Change of Scenery: A Look at Russian Breaststroker Yuliya Efimova

Feature by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, January 19. YULIYA Efimova has stood at the top of many podiums in her swimming career, but so far, none have compared to the thrill of accepting the gold medal at the 2009 world championships, where she set the world record in the 50 breaststroke.

"I was so happy that when I was on the podium listening to the Russian national anthem, I felt like I was flying," Efimova said recently in an interview through a translator.

If the 19-year-old finds herself on the podium with an Olympic medal around her neck later this year, that moment may become the new crowning achievement of her swimming career – in more ways than one.

After missing out on the podium in the 100 breast at the 2008 Olympics by nine hundredths of a second and the 200 breast by seven tenths, Efimova has designs on leaving London with hardware. A recent move to Los Angeles to train with the elite squad there is a step in that direction, and the result so far has been fast times and a rediscovered love of the sport.

Growing up in Russia
Efimova was born in Chechnya in 1992, at a time when the First Chechen War was looming on the horizon. Shortly after the start of the war, the Efimovas left Chechnya for the small coastal city of Taganrog about 500 miles away, which Efimova is quick to point out as playwright and author Anton Chekov's hometown. She started swimming when she was seven years old, with her father as coach. In Russia, swimmers don't necessarily belong to a team, but rather an organized group of swimmers who often come from the same school.

Efimova began her swimming career doing well locally as a butterflyer, but by 13, she had switched to a coach who immediately saw her potential as a breaststroker.

Four years later, she was a world record holder. In April 2009 at the Russian nationals, Efimova broke the 50 long course breast world record twice, but the times would not be ratified in the midst of controversy surrounding approval of the high-tech swimsuits.

But Efimova would not be dissuaded. Four months later, she would earn the world record outright with a time of 30.09 at the world championships. She would hold on to that record for four days, as Jessica Hardy of the United States lowered the world record further at the U.S. Open.

Looking for change
Though she was a world champion and former world record holder, Efimova was not finding much excitement in the daily grind. Workouts were becoming too routine, and she was feeling like she was approaching a plateau.

"I only had three people (to train with in Russia), and I didn't have anyone to compete with every day," Efimova said. "I was tired of the same sets at practice. I wanted to try something new and I wanted to improve."

Looking to change her routine of 10,000 meters per workout twice a day, Efimova searched the globe for alternate training locations. Thanks to an email from compatriot Vladimir Morozov, who was at the time a freshman at the University of Southern California, Efimova was instantly attracted to the elite training group at the Los Angeles school. The group has the greatest concentration of world-ranked breaststrokers on Earth, with world record holders Hardy (50 and 100 breast) and Rebecca Soni (200 breast) among two of the biggest names on the women's side.

Though Efimova says she had a bit of a tough time getting used to the American way of life away from the pool when she arrived last spring, the situation at the McDonald's Swim Stadium enabled her to fit in quickly.

"Everybody was friendly and they all helped me," she said. "If I didn't understand something (in workout), they would take the time to explain it. I started swimming fast right away, and I felt confident after that."

And there was no rivalry in the pool, which was evident by the smiles on the medal stand in Shanghai, as Hardy, Efimova and Soni collected all the medals in the 50 breaststroke. Despite the possibility of another Trojan sweep of the medals in the 100 breast in London, Efimova says the topic of medals is not discussed.

"We don't talk much about getting 1-2-3," she said. "We just train."

And training is paying off well. Besides the silver medal in the 50 breast at the world championships, Efimova placed second in the 200 breast in a lifetime best of 2:22.22 and fourth in the 100. Her now-signature pink cap makes her easy to spot in any race, and she said the decision to wear pink came from her sponsor, Arena, who makes the cap especially for her.

Though not grinding out thousands of meters in the pool now, Efimova said her mindset towards workouts has changed dramatically, which has correlated to the fast times in the big meets.

"I don't feel the pressure from the coach, who is always telling you that you have to do something," she said. "The practices are easier and go by faster."

Getting permission from the Russian federation to move to Los Angeles was not an issue, said Efimova, who praised the federation for understanding that Efimova's goal of Olympic glory could only be achieved by training in the warm climate of southern California.

With Olympics as the primary focus – presuming she qualifies for the Russian Olympic team as expected – Efimova isn't looking past London right now, but says she would like to stay in Los Angeles.

"I wasn't sure right away if Los Angeles would be good for me," she said, "but I love it so much."