One day a climber – whole life a climber. The stories of most of these women only support the thought that very often climbing is lifetime affair.
By Alexey Sergunin
Photos: Courtesy of climbers
As soon as I compiled a list of the best climbers in the post-Soviet space today in October, the editorial staff of WomenGoHigh asked me to go back in time and tell you about the most famous athletes of the last thirty years who no longer perform, but continue to develop our sport. So here we are!
A living legend in the world of bouldering, one of the few local athletes, who won medals at world and European championships, World Cup, world championships in all three disciplines.
In 1993 Olga became the first world champion from Russia in speed climbing, but then switched to her favorite bouldering, where she reached unimaginable heights. It was a victory at Euro-2004, and a four-year fight with the Frenchwoman Sandrine Levet at the World Cup. From 2003 to 2005 Sandrine was the one, who celebrated victory (Olga was second), in 2006 Bibik became the winner and only Russian girl who managed to win the World Cup in bouldering.
Lead was a part of Olga’s life too. It was a victory (the first for Russia) at the World Championship-1992 in Basel, and a bronze stage of the World Cup-2004 in Ekaterinburg. In total she has 31 medals of the international level without taking into account five prize-winning places at the overall World Cups.
Olga was winning at competitions, but her heart was on the rocks.
“For me, rocks are one of the main components of climbing – the already honored coach of Russia doesn’t hide her passion any more. – Rocks are a great opportunity to test your limits without participating at competitions. It’s funny that when I was still competing, I was planning which category and route on the rock I would attack next season, not which competition to win. And participation in the competition was like something secondary”.
“The sport is so dominant in my life, that even at home you have to make an effort to distract your brain from climbing”, says Bibik. – Especially when the husband and son are also climbers (Evgeniy and Semyon Ovchinnikov. – A.S. note). The biggest hobby, besides climbing, was snowboarding, especially freeride. About 10 years every winter I actively went snowboarding in the woods, now there is no time for this wonderful hobby at all. Even when I was seven months pregnant, I was riding in Sheregesh”.
Bibik is active coach, one of her trainees is famous Anna Tsyganova. “I train a lot of athletes from five years and older. Several times a year I organize competitions for various levels climbers in Krasnoyarsk. I also like the route setters work. It’s a very difficult – both physically and mentally, – but it’s unusually interesting and creative. Most of all I like to set bouldering problems”.
How’s she rest?
“I love books, good movies, cook tasty food, take care of home, doing everything in the apartment nice and cozy. I love to travel, to see how other people live in different countries. Even one of my favorite TV programs is – about travel – “Eagle and Tail of Coin”, although I hardly watch TV. I’ve dreamed of going to Thailand for many years and this year it happened! It’s just impossible not to fall in love with Thai paradise. It seems that not a single place I like as much as I like Thailand”.
Anna Stenkovaya (Saulevitch)
Anna has not performed for the last ten years, but she is still among the TOP 5 most titled speedsters of the planet in the climbing World Cup. One of the three Saulevich sisters scored a record of six overall podiums for Russian female athletes from 2003 to 2009, nine stage victories (only Yulia Kaplina was a winner more often) and 20 prizes (5th place in the world).
Anna still shares the leadership with Edyta Ropek, Cecile Avezou and Elena Repko in the number of victories at the European Championships (two each). She won in 2004 at the Apennines (Lecco) and in 2006 in a much more comfortable Ekaterinburg. The only gap in such a bright career is the lack of medals at world championships. Anna speaks about exactly one such event
“In 2007, I went to Spanish Aviles for my fourth world championship. Before that, I had become the European champion twice already, won the World Games, but the World Cup did not succumb to me. That time I started to meet with my future husband. When we flew to Madrid, Maxim was already in Aviles, and I had to get there faster. (Smiling.)
We arrived at 10 p.m. Six of us wanted to rent a car, but there were six of us. How do we all get in? Some of us thought it was expensive, but there were no options, and they gave us a big car. So we went. We didn’t have a map nor navigator. I knew we had to go north, (Laughs) the name of the city and the hotel, that’s all. So we drove north. And we didn’t get lost even once. I can hardly believe it now. We found the hotel without any problems, because it was near the station, so it wasn’t difficult.
In general, my beloved one was near, I was fit… the ocean, Spain. It was the first competition when the standard route was used. The Chinese were already training on it, and we saw it for the first time! There were no thoughts about trying it out at the time. At the warm-up I landed between the mats, and the leg began to swell. I puted on my climbing shoes and waited for the start, because if I got it off I could not put it on again. With such a leg I ran qualification with the third result, two Chinese women in front of me. That’s it. Then the hospital, the cast, I sit in the tribunes, watching the finals, one after the other both Chinese women failed in the first races. It was very hurtful. I was not destined to stand on the podium of the World Cup“. (Laughs)
And five days later, Anna went to Puurs (Belgium), where she won silver at the World Cup.
One of the most unsinkable climbers in Russia has been winning medals at world championships for two years in a row at an age when athletes usually finish their career. How does it happened, Natalia tells by herself.
“I started climbing in 1990, and my coach was my neighbor Sergei Sigov. He literally picked me up from freely life on the street and replaced my father, whom I lost when I was six years old. Before climbing, I did track and field athletics, basketball and ski racing.
When I started climbing, my technique was awful, but the physical qualities were in good condition. I was restless and tried to do the fast as I can, but I didn’t think about quality, that was my mistake. (Laughs.) Five years later it happened so that one of the athletes couldn’t go to the competition, and Sigov offered this place to me! My first trip took me to «Nevskie Vertikali» in St. Petersburg, where I took the penultimate place.
Sergey Sigov started taking me to competitions regularly, and I slowly began to grow. As a result, in 1995 I was selected for the world championship in Laval (France), where I won silver in classical speed, losing to Tatyana Ruiga.
Then I decided to try myself at bouldering, and basically everything worked out well, except for the technique… Then I had my first surgery on my knee. Due to the disease in the knee joint some cartilage (which pressed the nerve) was removed. I was waiting for this surgery because I was hoping to continue my career. But after the operation I tool the long jump and tore my meniscus on the other leg, and then it was time for another surgery.
As soon as I got over the operations and was ready to go into battle, something that I couldn’t imagine happened. I walked home from training I was depp in my thoughts and didn’t notice the hole in the ground. Doctors diagnosed the break of back cross. Eventually, I was scheduled for surgery. I realized that I hadn’t recovered quickly, and when I found out that the ligament was not working well and the surgery has to be repeated, I decided that I would stop climbing!
But after I did get a new cross, I joined a disability group that wouldn’t allow me work… And I went climbing for myself to save me from idleness. Eventually, a year later, I realized I was climbing as my peers, so I decided to go to Ufa, where I was in the top eight at speed, and that gave me the wings. But most of all, I was waiting for the bouldering, and when I took last place, I started to prepare purposefully.
After entering Tyumen State University, I went on to climb for the Tyumen region. Sergey Abdrakhmanov from Miass also went there, and we started climbing more seriously, to be more precise, we began to strain Sergey Sergeyev. (Smiling.) More trip followed thanks to the help from the Tyumen region, for which I am grateful. As a result, I got into Russian national team and showed good results.
In 2011, I thought about ending my career. But I really wanted to leave the sport as an athlete of the Chelyabinsk region, and I decided, no matter how hard it would be, that I have to finish 2011 with the best result for the Tyumen region and start 2012 at the same level, but already as part of the Chelyabinsk team. You will not believe it, but it happened!
For myself, I decided that 2012 will be the last year! But no one believed that I would leave. (Smiling.) In the end, I won all the domestic competitions, except the Russian Championship, where I was second. At three stages of the World Cup and the World Championships in Paris, I was a bronze medalist! And the world championship supposed to be the last competition.
Having gained 10–12 kg after the World Championships, I realized that it was hard to quit sports, and when I was told that I got to the World Games, I refused first, realizing that I was not ready to continue working and tolerate the pain in my knees, which caused me great inconvenience. In the end, after going to the World Cup in Chóngqìng and taking part in the Games in Colombia, I finally quit the sport, retrained as a coach.
Since then, my athletes have won two international medals – Myznikov won the world championship and Utkina became the third at the European championship.
After my career, I had about ten knee surgeries, and I’m back in the row. Even this year I’ve participated on local competition, and it was awesome. But I hope I’m done with climbing. I’m waiting for another surgery on the other knee and I’m ready to continue to work as a coach with full commitment.
Olga Zakolodnyaya (Zakharova)
Olga was climbing star for five years at the turn of XX and XXI centuries. Five gold medals, including the first title of world champion for Ukraine, she won in the confrontation with her compatriot Elena Repko. It was only in the outgoing year (14 years after her career) when Zakolodnaya was forced out of the TOP 10 best climbers in the history of the World Cup in speed climbing.
Olga remembers her first trip to the USA in 1998.
“San Francisco hosted X-Games, an extreme sports competition supported by ESPN TV. I had no money for the trip, plain tickets, we lived in the gym, ate chips and sausages. Once we were seen by a local woman. She was far from the climbing lifestyle, but was the mother of local instructor. She invited us to live in her house. Fed us, drove us to a competition. And she told everyone about her friends from Ukraine.
It was the coolest competition in my life: atmosphere, fun, prize winning, friendly Americans. In the U.S., it’s common to think that if person is thin, he’s rich. That’s what they thought of us, rock climbers. (Laughs.)
Now Olga works as a coach on the climbing wall “Vertical” in Kharkiv, where she leads groups for kids from 3–5 years. “I have 4 daughters, the eldest Margarita, a master of sports, Ksenia and Nastya also climb, and Anna is only two years old, all ahead. My husband is an alpinist, “Snow Leopard”, also trains kids”.
Yana Churikova (Chereshneva)
Now it seems something incredible, but there was a time when Russian climbers were taken medals in lead climbing at the World Cup. One of the last climbers of this kind was Yana Churikova, Chereshneva that time.
She was a bronze medalist three times (a record for Russian girls in the XXI century) (twice in Chamonix, once in Kranj), and reached the finals countless times. To understand how serious this achievement is, it is enough to explain that over the past six years Russian athletes have had difficulties in reaching the semifinals in lead climbing, and there is no reason to talk about the decisive round of competition, as well as about medals. Chereshneva has numerous international awards in speed and bouldering, as well as finals of the World Cup and World Championships in bouldering. In general, Yana is our last world-class all-rounder.
“When I was climbing at competitions, we were free friends of us – me, Alina Gaidamakina and Yulia Levochkina,” says Yana. – Once we came to the conclusion that it was time to take a break from constant starts and training, and decided to change the background. We chose our favourite city of Innsbruck, where we’ve been there often, but now we’re not going to climb, but to go skiing. We bought plane tickets and booked a chalet near the ski slope.
It was in winter, just for my birthday. In anticipation of the journey we were counting the days on the calendar. But just before the start Alina suffered a knee injury. Of course, what kind of skiing it would be? Julia and I were in solidarity, and we decided not to ski either. We didn’t even think to cancel the trip. But what else to do in Innsbruck during the winter? Nothing else occurred to us: climbing, of course! And here we are, having arrived and settled in a cabin near the ski slope, are already going to the bus stop to go climbing. Here we go again. In the winter. While we’re resting.
It was very funny to see the faces of Austrian acquaintances when we were saying that we get to gym by bus for two hours every day. Innsbruck is not Moscow, and to live this far you had to try harder. In addition to climbing, we walked through the city centre, in the woods. We made snowmen and cooked Russian buckwheat, which we brought from home. Where to go without it?! By the way, no matter what we did, we had a lot of fun, and no matter what difficulties we encountered on our way, everything turned into humor.
And finally, when we arrived at the airport at 9 pm to fly home the next morning, we were amazed to find it closed! In this small provincial town, the airport is not open 24 hours a day. We stayed outside on bus stop with metal benches. We were frozen, of course, but we couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Even though the trip was reckless, I remember it as very funny and emotional. Thanks to my supportive friends, who wouldn’t mind to laugh from the heart. Here, I think, a well-known expression would be appropriate: no matter where, it’s important with whom”.
Yana left the sport in 2015, after winning the Russian championship in Tyumen. “A few days later, I got married. A year later gave birth to my first child. There was no thought to go back to sports. I felt where I belong. For me family is the basis. I also like to learn something new. I’ve always been interested in the world order, the laws of the universe. I studied Indian astrology (jyotish), psychology, and now I am taking courses on Ayurveda (science of healthy lifestyle). For six years now, I’ve been a vegetarian. Recently I gave birth to a girl. At the moment I dedicate myself to motherhood, already as a mother of two kids”.
Serik Kazbekov’s wife and mother of Evgenia Kazbekova won medals in each of the disciplines. But the biggest success she had in bouldering. In her assets there were two prize-winning places at the World Championships (2001, 2003) and a victory at the World Cup-2002.
Natalia won her only international victory at the 2002 World Cup in the Italian town of Fiera di Primiero. “It’s a wonderful place high in the mountains,” says Natalia. – For me, the Fiera is a place of strength. By the way, just before the winning final Serik and Zhenka (she was five years old then) left the isolation zone to the start zone, it was far away, about 500 meters or more, we were taken to the start by car. They took me to the start, and suddenly I see my little girl running to the exclusion zone, and she is already halfway there. I yell to the judge in English, ask to stop the car, because my little kid running somewhere alone. The car’s stopped, the girls are smiling, we took Zhenya. I, frightened, ask what happened? And she cries and says: “There are so many people at the venue, I lost my daddy and decided to run to your isolation zone”. That’s the kind of adventure we had. Well, her dad didn’t even notice he lost the baby.” (Laughs.)
Another family trial of Natalia with her husband and daughter took place in the summer of 2003, before the final of the World Championships in Chamonix. “We lived in a campsite and kept some things and gear in the car”, – Perlova recalls. – And now there are a few hours left until the World Cup final, and our little girl left the keys in the car and slammed the doors. All the shoes are in the car, we have to go get ready for the start, and we sit and think about what to do. If you break the glass, then how do you drive around Europe? Well, we were worried. And then Serik figured it out and asked our guys for a backpack, pulled out a thin metal frame and opened the car from 10th time as a real burglar. At first I thought that all this nervousness before the competition will stop me, but when I went to the start, nothing scared me and I performed perfectly (won silver. – A.S.).
To come, to see, to win. This phrase fully characterizes the only Russian world champion in bouldering, Julia Abramchuk, who now lives in Feodosia.
The world is going crazy now, and the dispute for medals goes between Garnbret of Slovenia and Nonaka of Japan and Noguchi. When Julia was playing, the climbing sky was different. For five years Abramchuk took part in the sharing of international awards with Olga Bibik.
As a result of Julia’s performance – two World Championship medals in bouldering, 15 podiums at the World Cup stages and three third overall places in the World Cup at the end of the season.
Naturally, there were numerous awards at the prestigious “Rock Master” in Arko and other traditional European star competitions.
Julia talks about her biggest victory with almost no emotions.
“The 2009 World Championship was held on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, at an altitude of 2000 meters, in the city of Xīníng. The competition was held at habitual for China level. Accommodation, organized meals, excursions and the competition itself. The minimum of independence, no stress: sleep, walk, climb. We came long before the beginning to acclimatize. I’m even was tired of doing nothing there, but women’s bouldering was in the end of schedule. Alexey Rubtsov had already become a world champion, and the girls did not even begin to qualify. There were no expectations. At first I was just glad that I got to the final. Well, it was nice to win, of course. Although at that time for me there was no difference between the championship and the World Cup: the participants were the same anyway. The realization came when the salary started to be paid. (Smiling.)
In fact, every moment of my career was special. The most beautiful were trips to Europe for the World Cups and other international starts and to rock craigs in between. Getting a visa at the last moment, 3000 km one way by car, living in a tent among the alpine mountain scenery, smelly French cheese, pizza, emotions at the competitions – everything was so much brighter than ordinary life, so I wanted to live only in these trips. Now I’m looking after my two kids. The youngest is three years old, and there is no time for anything else.
Yulia Dryagina (Levochkina)
“I’ve always had, have and will always have sport in my life,” Julia thinks. – I finished my career quite easily, winning the World Championship-2008, World Cup-2010, World Championship-2012 and the bronze of Euro-2013. Moreover, I already wanted to quit myself. The transition to coaching work was very easy. Even being an athlete, I helped to prepare young boys and girls, took them with me to general physical preparation trainings, always guided them to the speed climbing wall, because you need just a little bit of change in body position, and your pupil gets a perfect move. It’s great to see how children are sincerely happy that they are starting to succeed”.
Julia has forgotten about 10 pedestals in the World Cup stages, of which four are gold. Three gold medals were won during the 2010 season, when she had a tough competition with Ksenia Alexeyeva for the title of best speed climber of the season.
“Now, looking back at my life, I see many amazing moments,” – continues Drajagina. – As it was previously, I am surrounded by athletes, and a healthy lifestyle comes with it. My husband Maxim and I became interested in snowboarding (for example, last New Year we met in Sheregesh with cheerful couple Sveta and Gosha. By the way, Sveta Boldykova is a participant of the Olympic Games in snowboarding).
The birth of our family took place in the distant year 2013, when we went for a ride in Europe (then I was still playing at the World Cup). Now we go just to enjoy life and watch the beauty of our planet. I love Europe a lot, that’s why we went on a wedding trip in Spain.
Now, being near the children, at trainings and competitions I am really happy! After all, they are so different. Someone needs to learn how to live. And me myself learn modern technologies from them. And together we grow, and – most important – working with them I feel young and athletic. For example, they love to come up and ask: “How do you make a two-handed exit?” And they only start to succeed if you show them how to do it, and then they are ashamed not to repeat after the coach. (Smiles.)
Surprisingly, the fact is that I am now the head coach of the Krasnoyarsk region, a lot of political moments and documents I had to study. It’s only one year pased, but it’s nice to understand that I’m useful to the sport not only as an athlete, but also as a coach.
Well, most importantly, I try not to forget that I’m a girl-girl. (Laughs.) So I like to cook, take care of my apartment and sew a little at night (it’s my personal relaxation)”.
Ksenia Zaznobina (Alexeeva)
Ksenia has been winning on the international scene for 11 years, but her most abundant medal count was in the 2010 season, when she added five medals to the European Championship silver medal count, which, however, was enough for only the second final place (the gap with Levochkina was one point – 460 against 461).
“My sport career lasted for 15 years, – says Ksenia Zaznobina. – From the age of 10 until the birth of my first daughter I was engaged in climbing. Of course, we always rejoiced at victories and were worried about mistakes and losses. But these are a few moments! All the rest of the time is moving, hotels, training.
Once after the competition in China we went to a restaurant and ordered about 200 sushi. (Laughs.) Almost died while eating. I also remember how in the Czech Republic the whole team was looking for the gym, the map was in Abdrik’s hands (Sergei Abdrakhmanov. – A.S. note), and all the way me, the “smartest”, persuade everybody to go straight, because Sergei was driving incorrectly. In the end we found the gym. Of course, Sergey was right, and I was calling everybody the wrong way! It’s a good thing they were not listened to me! (Smiling.)
I was away for two months every summer. But once, leaving in June, I didn’t come home until November. I had just met my future husband Vladimir and went away! I always dreamed of children. And when I got pregnant, there was no question about going back to sports! I knew very well that it is possible to return to the big sport, and you can climb up to 35 years. But I only wanted to be a mom! And I was the happiest. It’s good that my Alevtina Ivanovna (Tsvirenko. – A.S.) approved this decision too! During that year, while I was in the decree, the level of world speedsters increased so that it would be too difficult to catch up. The record changed from 9.04 to 7.85 seconds.
Today I am the mother of two wonderful children! Viktoria and Nicolas! My husband loves us very much, helps us with everything at home. We live in Miass, we bought an apartment and got a cat! A normal, measured life. I continue to work as a climbing coach. I love my athletes and my work! My daughter (first-grader) started climbing this year, I don’t know what would go out, the most important thing is that she likes climbing! Hopefully, they’ll change the speed route while she’s growing up!”
Alina Varlamova (Gaidamakina)
Alina started her victorious march through Europe, Asia and South America (already as an adult athlete) not without help of adverse weather conditions. The case was in the summer of 2011 in Daone. Alina won the qualification, and then it rained… As a result, the organizers cancelled the finals, awarding the athlete in the first round of competition.
However, to win always and everywhere is very much about Alina. It is not for nothing that she still remains the leader in terms of the percentage of victories in relation to the total number of awards (among the athletes who got to the podium 10 or more times during the World Cup). 8 of 13 Gaidamakina’s medals are gold. That is, 61.5% of all medals are of the highest standard. Elena Repko has 55%, Anouk Joubert – 53.5%. The rest have less than 50 per cent. In addition, Alina is one of the two speed climbers in the world (along with Chinese He Cuilian) who have won both the World Championship and the World Games.
“For me sport is some kind of general mood of joy, happiness, memorable trips, meetings, victories – Alina tries to remember the brightest moments of her career. – And all this is more about friends. (Laughs) The sweetest memories are of my friends, the athletes. When we all lived in different cities of Russia, we met again after the parting and went to competitions, where we lived together, trained, experienced, performed, worried and traveled! I am very grateful to our team for the unity, support and mood of joy, which was certainly what gathered us! Time passes, problems gets forgotten, and only joyful moments remain in memory.
My way to the World Cup 2010 in Italian Daone was quite fascinating. I do not remember how it happened that I got there alone. The guys were already there. Who knows where Daone is, will understand that it is very difficult to get there alone. It’s not even possible. I left the airport, got to some town from where the bus was supposed to go to Daonee. I got into it, quietly admiring the beauty of nature from my window. We were driving for a while and suddenly we stop in an unknown village, and the driver announces that the bus is not going to Daone today. And he has to go to the garage to the parking lot. Turns out there won’t be another bus this day. I was all alone in an unfamiliar little town in Italy, where “5 houses for the whole village”… I don’t speak Italian, and the locals don’t speak English. It was getting dark…
To say I was scared is to say nothing. The driver, seeing my green face and wild eyes, felt compassionate and offered to go with him to park the bus, to move into his car to drop me off at the place where Sergei Sinitsyn and Zhenya Vaitsekhovsky (if memory serves me) were to meet me and take me to our campsite. And so me and the driver went to park the bus, then moved into the car. And we drove an hour to the meeting place with the guys. That’s when I remembered all the prayers I knew. I’d never hitchhiked once and had no idea where that driver was taking me. Thank God, everything turned out to be fine, he was a kind man and drove me to the guys.
Then more than once I had to hitchhike, I did not expect that sport will give so many non-athletic adventures. (Smile) Adrenaline accompanied us every step of the way on the road! Then we sleep in the airport of China on two seats, at night, holding the suitcase tight, or sleepless night under the doors of Innsbruck’s closed airport (Yana Chereshneva told about it in detail. – A.S. note). And much, much more! I want to separately thank Janochka and Julia for our friendship! Without you, girls, I’d feel lonely.
Three years ago I finished my sports career, coached for a while, but then I plunged into psychology. Today I get the third higher education in the psychology. I got married and I’m very happy! We continue to be close friends with Yana. We still have many common interests, but no longer connected with sports. (Smiling.)
It is very nice that the WomenGoHigh project remembers the athletes who finished their sports career! For me, it means that I was able to do something valuable for our sport and for the country. Thank you!”