Yulia Efimova (3 April, 1992) is a Russian breaststroke specialist who stormed onto the international scene as a young teenager in 2007, and who today competes with the best at all of the discipline’s distances (50m, 100m, 200m).
The 2007 European Junior Championships in Antwerp marked Efimova’s first appearance on an international podium, taking gold medals home for 50m and 200m breaststroke, and a silver for 100m. Six months later she made her first emphatic statement at a senior meet, sweeping the three breaststroke events at the European Short Course Championships in Debrecen, while setting new European Short Course records in the 100m and 200m, and a new championship record in 50m. She was still just 15 years old.
Her impressive form continued into 2008, when she won her first major long course title at the senior level, taking home the 200m breaststroke gold in a championship record time at the European Championships in Eindhoven, along with silver in the 50m event. Three weeks later at the World Short Course Championships in Manchester, she took bronze in the 200m breaststroke, came fifth in the 100m, and despite touching second in the 50m event, was later disqualified for a false start. At the Beijing Olympics she ended up less than one-tenth of a second outside the medal placings in the 100m breaststroke, and came fifth in the 200m event.
2009 launched Efimova to the pinnacle of the sport as she took gold in the 50m breaststroke at the World Championships in Rome – breaking the world record in the process (30.09s) – and finished second in the 100m behind Rebecca Soni. In 2010 she added the 50m and 100m European breaststroke titles to her resume in Budapest, breaking the championship record in both events. In the FINA/Arena Swimming World Cup series, she won the 50m and 100m events in Berlin, where she also took second in the 200m breaststroke, and took the 50m and 100m gold medals in Moscow. At the year-end World Short Course Championships in Dubai, she narrowly missed out on medals in the 50m and 200m breaststroke, and finished a disappointing seventh in the 100m.
2011 has produced more strong performances with top-five times in the world in all three of her events – including the world’s second-best 200m breaststroke swim of the year . In Shanghai at the World Championships she won two silver medals in 50 and 200m breaststroke. With the London Olympics starting to loom on the horizon, Efimova’s preparations are well on track for her to realize a childhood dream – an Olympic medal.
When Yulia Efimova was just one year old, her father Andery made the difficult – but in retrospect, wise – decision to uproot from their home in Grozny, Chechnya, in search of a safer environment in which to bring up his young family. In the Rostov Oblast city of Volgodonsk, her parents were free of the pressures of the Chechen War to help their offspring decide on whether to pursue the elegance of gymnastics and acrobatics, which Yulia’s mother preferred, or swimming, which Andery favoured. Time shows that dad persevered, and took on the role as Yulia’s first coach. However, her periodic outbursts and resistance to her father’s mild methods prompted them to agree on a non-relative as a coach, and so the 13-year-old moved to Taganrog and Irina Vyatchanina. Her new coach proved far tougher than dad, controlling her diet, banning cosmetics, and making a difficult but telling decision – getting Yulia to concentrate on breaststroke.
Like Irina’s son Arkady (European backstroke champion and Olympic medallist), who she also coaches, Yulia is an Aires, whose signature element is fire. Irina says of such “fiery” children: “They understand what they want in life. They do not have time for discos, for walks.” As a result of their drive and focus, her relationship with her charges is a “liaison”, in which the trainer guides, and the swimmer brings their own discipline and creativity to their training. There is therefore space to experiment, and less rigidity in the development process. It’s no wonder that Yulia has shown such maturity for her young age, and one has to remind oneself that she was still only seventeen when she broke the 50m breaststroke world record in Rome.
Her Rome triumph was actually the third time she had broken the world record. She set new marks of 30.23 and 30.05 in Moscow on 28th April, 2009, only to have them disqualified retroactively by FINA in a May 19th ruling on the ‘illegal’ swimsuit she was wearing. Yulia’s reaction was remarkably mature: “It's all right, I will prove I am the best.” Three months later, she did just that, on one of swimming’s biggest stages.
In June 2011, Yulia took the bold step of moving to the US to train with breaststroke maestro, Dave Salo, at Southern California’s Trojan Swim Club. Now she trains regularly with rivals Rebecca Soni (Olympic 200m breaststroke champion, world 100m breaststroke champion) and Jessica Hardy (50m and 100m breaststroke world record holder), as well as some of the world’s top men in the discipline, including Kosuke Kitajima, Eric Shanteau, and Ed Moses. Being in the pool daily with such world-class training partners can only rub off on her, and with Dave Salo’s guidance there’s every likelihood that her results in the pool will begin to reflect that. Indeed, in one of her first meets in the US, she posted the second-fastest 200m breaststroke time to date of 2011.
Despite being a move fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, Yulia has settled in well in Los Angeles, and enjoys the relaxed, supportive environment, not to mention the constant sunshine. She feels she has become calmer as a result, as well as happy. It’s a change that one of the Russian national coaches noticed immediately when she joined up with her teammates in preparation for the Shanghai World Championships – her ‘happy eyes’, prompting him to reflect: “If an athlete starts out with such a mood, they will be able to do anything.”
Irina Vyatchanina has similar ideas on what it takes to be an Olympic champion. “If you have character, it is possible to win, even if nobody expects it from you. Olympic character is the character of the winner: the sportsman/woman is not satisfied with the results they’ve already achieved, he/she wants to surprise everybody. Including him/herself.”
Given Yulia’s maturity, strength of character, and happy teenage demeanor – not to mention her talent and determination – it seems that she may just be ready to surprise herself in London a year from now.