, 6 silver
She has also won several fistfuls of gold at the European Short Course Championships, World University Games (four gold in 2003) and the World Cup, as well as at other major international competitions.
For these achievements, Klochkova has thrice been named Ukraine’s Athlete of the Year, most recently in 2003. Notably, she has achieved her unprecedented success despite being underpaid—even by Ukrainian standards—and despite having to contend with training in crumbling facilities lacking in basic equipment that American, Australian and Western European swimmers take for granted.
For the past 15 years, Klochkova has been guided by the steady hand of veteran Ukrainian coach, Nina Kozuch, at the Dynamo Swim Club in Kharkov. A swim coach for more than 40 years, Kozuch has coached several other world-class swimmers besides Klochkova. Now, ten other swimmers—mostly 13-year-olds—train daily under her motherly-but-no-nonsense guidance.
Kozuch says she first began coaching Yana in 1989 when she was 7 or 8 years old.
“She had just moved with her family from the port city of Simferopol to Kharkov, where my husband (also a top Ukrainian coach) and I had our swimming school,” she says.
“Actually, it was my husband, Oleksander Kozuch, who first pointed Yana out to me. She had come to the pool with a group of youngsters for tryouts. Oleksander commented to me on how naturally fluid her strokes looked for an untrained youngster.
“She definitely seemed promising, so I spoke with her parents, took her on as a student, and she’s been with me ever since.”
What Makes Yana Swim?
“Nobody is a born swimmer,” Coach Kozuch maintains. “You can be born with the potential to display outstanding talent, but unless that talent is developed, it remains unrealized—and is just potential.
“Only self-discipline, perseverance and the willingness to work hard can make a person stand out from the crowd and achieve remarkable results. Undoubtedly, Yana was born with outstanding potential for swimming. But she is also a very hard worker. She is goal-minded, determined and capable of living the life of a world-class athlete.
“On top of it all, Yana is a sensitive, responsible person and has a wonderful sense of humor.”
Clearly, Coach Kozuch has a profound respect for her star athlete. And, not surprisingly, that respect is reciprocated.
Yana’s 2004 Training Plan
Coach Kozuch’s training philosophy for Klochkova can be summed up very simply: “Don’t mess with success.” What worked in 2000 (and since), Kozuch maintains, will work again in 2004.
Klochkova’s daily workout consists of two sessions, each 6,000 meters in the water, punctuated by a 90-minute nap between training sessions. Every workout includes a heavy dose of technique work, including a variety of kicking and pulling drills, plus some additional drills Coach Kozuch prefers to keep secret.
In addition, she does an hour to an hour-and-15 minutes of dryland exercises every day. In the spring, she does a lot of running. Sunday is a day off, and on Thursday, there is only one practice. Most of the dryland training emphasizes flexibility, with the goal to make the transition that incorporates her gains on the land into her stroke in the water.
One month a year, Yana has a break from swimming. “During that time, we try to be outside as much as possible,” says Coach Kozuch. “For instance, last year we went to Switzerland and did a lot of hiking.”
That emphasis on being outdoors carries over into Klochkova’s training. “Yana was born in the seaport of Simferopol, so she likes to swim in the sea. We try to swim in the natural waters as much as possible, using every opportunity. Personally, I have no doubts that sea water is much healthier than a chlorinated pool.
“We also pay a lot of attention to nutrition and rehabilitation, so Yana can stay in good health and maintain her shape, simply because her results won’t be successful if health issues begin to arise.”
Klochkova’s pre-race warm-up typically totals about 1,200 meters, depending on the level of competition: generally speaking, the tougher the competition, the longer the warm-up. She begins with 200 to 400 meters easy freestyle, then follows with “a lot of technical drills with an emphasis on breathing and optimizing her feel for the water.” She finishes it with a set of sprints, usually either 25 or 50 meters.
Coach Kozuch does not plan to taper Klochkova for the Ukrainian Olympic Trials, focusing instead on the Olympic Games in Athens.
“I think it’s more difficult to defend the Olympic title than to win it (for the first time). Nevertheless, we believe she can win the gold in the 200 IM as well as the 400 IM, and she can lower the world records in both events.”
Even the 200 IM, where the record by China’s Wu Yanyan is widely believed to have been chemically-assisted?
“Absolutely,” claims Kozuch.
Klochkova sees her major competition coming from Hungary’s fast-rising Eva Risztov, with whom she already has waged several classic battles, plus Romanian veteran Beatrice Coada-Caslaru. That may reflect a European bias. Last time around in Sydney, her major competition in the 400 IM came from Japan’s relatively unknown Yasuko Tajima.
The United States may have a contender in 14-year-old phenom Katie Hoff, while the 200 could bring challenges from the likes of the USA’s Amanda Beard and Australia’s Alice Mills, among others.
Coach Kozuch is unfazed. “I believe Yana can beat the world records,” she asserts.
Why? “Yana is extremely diligent. She is a great competitor with incredible willpower and the ability to concentrate on the race while showing no fear.
“In any event, it will take a world record to win in Athens. Whoever breaks the world record will take home the gold.”
Coach Kozuch is not looking beyond Athens for her star pupil.
“Yana is not a machine,” she says, “and even machines don’t last forever. She is a gorgeous young girl who is sacrificing a lot of things that other girls her age have been enjoying.
“There are, of course, no regrets. In the nature of things, her training and competing inevitably will come to an end sometime. We don’t know when that will be, but whenever it is, Yana will have a whole life ahead of her.”
As for Coach Kozuch?
“I’ll just keep working,” she says, laughing.