(above photo of Jelena Prokopcuka and her husband on a beach in Latvia taken by Janis Pipars for the New York Times)
"A Success Story Out of Post-Soviet Wreckage"
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ, The New York Times
November 4, 2007
RIGA, Latvia — Like the coliseums of ancient Rome, Daugava Stadium here in Latvia’s capital is a decaying monument to a fallen athletic superpower. Once a monument to Soviet sporting prowess, the bulky structure is now a crumbling reminder of past glory.
Arriving at the stadium in her BMW sport utility vehicle recently for a 10-kilometer race, Jelena Prokopcuka, the two-time defending champion of the New York City Marathon, apologized for the facility’s condition. The once-proud sports programs of Latvia, a tiny country wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea, fell into disarray with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Prokopcuka was one of the first, and still among the few, Latvian athletes to emerge from the wreckage. When she surged out of obscurity to win the 2005 New York City Marathon, it was considered a fluke. She was a relatively inexperienced and near-unknown marathoner, running in a field without many of the big-name stars — a stand-in expected to return shortly to anonymity.
She then won in 2006 and will vie to become only the second woman to win the world’s largest marathon three years in a row. [The professional women’s race will start Sunday morning at 9:35 Eastern.]
“After the second win, people were convinced that she was something,” said Aleksandr Prokopcuks, her husband and trainer.
Over tea and watermelon at her home in Jurmala, a resort town that is 30 minutes from Riga, Prokopcuka (pronounced pro-kop-CHU-ka) said that success had made her into a kind of brand for Latvia.
“After my victory in New York, I think that even some Americans, if only a small percentage, learned that there was such a country,” she said.
Before that, she said, when she mentioned Latvia, many asked, “Is that in Africa or something?”
Prokopcuka, 31, began training at Riga’s stadium 20 years ago, though as a girl she showed little promise of distinguishing herself, said Leonid Strekalovsky, her coach since she was 11.
“I would say she was one of the worst; she was weak,” he said.
Seated on an old wooden weight bench in the stadium’s dank basement gym, Strekalovsky described how one day, while leading a group of gangly teenagers on a 3-kilometer run, he glanced back and was surprised to see Prokopcuka right behind him.
“Of course I didn’t tell her at that time, but I immediately thought that if she had made it this far, then there was already something there.”
Today, Prokopcuka is recognized as one of the top distance runners in the world, a gritty competitor with an air of grace, known as much for toughness as for a sense of style.
“She’s sort of a champion’s champion, an iron fist with a silk glove,” said Mary Wittenberg, the director of the New York City Marathon.
Prokopcuka won her first marathon in 2005 in Osaka, Japan, logging a personal best of 2 hours 22 minutes 56 seconds. In addition to her victories in New York, she was second in the Boston Marathon for the past two years and has been successful running shorter distances.
Her race to the top of this grueling, though often inconspicuous sport has mirrored and perhaps even aided her country’s difficult transformation. It gained independence in 1991, changing from a Soviet vassal to a burgeoning democracy of about two million people on the eastern edge of the European Union.
When Latvia was pushing for NATO membership, Prokopcuka joined the army in 1999, racing in competitions to boost the military’s international prestige. She earned the rank of corporal and won two medals in cross-country races. “This was a means of existence and provided the possibility to continue my professional activities,” she said.
She comes from a generation of post-Soviet athletes who are products, not of the doting tutelage of the state, but of the economic and social tumult that followed. Though independence freed Prokopcuka to compete internationally, as it did many other former Soviet athletes, it also signaled the end of heavy government funding for athletics, Prokopcuka said, creating a generation of “sports fanatics” forced to train in poor conditions, many without income.
“Everything I have done, I have done myself with the help of my husband,” she said. “If you look behind me, no one is standing there.”
A Nike sponsorship and prize money for victory now supplements her military wages. A victory in New York this year will also give her the World Marathon Majors championship, a points-based professional series created in 2006, and the $500,000 purse that goes with it.
“Just from seeing Jelena run, and knowing that she has saved herself for the big races, I think her chances are very good,” said Grete Waitz, a nine-time New York City Marathon winner, by telephone from her home in Oslo. In 1980, she became the first woman to win in New York three times in succession.
“I hope she will have a great success in the marathon,” she said. “I’m going to be there too, so I’m going to cheer for her.”
Joining Prokopcuka for the 26.2-mile race through New York’s five boroughs toward victory at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green will be the marathoning luminaries Lidiya Grigoryeva of Russia, who edged out Prokopcuka to win the 2007 Boston Marathon, and Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, the third-place finisher at last year’s New York City Marathon.
“The biggest challenge for Jelena in this year’s race will be that all the pressure will be on her,” Wittenberg said. “She has lost the element of surprise; she is now one to chase.”
Prokopcuka will also be facing one of her role models, Paula Radcliffe, the 2004 winner from England, who unexpectedly announced her entry into the race after a two-year hiatus.
“This is a stronger field than normal for a big-city marathon,” Radcliffe said by telephone from Ireland, adding that she respected Prokopcuka as a competitor and for her “nice flowing style.”
“But when I’m in the race, I’ll do everything I can to beat her,” she said.
Seven time zones away from New York, Prokopcuka is immersed in her training. She spends days running along the beach or through the forests near her home on the Baltic Sea, occasionally stopping to gather mushrooms, which she brings home for soup.
At the 10-kilometer race in Riga, Prokopcuka was unchallenged. Wearing a sleek Nike uniform, sunglasses and gold earrings, she lapped many of her male competitors, who struggled against a fierce Baltic wind in shabby, ill-fitting tracksuits.
Most did not seem to mind.
She has become a role model for Latvia’s small running community and has gained a fair degree of renown, especially among the large Russian minority of which she is a part.
“In our country, our sport is considered something of a miracle,” she said in her native Russian, explaining that because Latvia is so small, many in the country have considered high athletic achievements to be unattainable.
“When I won, many discovered that it was finally possible,” she said.