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Feature26 Feb 2014

Home advantage the key to success for Shubenkov


Sergey Shubenkov finishes ahead of Konstantin Shabanov in the 60m hurdles (© Getty Images)

A career in athletics was always a logical fit for Sergey Shubenkov, whose mother, Natalya, was one of the world's best heptathletes in the 1980s. But the world 110m hurdles bronze medallist’s calling in track and field didn’t necessarily beckon at first.

“I tried many sports as a kid and I started athletics as an after-school activity when I was 12 but my mum confesses she did everything to prevent me from doing it,” says the 23-year-old, who gained selection for the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot, 7-9 March after winning the Russian indoor 60m hurdles title in 7.55.

While keen for her son to take up as many extra-curricular activities as possible, Natalya, speaking from experience, did have a practical reason for not initially encouraging Sergey to follow in her footsteps.

“At that time our facilities were a complete disaster and she knew that just too well.”

Natalya, like Sergey, grew up and lives in the remote Siberian city of Barnaul, situated in the Altai Krai region of Russia and not too far from the Kazakh, Chinese and Mongolian borders. The city, which has a population of approximately 600,000, is by no means the epicentre of the Russian athletics scene but it has still produced a trickle of international-class athletes, including Shubenkov, despite the far from salubrious training environment.

“There's one old indoor facility belonging to the local university,” says Shubenkov. “It was built up in the 1970s but the running surface has never been changed. It was already outdated when my mum was at the peak of her career between 1984 and 1988.

“The local authorities are ready to provide a wide investment in reconstruction but the facility belongs to the university which belongs to federal government. Both the university and its owner are interested, first of all, in high-class knowledge and studies, not world-class sport performance.”

The facilities at the Altai State Technical University are undergoing a much-needed upgrade and a new track is expected to be laid down by next year. As for now, Shubenkov, under the tutelage of Sergey Klevtsov, has found an alternative base much more compatible for building the speed, strength and technique required to compete at the highest level.

“We train mostly in an indoor biathlon shooting site which belongs to the regional sports school,” he says. “It looks like a long 80m corridor and it’s well adapted for track and field. It has four lanes with a nice soft surface, a long jump pit, a tough rubber screen for shot put practice and plenty of hurdles, as well as a gym next door.

“We also visit training bases in Sochi and Novogorsk, just outside Moscow, for our preparations,” added Shubenkov, who does have the advantage of training alongside fellow 2012 Olympian and 13.51 performer Aleksey Dryomin.

Global breakthrough in Moscow

This set-up clearly works for Shubenkov, who holds the Russian 110m hurdles record at 13.09. Despite success at European level stretching back to 2009 when he won a silver medal at the European Junior Championships, Shubenkov couldn't quite immediately deliver the same standard of performance on the global stage. But a pragmatic mind-set was one of the factors which helped him to break this trend at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.

“The physical shape was just perfect and I was ready for a sub-13 performance in London. I just needed to work on my mind and be calmer,” said law graduate Shubenkov on his disappointing Olympic debut where he exited in the semi-finals, just four weeks after winning the European outdoor title in Helsinki.

“But a good athlete, I believe, should always draw some conclusions from each competition, whether they are good or bad, then forget about them and move on. But saying that is much easier than doing it.

“I don’t lie on the glory of victories or blame myself endlessly for failures; I just try to keep them in mind as an experience.”

Home championships always bring some added pressure but Shubenkov was largely impervious to the media in in the build-up to Moscow.

“I don’t remember if there was more media pressure than usual but I did feel extra responsibility for my performance in front of my home audience. It did create some pressure but it also encouraged me.”

His performance is testament to this. He didn't run as fast in the final as he did in the qualifying rounds but times were irrelevant, as Shubenkov came through to claim his country's first ever medal in the 110m hurdles behind the US duo of David Oliver and Ryan Wilson.

Success on home turf has even led to a spike in popularity in his event in Russia.

“There were 38 participants at the recent Russian Championships, instead of the usual 20-25.”

Sights set on Sopot

The next goal for Shubenkov, who is sixth on the 2014 world lists with 7.55, is the IAAF World Indoor Championships and the European indoor champion's goal is the same as it is whenever he lines up on the track.

“As always, the goal is to win every competition I’m in,” said the Russian, who has focused on upping his endurance and fine-tuning his technique during the off-season.

The gold and silver medallists from the World Championships will be absent next month along with world outdoor record-holder Aries Merritt but Shubenkov still expects a high level of competition in Sopot, and believes he needs to run a lifetime best to claim the title.

“The World Indoors is usually won in about 7.40 and I don't think the upcoming championships will be an exception.”

Being based in a peripheral location might not be conventional practice for an international-level Russian athlete but Shubenkov has still carved a reputation as one of the world's best high hurdlers so it makes sense he doesn't harbour any plans to change this set-up.

But he does admit that living in his home city of Barnaul, a four-hour flight from Moscow, does pose its share of logistical problems.

“Compared to other places, there are a number of places in Russia, even in Siberia, with better conditions.

“It's distant, it can be very cold (sometimes -40C in winter) and the facilities might not be the best,” he adds. “But home is always home.”

Steven Mills for the IAAF