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Interview of Iryna Merleni, the Olympic champion in wrestling
Vasyl Vyrastyuk, a Ukrainian, has been recognized as the strongest man on earth. Iryna Merleni, also a Ukrainian, an athlete of superior strength, can be regarded as arguably the strongest woman on earth. She has won two European and three world championships in freestyle wrestling. Iryna Merleni was the first woman athlete to win the gold medal at the Olympics when the freestyle wrestling event was introduced as part of the Olympic program in 2004. At present, she is a student of a teachers' training college in Kamyanets-Podilsky and (by correspondence) of the Inter-Regional Academy of Personnel Management in Kyiv. Iryna Melnyk was interviewed by Yuliya HRESYK.
Missis Melnyk, when did you discover in yourself an ambition to become a wrestler? Was it in your childhood?
No, not in my childhood. My childhood ambitions were to become a singer or an actress. In fact, I have not yet given up on them… I was born in the picturesque town of Kamyanets-Podilsky. Because of my family circumstances, I was raised by my grandmother until I was five. Then, we moved to the town of Khmelnytsky.
In school, as a pupil, I think I was very active, even restless. I took part in all kinds of competitions and amateur performances. I was interested in and excited by so many things. At the age of six I started doing gymnastics and I liked it so much that usually I came an hour earlier before the workout, but then I fell ill — with hepatitis — and my coach told me that I should do no sports for a year to fully recover. I was badly shocked by it. I just could not imagine myself without doing some sports! But a ban is a ban. I did some exercises though, to keep in shape. However, when the term expired, I did not return to gymnastics — by that time I had developed another interest, and this time it was music. Also, I began to play chess, and I loved it no less strongly than music or gymnastics. But it seemed I would never be able to achieve a definitive success in anything I was doing. So at the age of fifteen I decided I had to engage myself in something that would bring achievement and success. My father encouraged me, and when I told him I thought of going into wrestling, he said I would surely do fine in it, but at the same time he, was dead against it, claiming it was not a sport for women. In fact, freestyle wrestling was not a very popular sport at that time.
Did anybody in your family do any wrestling or weight lifting?
Yes, my father did some wrestling, so my decision was prompted by his example. Sports were highly regarded and practiced in our family. My younger brother and I were all the time encouraged to compete — who will run faster? Who will jump higher? And I did attend some wrestling workouts in a gym when I was only five.
What were your first impressions when you began your wrestling career in earnest?
Not very inspiring. I collected a lot of bruises and even began to have doubts whether I had made a right decision. But I persevered, and the moment I felt I had improved considerably I realized I was on the right track. And I developed an ambition to win at championships.
How much time do you devote to workouts and training?
In my first year of training I had workouts every other day but later it was each day. I progressed very quickly and in 1998 I won my first medal… These days I have workouts three times a day. Believe me, it’s pretty hard. I get so tired by the end of the day that sleep seems to be the only thing I long for.
What about your father? Did he change his mind about your wrestling?
Yes, he did. And he gave me all the encouragement he could. My brother was and is particularly encouraging. He helps me train for the Olympics of 2008. My coach is Ruslan Savlokhov, an experienced trainer. He is great, he is like a father to me. He is more tolerant than my brother too. Sometimes I think he is being too good to me.
Did you have any proposals from foreign countries to go there and compete under their colors?
I did, particularly after I had won the world championships of 2000 and of 2001. I chose to go to Greece — they were particularly persuasive. I won several commercial competitions and I would have probably stayed in Greece for good but when I learnt that women’s wrestling had been included into the Olympic program, I wanted to take part in the Olympics representing Ukraine rather than Greece — and I came back to Ukraine. At that time a special money allowance was established for athletes by a presidential decree and it made my decision all the more easier.
But did you really like it in Greece?
Oh yes, I did. It’s a wonderful country. I lived very close to the sea, but I could do my training in the mountains too. The climate of the place I lived in suited me absolutely fine. It was helpful for my training too.
I know that you chose a different name for yourself while you were in Greece. Did you get married there?
No, I did not. Soon after I began to represent Greece, my coaches and I decided it would be reasonable for me to have a name that would be easier to remember by the Greek fans and somehow we chose Merleni — it sounded right. So, now I’m Iryna Merleni.
Did you expect to win at the Olympics of 2004?
My coach kept saying that I had good chances of being among the top three wrestlers — but I went one better and won the gold. I was enormously happy. I could not quite believe I had done it. I wanted to kiss everyone in sight, I wept with joy. And I was very proud that I represented Ukraine rather than Greece.
At the latest world championship, which was held in Azerbaijan, you won the silver medal with the Japanese athlete winning the gold. Do you want to prove that you can still do better than that?
I’m so eager to do it!
So, there are no thoughts of quitting the big sport, are there?
There was time when I thought I’d quit as soon as I began to lose but wrestling is what I love doing professionally, and as long as I feel I have enough strength in me, I’ll go on doing it. Besides, thanks to wrestling, I’ve been to many countries of the world and seen so much! I do want to win the gold at the Olympics of 2008. I know it’ll be very hard to do. The competition is very stiff. My greatest opponent is the Japanese athlete Itcho Tchiharu, the one that won the previous world championship. On the mat we are ready to tear each other to pieces but in everyday life we are good friends. Most of the competitors are civil to each other.
Good luck to you then at the Olympics.
May I ask you a personal question?
Yes, go ahead.
You said you had not married anyone in Greece — but are you married now?
Yes, I am. I met my future husband Andriy in Lviv, at a culture college in 2002. We began to romantically see each other but then we sort of broke up. However, our love did not die and we were destined to meet again. And I’m happy to say that we got married.
Who is the head of your family?
We have established a full equality. Sometimes I feel I wish I could do with a less equality (Iryna smiles). We take important decisions only with the absolute consent of both parties. We do not have any significant problems in reaching such decisions either. Probably because Andriy used to be a wrestler too.
Do you do any cooking?
Frankly, there is not much time left for housekeeping. I did do a lot of cooking when I was pregnant and did not do any training. But I have to admit I don’t like cooking too much.
How soon after the birth of your son did you resume your training?
About six weeks after the delivery. It’s hard to combine being a mother and doing all those workouts. My parents help a lot by babysitting. The hardest thing is to be away from my son. All my thoughts are always with him.
Would like your son to become an athlete too?
It’s too early to say, but I do think that being a professional athlete is a very hard life. I find it exciting — but I want him to have even a more exciting life. But of course, I’ll want him to do whatever he wants to do in life, and I’ll encourage him in every possible way.
You said that thanks to your being a successful wrestler you had seen a lot of the world. Which places did you like best?
Let me see — I’ve been to the USA, Switzerland, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece… and somewhere else. I think I was particularly impressed by the USA. In 2002, I won my third world championship which was held in New York… In California I enjoyed swimming in an ocean aquarium and taking trips into mountains to see enormously tall trees… I want to see Japan very much, and I am looking forward to seeing Beijing and other places in China during the Olympics to be held there later this year.
Do you have any time left for leisure? For traveling as a tourist?
No, unfortunately I have very little of what might be called free time. But I do some tourist traveling in Ukraine. I love the Carpathians, particularly in winter. I observed the New Year and Christmas celebrations when I was there and it was a great spectacle, with people, colorfully dressed, greeting each other, singing and dancing in the streets… In summer, I manage to combine training and a bit of vacationing when we go for training to Alushta on the Crimean southern coast… Also, I like listening to music and singing. I do not have a very good voice but it does not bother me — I go ahead and sing just because I love doing it. After I quit sport, maybe I’ll go into show business. My singing helps me psychologically before important competitions. It relaxes me, and helps concentrate. If I sing before I go to bed, it helps me fall asleep faster.
Do you like socializing with friends?
I do. And I have a lot of friends too, and not only among my fellow athletes. Among my friends are pop stars — Oleksandr Ponomaryov and Natalya Valevsky. I took part, alongside them, in the show called Patriots’ Games which was filmed in France and in Portugal. It was a great fun.
I’ve read in a newspaper that a book about you was being written. Is it true?
Yes, it is. In fact, the book has already been written. It was written by Yan Dymov, a journalist, formerly a wrestler too. He saw me wrestle at competitions and decided he wanted to write a book about me. The book is called Ot boli golos khripnet (The Voice Goes Hoarse From Pain). It felt so nice to know that I could inspire someone to write a book about myself.
Photos are from Mrs Iryna MERLENI’s archives
At the world championship in 2005 when
Iryna Merleni won the silver medal.
Iryna Melnyk (Merleni) with her father Oleksiy
after winning her first gold medal at the world
championship in 1998. Manchester, Great Britain.
At the Patriots’ Games being filmed in France.
Vitaliy Kozlovsky, a pop singer,
is Iryna Merleni’s fan.
Iryna Merleni and Volodymyr Turchynsky “Dynamit”,
a Russian actor.