“We had many fourth places as well. But this year it is only a preparation for next year, the Paralympic Games at home, that will be very, very important."
There is no doubt Russia’s nordic skiing team will be on the podium in Sochi exactly one year from today.
Earlier this week, the Russian team were once again the dominant force at the 2013 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships, winning 56 medals, including 22 golds, in Solleftea, Sweden.
From youth to veterans
The team boasts a top crop of well-established and experienced athletes like Paralympic medallist and world champion in the men’s sitting category, Roman Petushkov and multiple-Paralympic and world champion, visually impaired skier Nikolay Polukhin.
But the Russians also have a whole host of athletes who are not even 20 years old and were already medal contenders in Solleftea.
There is Grigory Murygin, 18, the third of nine children, who lost his legs just two years ago in a train accident, and now he can already call himself a double world champion. Murygin won the biathlon short-distance race and was part of the victorious Russian open team relay in Solleftea.
There is also 15-year-old Natalia Bratiuk, who finished fifth in the women’s standing biathlon long distance race, and has a promising future ahead of her according to Russian head coach Irina Gromova.
Furthermore, there’s standing skiers Rushan Minnegulov and Vladislav Lekomtcev, 20 and 18 years old, respectively. Minnegulov picked up three medals, one of each colour, while Lekomtcev won the cross-country skiing sprint and middle distance races and was also part of the glorious Russian open team relay.
“I am satisfied,” Gromova said following all of the Russians’ top performances in Solleftea.
“But not all of my athletes got a medal, and all of them wanted a medal.
“We had many fourth places as well. But this year it is only a preparation for next year, the Paralympic Games at home, that will be very, very important.
“There is also Ivan Kodlozerov, Alexander Iaremchuk and Alexey Bychenok, they were all fourth. I hope they will do better next year, but Paralympic Games are Paralympic Games,” said Gromova.
Testing the venue
Following the World Championships the Russian team are now heading to Sochi for the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup finals, which are the test event for next year’s Paralympic Games.
It will be a chance for all athletes to get to know the tracks and make themselves familiar with the Laura Cross-Country and Biathlon Centre prior to the big event.
“Sochi is a super, super location,” Gramova said. “We now have enough snow, and sun.
“There are some small problems with the track. For the able-bodied athletes there is a lot of space on the track, but for us you always have a track for the sit skiers on one side, so there is not so much space. But it will be OK.”
There’s only one expectation for the nordic skiing delegation Russia will send to Sochi.
“We want to win,” Gromova said.
“But it will not be easy. It’s the Paralympic Games and it’s sport. We will train hard of course, but sport is sport. Anything can happen.”
The Russian team have been travelling since the beginning of January without seeing home, and after the World Cup Finals in Sochi they will all get a well-deserved break before the big Paralympic preparations begin.
Starting on 18 June, the team will begin their stages of Paralympic training camps.
“We will have one training camp each month for two or three weeks, in different places, for example in Vuokatti, Ottepae and Sochi,” Gromova said.
But not in the mountains in Sochi, at the coast. We will have about six training camps before December altogether.”
The schedule is full, and even if the athletes are not at training camps, they need to stick to their regimes, meaning training six days a week, twice a day for about two to three hours each session.
Despite the Russian dominance on the trails, there are several up-and-coming athletes who could get in the way of Russia’s golden dreams in Sochi.
“Skiers from Norway, German, Ukraine are very good,” Gromova said.
“Mark Arendz from Canada in biathlon, he shot well (in Solleftea) so he is a competitor. In women’s standing, athletes from Japan and Finland, and now there is also a new athlete from Sweden, Helene Ripa. It is her first season.
“Five years ago in the women’s standing category there were only six or eight athletes. Now there are 15 or 18, so there is great competition.
“And there are very young athletes from Ukraine, such as Iryna Bui. She is very, very young. It will be interesting.”
But you can see in Gromova’s eyes that she remains as confident as ever.
“Sochi will be good, I hope,” she said, pausing a moment.
“No, I know it will be good.”