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    BRAMA News and Community Press

    BRAMA, December 1, 2002, 1:00 pm ET


    Champion Swimmers in New York: An Interview with Oleg Lisogor and Denys Sylantyev
    by Lada Shara


     ·  Photo: Ukrainian wins gold in World Cup breaststroke finals
     ·  Photo: Gold Medalist Oleh Lisogor flanked by Silver and Bronze winners
     ·  Photo: Gold for swimmer Oleh Lisogor
     ·  Photo: Ukrainian swimmer Denys Sylantyev on the starting block

    Open up the sports pages of any Ukrainian newspaper and you are likely to come across an obituary of sorts for the lost glory of Ukrainian sports, felled by short-sighted negligence and scant funding. Occasionally you may also come across bitter reproofs by athletes, who assert the conviction, most probably correct, that they do far more for the international prestige of Ukraine than its politicians do. Not without justification, they plead for more consideration from the government, which generally remembers about their existence some four months before the Olympic Games are scheduled to begin. In all, it is not a terribly encouraging state of affairs.

    Denys Sylantyev

    Yet Ukrainian swimming is experiencing unprecedented success. In 1998 Denys Sylantyev became the first Ukrainian swimmer to be crowned world champion in the post-independence period. He was followed by Yana Klochkova and Oleg Lisogor. Oleksandr Volynets, Svitlana Bondarenko and Ihor Chervinsky are frequent medal winners, and more recently young swimmers like Andriy Serdinov and Iryna Amshennikova have begun to bring home medals from major international competitions. With few athletes ready to replace Ukraine's track and field veterans, and faced with a gymnastics team in transition, swimming is looking increasingly like Ukraine's best hope for sporting glory at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

    On November 22 and 23 East Meadow, NY, played host to Denys Sylantyev and Oleg Lisogor, two athletes who have contributed significantly to Ukraine's sporting reputation. They came to compete in the second stage of the 2002/03 FINA World Cup.

    Denys Sylantyev was born in Zaporizhzhia in 1976. A member of Ukraine's senior national team since 1994, his most notable achievements include winning the 200m butterfly at the 1998 World Championship and becoming the silver medalist in the same distance at the 2000 Olympic Games. He has set in excess of 30 Ukrainian records, including the European record in the 4x50m freestyle relay (with Vyacheslav Shyrshov, Lisogor and Volynets).

    Oleg Lisogor

    Oleg Lisogor was born in 1979 in Brovary, a suburb of Kyiv, and has been a member of the senior national team since 1999. At the 2001 World Championship he went head to head with a rich field of world-record holders and world and Olympic champions in the 50m breaststroke and, to the surprise of many, touched the wall first, in European-record time. Since then he has been undefeated at major international competitions not only in the 50m breaststroke, but also in the 100m event. In 2002 he also set world records in the 50m breaststroke in both the short-course (25m) and long-course (50m) pools.

    For both swimmers the World Cup meet was an early stage of a lengthy season that will take them to the European short-course championship in December and, ultimately, the world long-course championship in July. It is a workload few could sustain. On November 18 they were racing in Genoa. By the 19th they were battling a nasty case of jetlag in New York, struggling to be in race condition by the 22nd. "It was a little difficult," admitted Lisogor. Sylantyev added, "at first we were waking up with blood-shot eyes." No sooner had the meet ended than the two were headed off to Shanghai, where they would be joined by Yana Klochkova, for the next stage of the World Cup on December 1-2. It may sound like a glamorous jet-setting lifestyle, but Lisogor and Sylantyev did absolutely no sightseeing while in New York. "Our coaches went into the city, but we didn't have the strength," said Sylantyev.

    Oleg Lisogor (left)
    Nov. 23, 2002

    As for the meet itself, the breaststroke events were expected to provide some of the fastest racing of the competition, pitting Lisogor against American Ed Moses, Russian Roman Sloudnov and Briton James Gibson. Many of Lisogor's rivals had something to prove. Moses had lost both 50m world records to Lisogor; Sloudnov, the long-course world-record holder in the 100m breaststroke, had been defeated by Lisogor in that distance at this summer's European championship; and Gibson had taken away Lisogor's European long-course record in the 50m breast in the spring, only to have Lisogor reclaim it when he set a new world record in the summer.

    But matters turned out quite differently. Moses withdrew after undergoing knee surgery a week earlier, while Sloudnov and Gibson were unable to provide a serious challenge. Lisogor had the luxury of swimming the 50m and 100m breaststroke events relatively "slowly" and still winning by comfortable margins. He also contested the 100m individual medley, an event he races relatively infrequently but very successfully. In fifth position after the butterfly and backstroke legs, he stormed ahead in the breaststroke and freestyle to come in first, ahead of American Michael Phelps and Poland's Bartosz Kizierowski. A typically "Lisogorian" result: three finals, three gold medals.

    No such "walk in the park" awaited Denys Sylantyev, however. He arrived in New York to face a field that included many of his strongest rivals-Phelps, Germany's Thomas Rupprath, Britain's James Hickman, Igor Marchenko of Russia and China's Wu Peng-and found that most of them were already turning in results approaching their top times of 2001/02 or even surpassing them. On this occasion Sylantyev had to settle for seventh place in the 100m butterfly and fifth place in the 200m event.

    After the competition, Sylantyev and Lisogor sat down with BRAMA to discuss their careers and the ups and downs of Ukrainian swimming. Among other things it became clear that the current success of Ukrainian swimming may not last indefinitely.

    How can you explain the unprecedented success of Ukrainian swimming in the face of chronic under-funding?
    O.L.  We don't understand it ourselves.
    D.S.  Yes, the conditions in our country are very difficult, but it has not reflected on our sport in any way.

    Does the state finance your travels abroad?
    D.S.  Some, yes.
    O.L.  In some cases the state pays for them, in others we are invited by the competitions themselves.

    Surely there must be competitions in Ukraine, as well
    D.S.  But not very many. Most often we have to compete somewhere abroad.

    How do you plan your season? How do you choose which competitions to participate in, and how do you prepare for the most important tournaments?
    O.L.  The season ends in September or in August, for example, and then there's some time set aside for rest. After that the new season begins and the national team prepares a plan for the entire year: which competitions are taking place and where preparation for them will be held. Well, it's one thing to prepare, but financing is an entirely different matter. That is, sometimes financing and planning don't come together. But very often we travel abroad to prepare for the most important competitions.

    Is it true that you aren't allowed to drink alcohol?
    O.L.  That's a very relative matter. You shouldn't deny yourself too much. [Sylantyev laughs] A little bit at a time is okay.

    Denys, Zaporizhzhia could be considered the capital of Ukrainian aquatic sport. One only has to think of Svitlana Bondarenko, Volodymyr Nikolaychuk, the late Rostyslav Svanidze and practically the entire diving team. What is the secret of Zaporozhian athletes in the water?
    D.S.  I guess it's because Zaporizhzhia is home to a very good school of coaches, who have been training athletes for many years. So it's only natural that Zaporizhzhia has such a good aquatic tradition. But all these athletes you mentioned, they're the only ones competing. There is no "next generation" to replace them yet.
    O.L.  It's all because of funding. Denys still remembers, because he's older than I am, but when I was small and still in school, the funding was quite good. We even had the opportunity to go away for vacations, and there were many competitions for children. Now all of these competitions have been closed down, and there just isn't any funding for them.

    Oleg, Ukraine has a very proud tradition of breaststroke swimming. It includes Olympians like Halyna Prozumenshchykova, Heorhii Prokopenko and Maryna Yurchenia. How did you come to choose the breaststroke? Or did the breaststroke choose you?
    O.L.  I don't know I don't swim just the breaststroke. I swim a bit of front crawl and medley, too. It all depends on the coach. Mine told me that my breaststroke looked pretty good, so we worked on the breaststroke.

    It seems to worked out well indeed.
    O.L.  Well, yes. [smiles]

    Do you have the opportunity to meet with Ukrainian athletes that compete in other sports?
    D.S.  Generally speaking there aren't any chances to make contact with other athletes, because we have neither the time, nor the opportunity to do it.
    O.L.  There aren't any events of that sort, where all of Ukraine's elite athletes meet. Though we did have contact with them at the last Olympics in Sydney.
    D.S.  Yes, only before the Olympics, when everyone comes together.
    O.L.  We all know one another, but there's no time

    Oleg, why did you decide to compete in New York? After all, the field in Rio de Janeiro last week was much weaker. You could have been assured of victory.
    O.L.  Prior to this I was in Italy at the Gran Prix Arena, so we weren't quite able to line up the schedule to compete at both.
    D.S.  Besides, we've been to Brazil already.

    But here you were scheduled to face opponents who, no doubt, wished to avenge themselves on you for broken records or lost championships.
    O.L.  Yes, there were opponents waiting for me, but there are always opponents. Just now you saw that [David] Denniston swims quite well, so everyone is an adversary.

    Denys, you also have many rivals, who are very different, even in age, from 15-year-old Wu Peng to Franck Esposito, who is 31. Whom do you consider to be most dangerous?
    D.S.  I respect all my competitors. Everyone in the final, all eight men are dangerous rivals.

    Rumor has it that the atmosphere within the Ukrainian swimming team is very good. Are tensions and conflicts really absent?
    O.L.  I think that the national team is very friendly. On occasion there are incidents, which aren't terribly amicable, but there are very few of them, and they don't interfere with the team as a whole.

    Perhaps this is not the case where foreign competitors are concerned?
    O.L.  No, this isn't boxing, where you have to be afraid of an opponent or try to scare him. Everything is decided by the clock, so we have very good relations even with foreign athletes.

    Incidentally, do you speak English?
    D.S.  Oleg speaks a little more, I speak a little less.

    [in English] So you can conduct an interview in English
    O.L.  [in English] No! [laughs] Some questions I don't understand!

    Denys, you have a graduate degree in education. Do you teach?
    D.S.  No. At the moment, no, because I don't have the time. I spend a great deal of time training, so physically I just don't have the time for teaching. But perhaps I will in the future.

    Oleg, your favored distance, the 50m breaststroke, is not yet part of the Olympic program. How will this affect your preparations for the Olympic Games? Do you plan to swim the 200m breaststroke instead?
    O.L.  Yes, I do swim the 200m breaststroke occasionally. But I haven't thought about the Olympic Games yet and whether I'll swim the 200m breast there. I don't think it's a calamity that the 50m breaststroke isn't part of the Olympic program. I've improved my results in the 100m breaststroke quite a bit, and at the moment I belong to the elite in that distance as well. So, I'll content myself to compete in those distances that are part of the Olympic program.

    What are the prospects for Ukrainian relay swimming? It's well known that the breaststroke and butterfly in Ukraine are very strong, but the situation with the backstroke and freestyle is a little more problematic. Will Ukraine be competitive in the relays at the next Olympics?
    D.S.  I think it will be very difficult, because
    O.L.  That is to say there are prospects, but
    D.S.  but whether they will be realized or not is
    O.L.  there's relatively little time left before the Olympics for the backstroke and front crawl to achieve a high standard. But anything is possible.
    D.S.  [laughs] Watch, the butterfly may still go under!
    O.L.  And the breaststroke! [laughs] But the crawl will turn out fine, right?

    Oleg, since you became world champion in Fukuoka you are undefeated at major international competitions. Did you experience a breakthrough in Japan? If so, was the breakthrough physical or psychological?
    O.L.  You know, it all came with time. That is, I worked my way toward it step by step. At first there were bronze medals, then silver, now I've started winning a little gold. It all took place gradually. So there wasn't any sort of breakthrough, psychological or physical. I worked bit by bit and reached the world class.

    Does the political crisis in Ukraine affect you at all?
    O.L.  The primary problem is lack of funding. It's the only thing that weighs us down.
    D.S.  Yes.
    O.L.  That is, conflict and antagonism exist, but politics and sports are not yet indivisible entities. Politics doesn't affect sports directly, except in that there isn't enough funding for it.
    D.S.  Whenever any sort of elections take place, whether presidential or parliamentary, there isn't any money to be had: it's all been directed at the elections.
    O.L.  Even on this occasion we didn't have enough money to travel to compete in New York. But FINA helped out by paying for our hotel, while the tickets were paid for by our federation. And even they were bought on credit.

    Denys, you have set many Ukrainian records and have traveled the world competing. Which competitions, victories or records do you remember best?
    D.S.  Most of all I remember the World Championship in 1998 in Perth, where I won the gold medal, and the Olympic Games in Sydney. It was also a great competition and a great victory for me. Second place is a very good result, though I was aiming for first.

    Oleg, Yana Klochkova is known as the "goldfish" of Ukraine. Denys Sylantyev is the "Ukrainian dolphin." Has anyone thought up a nickname for you yet?
    O.L.  Oh no, there hasn't been anything of that sort yet. At least there hasn't been anything in the Ukrainian press. That is, within the team there are some
    D.S.  Well, there was a saying that went: "From behind the forest, from beyond the mountain, Lisogor comes swimming out." [Iz-za lisu, iz-za hory vyplyvaie Lisohor.] True?
    O.L.  True!

    During the interview Sylantyev and Lisogor were joined by the veteran American swimmer Ron Karnaugh, who has more than just a passing connection to Ukraine. His paternal grandmother immigrated to the United States from the Ternopil region, and Karnaugh himself has spent time training in Ukraine, including a seven-week spell this summer. When asked whether he speaks Ukrainian, he replied that he doesn't, which led Lisogor and Sylantyev to protest that he speaks it "very well!" Karnaugh has not yet had the opportunity to visit his grandmother's home region, though his relatives have come to visit him during his training in Ukraine.

    Ron Karnaugh

    Karnaugh, who finished fourth in the 100m and 200m individual medleys at the meet, has one of the harder-luck stories in Olympic experience. In 1992 he was a medal favorite in the 200m IM. His family had accompanied him to Barcelona, but, tragically, his father died during the Games' opening ceremony. Six days later Karnaugh did race in the final of the 200m IM, but finished sixth. An Olympic medal is one accomplishment that has eluded him thus far, and in the past he has considered adopting Ukrainian citizenship to facilitate another trip to the Games.

    However, Karnaugh clarified an article published recently in the Kyiv Post, which stated that he would try out for the 2004 U.S. team, and if failed to win a spot, would ask for fast-track Ukrainian citizenship so that he could compete in Athens. "That's totally inaccurate," he said. He had first considered jumping to the Ukrainian team in 1996, but a last-minute switch before the Olympics is not a realistic option. As he said, "it just doesn't work that way." Indeed, the Olympic movement discourages last-minute changes in allegiance. Essentially, IOC regulations are designed to protect poorer countries against the predatory tactics of wealthy federations, who are often willing and able to buy star athletes from developing regions of the world.

    But Karnaugh clearly values his connection to the Ukrainian swimming team and had warm words for his Ukrainian "cousins," Oleg Lisogor and Denys Sylantyev. "These are great guys," he said. "Very friendly."

    Very talented, too.

    Lada Shara, Hanya Krill, Max Pyziur

    Hanya Krill, Max Pyziur

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