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Klochkova, Medley Queen, Lays Down her Crown

Oct 25, 2008  - Craig Lord

Yana Klochkova, the double Olympic medley champion of 2000 and 2004, has retired from swimming, Andrei Vlaskov, Vice President of the Swimming Federation of Ukraine, has announced.

Denis Silantiev, the Olympic silver medallist in the 200m butterfly, has also retired, while Oleg Lisogor and Andrei Serdinov are contemplating the same move, Ukraine's national agency reported. 

Until the advent of Yana Oleksandrivna Klochkova, no woman had ever retained an Olympic or world medley title. In the four years from 2000 to 2004, she conquered both those feats: after becoming only the second female swimmer ever to win both the 200m and 400m titles at Sydney 2000, Klochkova won the 400m crown at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships before successfully defending her honour in both Olympic distances at Athens 2004. Along the way, she also won back-to-back European titles over 200m and 400m medley in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2004 and is one of only three women since 1927 to retain the continent’s 400m freestyle crown.

Klochkova was born in Simferopol six days before Petra Schneider (GDR) claimed the world title over 400m medley in Guayaquil in a world record of 4:36.10. That standard stood for 15 years until Yan Chen (CHN) clocked 4:34.79 at Shanghai in 1997, just after Klochkova had made a phenomenal international debut in Glasgow at the European Junior Championships. Until the Ukrainian’s arrival, only three girls had raced below 4:50 at the junior event: Daniela Hunger (GDR), Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN) and Daria Schmeleva (RUS). Two of those women went onto to become Olympic champions, while the third married an Olympic champion, Schmeleva taking the hand of Alexander Popov in 1997.

Klochkova made her own history in 1997, with a European junior record of 4:43.79, added the 200m title in 2:16.57, and returned to the championships a year later in Antwerp to set meet records of 2:15.63 and 4:41.70. Those performances set the tone for the career of one of the most versatile swimmers ever to grace the pool. Klochkova made her international senior debut at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, claiming the silver medal behind Yan Chen over 400m and finishing 4th in the 200m behind Wu Yanyan (CHN), the world record holder, with Yan Chen taking silver. Klochkova had a right to feel cheated out of what might have been gold and silver medals, but her pathway to the Olympic podium became clearer when Yan, in late 1998, and Wu, in May 2000, tested positive for steroids.

At the Games in Sydney, Klochkova enjoyed the finest and fastest week of swimming in her career. In 4:33.59, she established the one world record of her career and broke Schneider’s 20-year-old Olympic record of 4:36.29, from Moscow. “I wasn't expecting it; it was my dream. I had a dream before the final. I was watching myself from the outside, and I was winning and racing to the Olympic gold medal. Now my dream has come true," said Klochkova after the race.

Three days later she added the 200m crown in 2:10.68, her winning margin of 1.89 the biggest since Tracy Caulkins (USA), one of only two women to win both Olympic medley crowns (1984) when she took the title in 1984 (Claudia Kolb was the first to do so at the first Games that offered the chance of winning both medley crowns, in 1968). Three days after Klochkova's 200m triumph, she claimed silver in the 800m freestyle in 8:22.66, behind Brooke Bennett (USA), who retained the title.

Klochkova’s efforts over 400m medley earned her what was then the biggest cash prize ever awarded for competition: the European swimming league (LEN) had offered a DM100,000 “Superstar 2000” prize for any European swimmer who won the 1999 European short-course title, the 2000 European long-course title and the Olympic crown in the same event. It also gave a DM100,000 bonus if the superstar prizewinner set a world record to claim the Olympic title. Klochkova ticked all boxes. A year later at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Klochkova was beaten by Maggie Bowen (USA) over 200m medley but retained the 400m crown in 4:36.98. At the World Championships in Barcelona, Klochkova won both titles, in a 2:10.75 championship record and 4:36.74. She was awarded the “Hero of Ukraine” medal. 

By the time she arrived in Athens for the 2004 Olympic Games, she was the overwhelming medley favourite. In both races she fended off a serious assault on her status from American rivals, retaining the 400m medley in 4:34.83, just 0.12sec ahead of Kaitlin Sandeno in the closest final in that event ever seen. Three days later, the task was no less easy in the 200m: Amanda Beard, two days away from becoming 200m breaststroke champion, was level with the reigning champion going into the freestyle lap and hung on for silver 0.56sec behind Klochkova’s triumphant 2:11.14. In 2007, Katie Hoff (USA) shaved 0.70sec off Klochkova’s 400m world record. With four Olympic, four World, six World short-course and ten European titles to her name, Klochkova entered 2008 with a spark of hope alive: she might still join Dawn Fraser (AUS) and Egerszegi, in the club of those who have won the same title at three Games.

Uniquely, Klochkova would have had two shots at membership, in the 200m and 400m. But it was not to be - and in an era in which the world had caught up and new suit technology aided performances, the star of Ukraine swimming decided to chase gold no more.

Klochkova was always gracious in press conferences at which, owing to language and translation problems, she might be asked one or two questions from the international media before having to sit for 20 minutes and listen to what those either side of her had to say. In the mixed zone, just about every approach from the international media was rebuffed with a winning smile and a wave of her hand as she moved through to the warm-down pool. She left much of her talking to the clock.