Swimming: Efimova mentally tougher now

Russia's Yulia Efimova competing in the 200m individual medley. She was third behind two Hungarians, winner Katinka Hosszu and Zsuzsanna Jakabos.
Russia's Yulia Efimova competing in the 200m individual medley. She was third behind two Hungarians, winner Katinka Hosszu and Zsuzsanna Jakabos.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Russian swimmer says surviving Rio ordeal means she cannot be broken

Winning two Olympic silvers is usually the stuff of dreams for most athletes but for Yulia Efimova, the Rio Games was a living nightmare.

The Russian swimmer had been the face of the doping scandal that engulfed her country at the Summer Games in August and was booed relentlessly by large sections during her events at Rio's Olympic Aquatics Stadium.

She also got into a public spat with American Lily King, who held off Efimova for gold in the 100m breaststroke final.

The press conference after that race became an interrogation as the international media fired pointed questions at a sobbing Efimova. The 24-year-old had served a 16-month doping suspension in 2013 and failed a test for the newly-banned drug meldonium at the start of this year. But the result was overturned when she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and was allowed to compete in Rio.

Two months have passed but the memory of that harrowing fortnight in Brazil is hard to forget.

"That was the most difficult press conference of my life," Efimova told The Straits Times last night at the Fina Swimming World Cup.

"It was super hard... When I look back it feels like a bad dream and only now have I woken up from it."

The multiple world champion had sleepless nights, unable to sleep more than three to four hours, for weeks after the Olympics but she does not regret her decision to compete in South America.

Efimova said she is mentally tougher now, even as her voice broke occasionally during the interview.

"Not everyone could have gone through that," she said. "It doesn't matter what happens from now, I know nothing can break me."

Her performances at the ongoing World Cup series is proof of that determination. She picked up three medals (100m breaststroke silver, 200m individual medley bronze and 4x50m mixed relay gold) yesterday at the OCBC Aquatic Centre to add to her season's tally of 10 golds, 16 silvers and seven bronzes.

Next year's world championships in Budapest is high on her priorities though she stressed she was not consumed with thoughts of revenge over King or any other American swimmer.

Efimova said she has had zero contact with King since the Olympics but revealed that she is back to speaking terms with American Katie Meili, who finished third in Rio and had also ignored the Russian during the medal ceremony.

"The first time it was a bit uncomfortable (with Meili) but after a few competitions, things are back to normal," said Efimova, who was cheered and applauded by spectators yesterday.

A sense of normality has also resumed for the Los Angeles resident. Efimova has lived in Southern California for the past five years.

She said: "People do come up to me and congratulate me. Not everybody in America thinks bad of me because I'm Russian."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Efimova mentally tougher now'. Print Edition | Subscribe