Ukrainian twins are both hoping to add Olympic medals to their growing collection
Ukrainian twins Valya and Vita Semerenko have enjoyed individual and relay success on the world stage in biathlon, with both winning silver and bronze medals in the 2013 Biathlon World Championships, now the sisters are both hoping to add Olympic medals to their growing collection.
The twins have competed both with and against each other in the various biathlon events. “It is nice to have someone of your own blood close to you because biathlon is not an easy sport,” says Vita Semerenko. “You have both joyful moments and sad moments as well. When you feel sad you can cry on a family shoulder.”
Vita will be competing in her second edition of the Games in Sochi 2014 after placing 6th in the Relay event in Vancouver in 2010 whilst sister Valya, who was part of the same relay team also competed in the 15km Individual event in 2006 in Turin.
The Olympic Review spoke to the sisters before they left for Sochi:
How did you and Valya first get started in biathlon?
Initially, we were into ski racing, but then our coach, who had been appointed coach of the women’s biathlon team, suggested we try biathlon. He said: “If it works out, you can stick with it, and if it doesn’t, then you can go back to ski racing.” We ended up hooked on biathlon.
Is it hard to compete against your sister?
Essentially, when you’re out there on the course, you don’t have sisters or brothers, only rivals. But when the competition is over, then of course it’s very nice to know that you’ve got family at your side. There will always be times when things get tough, and when that happens you’ve got someone to share things with, someone who you’re close to, and who will always be there with a shoulder to lean on when you need it.
You and your sister have both received an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship. How has that helped you both in your career so far?
It’s enabled us to buy equipment that we didn’t have before, as well as medication, a special cream which we use to help our muscles recover after training, and also it’s helped us improve our dietary regime. So the Scholarship is a real help; it’s a great thing.
When did you and Vita realise that you had the talent to compete in biathlon at the elite level?
At first we used to miss a lot of training sessions. You know how it is with young kids. We were more interested in hanging around outside with our friends. But after about a year, the coach said to us: “Listen, Valya and Vita, I can see you’re talented kids, you’ve got what it takes to do well, so have a think about whether you want to carry on; if you do, you’ll need to come to training every day. We decided to give it a shot, and things went pretty well from the start. The coaches were all talking about these two girls from Krasnopol who were pretty good skiers, and who had the potential to do well. We didn’t take much notice, we just carried on going to the sessions and putting in the hours. We really loved it and were just happy to be skiing.
Is it nice to compete with your sister in the relay, instead of against each other?
Yes, it really helps having her at my side. When I was little I didn’t really give it any thought, but now I understand that being in the same team as your own flesh and blood makes a difference. It means you can say what you want when you want, and you have a shoulder to cry on. Everyone is always telling us how lucky we are to have each other as team-mates, and they’re right.
What was it like to compete at the Olympic Winter Games for the first time in Torino in 2006 and then again in Vancouver in 2010?
Going to the Olympic Games for the first time meant the world to me. From an early age, every athlete dreams of competing at the Olympic Games. When I realised I’d made it through the qualifiers and would be going to Turin, I didn’t really have high expectations; my dream had already been fulfilled. I was very nervous as I was the youngest member of the Ukrainian team, but they were a very friendly bunch and there was no need to feel homesick. By the time my second Games came around, I knew I was no longer a novice, I was no longer a kid, so there was now an expectation that I’d do well.
What is a typical training day like?
Something like this: early morning warm-up exercises, then breakfast, then the first training session, then lunch, then an hour’s rest, then the second training session, then dinner and then another training session in the evening.
How has your Olympic Solidarity Scholarship helped you in your career?
It has helped us hugely, not just this season but last year as well. We’ve been able to improve our dietary regime and our physical condition. It’s helped us to spend time recuperating at a spa, and we’ve been able to purchase bicycles and many other bits of equipment that have helped us prepare for the competition season. I’m very grateful to the IOC for the help they give to athletes like us.
What was it like competing at the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010?
Vancouver was my first Olympic Games and I thought I’d be fine. I thought it would be similar to competing in the World Championships, but at the Games, for whatever reason, I was much more nervous as I was desperate to do my best.
Have you had a chance to compete on the Olympic course in Sochi yet? What did you think of it?
Yes, I had the chance to try the course. We had the pre-Olympic event this year. There was a World Cup stage there, so we were able to ski virtually all the course. It’s a very tough course!
When you’re not training or competing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
If I have any free time when I’m with the national team, or during a competition, I try to sleep, or go for a stroll, to allow my body to rest and get my energy levels back up, so that the next race is much easier. When I’m at home, or if we get time away from the team, I like to go shopping. I also like embroidery or making pictures out of beads. There’s never a moment to be bored. You can always read a book, or a newspaper, an interesting article, or you can talk to friends or family via Skype. Basically, we have a lot of variety in our lives, so you can never get stuck on one thing.
Who are your sporting heroes?
I used to be a big fan of the Poirées [seven-time world champion Raphaël and wife Liv Grete Skjelbreid, who won two silver medals in Salt Lake City in 2002] and enjoyed watching them compete; I loved the way they raced. Nowadays, I just like watching everyone to see who is doing what in competition.
Olympic Solidarity is the body that ensures that athletes with talent have an equal chance of reaching the Games and succeeding in the Olympic arena. It is responsible for administering and managing the National Olympic Committees’ (NOCs’) share of the revenue from the sale of broadcasting rights to the Olympic Games. Working in particular with disadvantaged NOCs and their Continental Associations, Olympic Solidarity uses this money to develop a range of assistance programmes. The current quadrennial plan, which runs from 2013 to 2016, has a development and assistance budget of USD 438 million – an increase of nearly 40% on the 2009-2012 budget. This is the second time that Winter Games athletes have received Individual Olympic Scholarships following the successful debut of the programme in the build-up to Vancouver in 2010, when 325 athletes (193 men and 132 women) from 60 NOCs benefited from Solidarity funding. Of these, 227 athletes qualified for the Games, winning 13 medals between them.