Disappointment = Opportunity: Kliment Kolesnikov Taking Long View Amid Tumultuous Season

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From the July issue of Swimming World Magazine: Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, FINA banned all Russian swimmers from international competition through the end of 2022, preventing them from competing in this summer’s World and European Championships. Instead, former world record holder (50 backstroke) and two-time Olympic medalist Kliment Kolesnikov will spend 2022 focused on his training, “preparing for future meets to show that I can be even faster.”

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In 2017, Kliment Kolesnikov was 17 years old when he swam in his first major international final, the 200-meter backstroke, at the World Championships in Budapest. In the lane next to him was Ryan Murphy, already the Olympic gold medalist in the event, and on the other side was Japan’s Ryosuke Irie, 10 years older than the young Russian and a veteran of three Olympic 200 back finals.

That day, Kolesnikov nearly sneaked onto the podium after a sensational last length left him only .08 behind bronze medalist Jacob Pebley. His time of 1:55.14 was a world junior record.

Kolesnikov had the looks of a future star in the four-length race—but as it turned out, he would disappear from the 200 backstroke soon after. Instead, it was the sprint events that would soon bring Kolesnikov to global prominence.

THE WORLD TAKES NOTICE

Over the next 18 months, Kolesnikov would build an enormous résumé of international medals. At the European Short Course Championships in December 2017, he was on the podium six times, including two individual golds. Shortly after his 18th birthday in July, Kolesnikov won another six medals at the long course edition of the continental championships.

In the 50 backstroke, he dominated the field and claimed gold in 24.00, breaking a nine-year-old world record. Two days later, he added another gold in the 100 backstroke, his mark of 52.53 establishing a world junior record. In a year without any major championship meets, the world took notice of Kolesnikov’s accomplishments.

“I think my lifelong preparation played a big role. From a very early age, we worked on my technique and body position in the water. All the work was done correctly so that I was always fresh and ready,” Kolesnikov said. “I was very pleased with all the work done. It gave me a very big incentive to train further. I realized that I could do even better and faster.”

The Short Course World Championships that December brought another seven medals, including gold in the 100 IM, but Kolesnikov’s rapid ascendance took a pause when all of the world’s top swimmers gathered in Gwangju, South Korea, in July 2019, the first full-world event in two years. Kolesnikov earned bronze in the 50 backstroke, less than a tenth away from gold, but he was almost a half-second off his world record. In the 100 back, he ended up ninth and out of the final, missing his lifetime best by more than a second.

Kolesnikov had been sick shortly before those Worlds, so he called the setback a “passing stage.” Still, he entered the Olympic year slightly off the radar, and that was before the one-year delay of the Tokyo Games. Then, when major long course swimming competition returned in the fall of 2021, Kolesnikov had a new trick in store for the world: He was also an elite sprint freestyler.

AN OLYMPIC PODIUM DOUBLE

In May of 2021, at the same Budapest pool where Kolesnikov had made his debut and nearly gotten on the podium as a 17-year-old four years earlier, he became the first man ever to break 24 seconds in the 50 backstroke. He smashed his own world record with a 23.80. Later in the meet, he swam in the 52-low range in the 100 back while leading off medley relays. Then, the next day, Kolesnikov won a second individual gold in the 100 freestyle, his time of 47.37 moving him into the all-time top 15 in the event.

Kolesnikov was not surprised that his freestyle times were dropping significantly. “I never defined myself as a backstroker,” he said. “I train freestyle as well as backstroke.” But the performance in Budapest put him into the mix for medals in the 100 free at the Olympics, a race previously seen as a duel between Caeleb Dressel and Kyle Chalmers.

In Tokyo, Kolesnikov was just weeks past his 21st birthday, and he instantly found himself thrust into big moments. Minutes after qualifying as the second seed in the 100 back final, he was tasked with anchoring Russia’s 400 freestyle relay, seen as a medal favorite and a contender for gold, but a fatigued Kolesnikov could only manage a 48.40 split as Russia faded to seventh place.

However, the next day, Kolesnikov blasted his way to a career-best performance in the 100 back. He was in contention for gold until the end, and he ended up with a silver medal, only 2-hundredths behind countryman Evgeny Rylov. World record holder Ryan Murphy finished 2-tenths behind. “I was very pleased that the two of us from the same country were able to get on the podium, especially in this style,” Kolesnikov said of his and Rylov’s joint accomplishment.

The next day, Kolesnikov cemented his status as a gold-medal contender in the 100 free as he qualified first in the semifinals in 47.11, and while he could not stick with Dressel or Chalmers in the final, he still ended up with a bronze medal.

“I dreamed of going to the Olympics since childhood,” Kolesnikov said. “So these medals mean a lot to me because only I know how much they cost me.”

NO INTERNATIONAL RACING IN 2022

Kolesnikov followed up his Olympics by contributing to a championship performance for Energy Standard in the International Swimming League, but in 2022, he and all Russian swimmers were ruled ineligible for international competition. FINA, like most other international sports organizations, banned Russia because of the nation’s invasion of Ukraine. That meant that Kolesnikov would miss out on the opportunity to swim at another World Championships in Budapest as well as August’s European Championships in Rome.

Kolesnikov was understandably disappointed to lose his chance at world titles because of an international incident outside of his control. “It’s hard to realize, but nothing can be done now,” he said. “I will train and prepare for future meets to show that I can be even faster.”

Six weeks before Worlds began, Kolesnikov lost his 50 back world record to American Hunter Armstrong, who swam a time of 23.71. A few days earlier, Kolesnikov had swum a time of 23.93 at Russia’s national championships. Speaking before Worlds about his top rivals racing in Budapest, he said, “I hope that the guys will show worthy results so that I can then swim with them together in one swim. It would be great.”

Most likely, Kolesnikov will have to wait until the 2023 World Championships to show his standing again internationally, but remember that he is only 22 years old as of July 9. He was the youngest swimmer in the Olympic 100 back final last year and the third youngest in the 100 free final (David Popovici and Hwang Sunwoo are both teenagers). His young age should still give Kolesnikov a long window in which he can contend internationally, even with the current interruption.

Certainly, his string of success in the sprint freestyle and backstroke events means that he is looming over all international competition this year. When Kolesnikov returns, he will be contending for gold for years to come.

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