MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former world and Olympic champion Irina Privalova is back after almost eight years away from athletics, hoping to qualify for the Beijing Games.
The Russian, who turns 40 in November, has not competed on the big stage since winning gold in the 400 meters hurdles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After testing herself against some of the country’s top sprinters at a local meeting last month, Privalova has decided to try her luck at the July 17-20 national championships, setting her sights on her fourth Olympics.
Privalova has chosen to go back to her first love -- the 100 meters. She won the first of her four Olympic medals, a bronze, in the 100 and added a silver in the 4x100 relay at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
“Honestly, after all these years I still have the hunger to compete,” the mother of three children, Alexei, 20, Maria, six, and two-year-old Katya, told Reuters in an interview.
“Although, my approach is a bit different now. Winning is no longer a matter of life and death. I don’t put any extra pressure on myself to win or get a medal,” she said.
“Competing is pure fun now. I just enjoy what I‘m doing.”
The Muscovite said her decision to turn back the clock had irked some of her younger rivals. “I do get that dirty look from time to time as if to say ‘What’s that old grandma doing here? Hasn’t she had enough already’?”
Privalova said she understood their feelings.
“They may feel that I‘m taking their spot on the team,” she said. “Big-time sports is a very competitive, even cruel business, there’s no room for sentiment.”
She said she also wanted to show that women could be successful at combining top-level sports and motherhood.
“Of course, with three kids, it’s a big challenge.”
Privalova’s husband and coach Vladimir Parashchyuk called her comeback a test of human potential.
“Being the mother of three, I don’t think it has been done before, at least in athletics,” he said.
Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of two, won four gold medals, in the 100, 200, 80 metres hurdles and the 4x100 relay, at the 1948 London Olympics.
Being the world record holder in the high and long jump, the Dutchwoman could have won six but the Olympic rules at the time allowed women to compete in only four events.
“I don’t think it’s a fair comparison,” Parashchyuk said.
“It was a long time ago. The competition is a lot tougher now, especially among women. For Irina, just making the Russian Olympic team would be like winning a medal.”
Privalova rated her chance of competing in Beijing next month as a long shot. “Just qualifying would feel like victory and winning an Olympic medal would simply be a miracle.”
She said the wear and tear of many years in the sport had taken their toll on her body.
“I may have a young mind when it comes to competing but my body often feels like a 40-year-old,” she smiled.
“As you start serious training and want to push yourself to the limit, all these old injuries, little twinges, are suddenly coming back. Staying injury-free is my biggest concern now.”
Knowing her determination and competitive spirit, not many would bet against her making it to the starting blocks in Beijing, however.
In 2000, she won the Olympic gold in just her eighth hurdles race over 400 meters, taking a full second off her personal best to win the Sydney final against a strong field that included defending champion Deon Hemmings of Jamaica.
The Russian missed the next season after tearing knee ligaments, then took the following year off after giving birth to her second child in December 2001.
She made a comeback, switching to the 800 meters, but it was short-lived as she could not find the stamina needed for the longer distance and failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games.
Privalova said she felt happier over the shorter distances.
“The 100 meters is a glamour event in all of track and field. Besides I just love short sprints, the shorter the better,” said the Russian, who still holds the 60 meters world indoor record of 6.92 seconds, set 15 years ago in Madrid.
She still has a lot of work to do to catch up with her younger rivals after clocking a modest 11.64 seconds in her first competitive 100-metre race last month in Moscow. It was almost a second slower than her personal best of 10.77, which she ran in 1994.
“I need to drop some four tenths of a second to have a realistic chance of making the Olympic team,” she said.
If she does make it to Beijing, Privalova may not be the oldest women sprinter there.
That honor could belong to 48-year-old, Jamaican-born Merlene Ottey, now competing for Slovenia, if she can achieve the qualifying time.
Ottey has taken part in every Olympics since the 1980 Games in Moscow and her tally of nine Olympic medals is more than any other woman in track and field.
“We have competed against each other for many, many years,” said Privalova. “It would be nice to meet her again in Beijing.”
Editing by Clare Fallon