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Kazakh weightlifters worth their weight in gold

Star weightlifter tells Central Asia Online about her dreams – and how she got into the sport

By Maral Tazhibayeva


Kazakhstan's successful performance at the World Weightlifting Championships in South Korea last month made the four gold winners the most popular people in the country. And it has given Podobedova confidence in their chances at the 2012Olympics in London.

"I think [the team] will win at least one gold medal in London, maybe even four or more", she told Central Asia Online in an exclusive interview.

Russian-born Podobedova, 23, won the fourth gold medal for Kazakhstan, with the other medalists being naturalized Chinese Zulfia Chinshalo, Maya Maneza and Vladimir Sedov. She broke three world records – in the snatch, clean and jerk, and overall total weight lifted. She lifted 132 kg in the snatch to break the world record of 131 kg set by Natalya Zabolotnaya of Russia, and 160 kg in the clean and jerk to exceed the record set by Lu of China by one kg.

She lifted a total of 292 kg, 23 kg more than Cao Lei of China, and 25 kg more than Riksima Khurshudyan of Armenia.

With four golds and one silver for Vladimir Kuznetsov, Kazakhstan grabbed the second spot behind a Chinese competitor, whose team earned seven medals. The results made the coach and athletes very popular in Kazakhstan.

After returning from the Korean championship, Podobedova took a short break at home before returning to the weightlifting training center in Ushtoba, 300 km from Almaty.

Despite her muscular physique, Svetlana is a very eloquent speaker, a person easy to communicate with, but at the same time, very goal-oriented. Naturally, the first question was what inspired her to choose such an unfeminine sport as weightlifting.

"I was born in the small town of Zima (230 kilometers from Irkutsk), and weightlifting was 'the best sport' for us. I went to a fine arts school before, but it did nothing for me as it was probably not something I enjoyed", Podobedova said. "I even took dance lessons, but later my mom brought me to the weightlifting gym. I have a friend who competes for Russia and her mom - who also knew my mom - worked in that same gym. That girl had been training for six months at the time, and they asked if I would like to join, so I left the fine arts school and stayed with them".

As if making an excuse, Svetlana says that she "did not paint in the fine arts school", but did "popular crafts, embroidery and knitting". "I started lifting weights when I was 11 in the sixth grade".

When asked about the reason for changing her citizenship and competing for Kazakhstan, she said that the competition for a spot on the Russian team was too tough and unfair, as "Moscovites" are given preferential treatment despite showing moderate results. Podobedova was sidelined from international competitions for three years in spite of her achievements.

She missed the Beijing Olympics despite already being a citizen of Kazakhstan. To obtain citizenship as quickly as possible, she arranged a marriage with Kazakhstan's team leader Ilya Ilyin, who won gold at the Olympics. However, Russia blocked her bid to travel to Beijing, citing a regulation that bars athletes who change citizenship from taking part in the Olympics for three years without permission from their home country.

Now Svetlana is happy because she has ended up under the stewardship of a pair of good coaches, Aleskei Ni and Enver Turkeleri, a Turkish consultant.

"When Aleksei Gennadyevich (Ni) invited me, I held a world record and had accomplished other achievements. It was necessary to build on the momentum and Enver (Turkeleri)] (also) helped me very much in this sense," Podobedova said, noting that her coaches considered psychological preparation of great importance.

As a result, Svetlana acknowledged that she felt everything "will be fine" in South Korea. "The most important thing is to be prepared psychologically," the gold medalist said.

But Aleksei Ni is more specific. He wants the weightlifting team to capture at least two gold medals. Explaining his successful bet on foreign-born athletes, he said, "After the Athens Olympics, it was decided to invite athletes who can set the pace for our girls." He noted that the medals earned at the recent World Championships along with the two medals won at the Beijing Olympics, were a result of "our girls trying to be as good as the internationals."

Kazakh television viewers remember Aleksei Ni as he tensely watched the latest competition and reacted passionately to victories. He literally jumped onto the male and female athletes, giving them kisses. Hopefully Podobedova and the rest of the team will give him ample reason for jumping in London.

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