By any standard of reckoning, the world record Yulia Pechon-kina set at the Russian track-and-field championships in Tula on 8 August was a stunning performance. The Siberian's time for the 400m hurdles, 52.34sec, sliced more than a quarter of a second off the previous world mark, the 52.61sec clocked by Kim Batten of the USA on the way to the World Championship title in Gothenburg in 1995. In a sprint event, that is a huge margin.
It was an equally staggering 0.76sec improvement on Pechonkina's previous best time. It was also the only world record set in 2003 in an Olympic-standard event on the track, and yet it received scant recognition in the track-and-field world outside Russia. That was due in large part to its coincidence with the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace, in which, ironically, the big pre-World Championship 100m race was ruined by a fault with the timing gear. Nobody knows how fast Dwain Chambers ran that day.
Pechonkina's world-record run might have gained widespread public attention had the 25-year-old won the 400m hurdles title at the World Championships in Paris three weeks later. As it transpired, though, she suffered a shock defeat in the final in the Stade de France, losing a five-metre lead in the finishing straight to finish third behind the 20-year-old Jana Pittman of Australia and Sandra Glover of the USA. Pechonkina's time, 53.71sec, was 1.37sec down on her world record. Pittman's 53.22sec was the second fastest of the year.
Pechonkina's remarkable story slipped by virtually without notice. It started in January when she broke down at a training camp in Moscow. She felt dizzy and began vomiting. She told the Russian team doctors it was not the first time it had happened. She had suffered a similar collapse 18 months earlier. After two days in bed, however, she felt well again, and two days after that she was back training.
Pechonkina competed in the Russian Indoor Championships and gained selection in the flat 400m for the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. She reached the semi-finals in the individual event and helped the Russian team win the 4 x 400m relay. Her health problems had been forgotten about.
But then, at a spring training camp at Adler on the Black Sea in May, she broke down again. "It was much worse than in January," Valentin Maslakov, the Russian head sprint coach, recalled. "We tried to cure it at the sports base in Adler, but with each day her condition was worsening. After six days, we sent her to Krasnoyarsk, her family home in Siberia. We did not know what the problem was. I was just afraid she would miss all the outdoor season."
That might not have been the worst of fears. Doctors in Krasnoyarsk discovered Pechonkina had actually suffered what in effect was a mild stroke. They diag-nosed a blood problem affecting the circulation in her brain. The condition, they said, could be controlled with drugs. "The initial information from the doctors in Krasnoyarsk was alarming," said Maslakov. "But they did a huge amount of work to cure Yulia. Within a month she was able to resume training, step by step, under the supervision of a doctor."
Two months after that came not so much the step as the quantum leap of the world record in Tula - followed by the backward step of the bronze medal at the World Championships in Paris, plus a silver as a member of the Russian quartet in the 4 x 400m relay.
It has left Pechonkina a little bemused as she looks back on her roller-coaster ride of 2003, and on the nadir of her breakdown in Adler. "Of course I was very worried," she said. "I couldn't stop the nausea or the vomiting. I knew something bad was happening.
"I try not to worry too much now," she added, looking to the present and the future. "I have to be careful of changes in air pressure, but as long as I take my medication there should be no problems again."
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