After competing in four editions of the Olympic Winter Games, starting back in 1988 in Nagano, where he finished 20th in the luge, Alexander Yurievich Zubkov decided to retire in summer 2010. He had been the most successful competitor in Russian bobsleigh history, becoming the first competitor from his country to win Olympic medals (silver in the two-man sled at Turin 2006, bronze in the four-bob at Vancouver 2010).
Zubkov was also three times winner of the FIBT World Cup – in 2005, 2006 and 2009 – and picked up four medals in the World Championships. But after deciding he was no longer capable of competing at the highest level, the Russian announced his retirement and took up the role of Minister for Sport for Irkutsk, in his native Siberia.
However, the prospect of taking part in a fifth Games, in his own country, and the dream of winning gold in Sochi, proved too tempting. After just four months, by now aged 36, Zubkov climbed back into his sleigh and was soon producing some of the most outstanding moments of his career.
He was absolutely sensational during the 2010-2011 season. On 20 February 2011 on the Königsee track in Germany, he and Alexei Voevoda went down in history by becoming the first Russians to win the two-man sled title at the World Championships. What’s more, that same season Zubkov clocked up four World Cup wins on the trot.
He won the two-man bobsleigh trophy at the season’s end and was part of the quartet that finished third in the four-man. All fine achievements, but there was no doubting his ultimate goal.
“I’ve got my eyes set on the Sochi Games,” he explained. “I didn’t come back for just one season! We talked it over with the officials before reaching this decision. The Russian Bobsleigh Federation knows what needs to be done if we want to be successful. We’ve finished in the first six in all the World Cup stages. That’s not bad going, is it?”
Alexander Zubkov (left) and Alexey Voevoda (right) - ©Getty Images
Zubkov then started working with his former rival, Pierre Lueders, the legendary Canadian champion, who won gold at the 1998 Nagano Games, and who was appointed coach of the Russian team. “We used to slug it out on the track but always had great respect for one another. Now we’re working together to win gold in Sochi,” explains Lueders.
“It’s great working with Pierre! We understand each other perfectly and get on well together,” adds Zubkov, who has graced all the major ice tracks across the globe since his comeback.
In the 2011-2012 season, the Russian was part of the team that won the four-man title in the FIBT World Cup, which they retained the following season winning five out of the nine races, while also picking up a silver at the 2013 World Championships in St. Moritz.
This season, Zubkov and the giant Voevoda have been in dominant form in the two-man, and the pair have formed a formidable unit with Alexey Negodaylo and Dmitryi Trunenkov in the four-man.
Zubkov shrugs off suggestions that, at nearly 40, he has taken on too much of a burden. “Of course, it gets harder to stay at the top when you reach my age so I have to train more and more to keep up with the pace,” he explains. “But I’ll work as hard as I can until my body tells me to call it a day. Sochi’s just round the corner and I’m pulling out all the stops to be in peak condition for the Games.”
So will Sochi 2014 represent a swansong to Zubkov’s glittering career? Don’t be too sure. The Russian could well decide to carry on until the 2017 World Championships, which will again take place on the Sanki Olympic track.