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Karin Helmstaedt

"When I travel, I talk to everyone."
The words are spoken in English, and their truth is obvious to anyone who has bumped into Vladimir Selkov, the "darling" of the Russian National Swim Team, on the pool deck.

At 24, the world champion, three-time European champion, and Olympic silver medalist refuses to fall into that unfortunate category of stars: the unapproachables.

"I don't think about being famous," says the calm, azure-eyed backstroker. "I like to be friendly, to speak with everybody. Being a star is not for me."

Such unexpected humility from a nation that has been known for its ruthless and distant competitors. So different from the square-jawed, aloof determination of his compatriot Denis Pankratov, from the provocative clownishness of Alexander Popov.

Surrounded by stars, it seems that Vladimir prefers a certain simplicity. While he admires the likes of Mark Spitz, Vladimir Salnikov, and backstroke greats Sergei Zabolotnov and Igor Polianski, he himself likes to mix with the masses. Swimming for him means travelling to Europe and North America. He loves meeting new people, and making friends all over the world. He loves the competitions, and the parties that follow.

A native of Berezniki in the Urals, Vladimir started swimming at age 9 as a result of an ankle problem brought on by playing basketball. After finishing high school he followed his coach to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), where he now lives and trains. He studied coaching at the university there, finishing his degree last year. Now he devotes most of his time to his swimming, training half of the year under his personal coach Anatoli Juchkov. The remaining six months are spent, for varying periods of time before and after important competitions, with Victor Advienko, head coach of the Volga Club in Volgograd, and mentor of world record-holder Pankratov and double Olympic gold medalist Evgeni Sadovyi.

While he enjoys training with Pankratov and Sadovyi "because it is easier to all swim together," Vladimir nevertheless prefers his own coach's approach. "He knows me better," he says of Juchkov, who has coached him for 15 years. "He just needs to look at me." With Advienko he does what he calls "methodic training," usually concentrating on distance. During a hard aerobic phase Vladimir swims up to 16 km a day, coming down ever so slightly to 12 - 13 km during lighter training.

Vladimir shows his winning form in this start of the 200m backstroke from Rome in 1994.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Swimming is his life, but Vladimir cultivates his outside interests when he can, taking the occasional time-out to play football or basketball, or go to a movie. Learning English is high on his priority list, hence the desire to talk wherever he goes. "Sometimes I read the dictionary" he says, "to learn more words."

When Vladimir talks about his country, the words are harder to find. He describes life for the average Russian population as "difficult." As Russia struggles to establish itself in a treacherous market economy, the cost of living keeps on rising. "In the space of one (swimming) trip the prices of things can go up or down," he says. "You can't keep track. Six months ago it cost 200 roubles for a loaf of bread. Now it costs 1000." (One U.S. dollar is worth about 5000 roubles.)

Vladimir receives 198,000 roubles every month from the Russian Swimming Federation, "which is nothing, about $40!" And it doesn't always come every month. There are delays, periods when the national tills are simply empty. But the irony is that sport carries on even in such desperate conditions, and Vladimir considers himself among the rich. "We (elite athletes) are lucky," he says, "We have some money from the city and from the club (sponsors). We can buy good food."

Before the Barcelona Olympics Vladimir lived in the training centre in Volgograd along with Pankratov and Sadovyi. After the Games the city gave all three of them an apartment. Obviously, from a Russian perspective, success in swimming takes on a more vital dimension, as much if not more than it did under communism.

The fact that swimming is becoming increasingly lucrative and semi-professional has not escaped the Russians. In these troubled times, they systematically attend and prepare for competitions such as the World Cup Series and the Mare Nostrum Tour, where the prize money is plentiful. Any cash they win they exchange for U.S. dollars or Deutschmarks, the two currencies that go places in Russia. Any material prizes (televisions and electronic equipment are usually not compatible with the system in Russia) they sell. "You can't trust Russian banks," says Vladimir, "There are always new ones opening up and six months later they've closed down and your money has disappeared."

In the time Vladimir has been on the international scene, the cash payoffs in swimming have increased by a sizeable amount. For his first international medal, a silver in the 200 backstroke at the European Championships in Bonn in 1989, he won 900 DM. Now, at a meet like the Canet International, he can rake in several thousand dollars in two swims. He says, "I spoke with Sergei Zabolotnov and he said to me, 'You're a lucky man.' He trained and swam for so long and never made any prize money."

Changing times, indeed. Now the Russian team is regularly invited, all expenses paid, for training camps and competitions in Europe and the United States. While the misery at home gets worse and worse, Vladimir and his teammates have more and more advantages that their predecessors during the Cold War didn't. He adds, "Now in Russia there are rich people, and people with nothing. There is no middle (class). Some people are waiting for miracles. I think it is better if everyone works together." That way, he thinks, Russia will pull through.

An optimism that is entirely in keeping with his character. When asked which system is better on the whole, the past or the present, Vladimir smiles and says softly, "The future system."

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