'Competing in five Olympics was symbolic - five rings, five continents'

'Competing in five Olympics was symbolic - five rings, five continents'

Nina Zhivanevskaya now coaches at the Torremolinos swimming club she founded with her husband. SUR
Nina Zhivanevskaya now coaches at the Torremolinos swimming club she founded with her husband. SUR
  • The two-time Olympic medallist from Torremolinos participated in five Olympic Games and represented three countries

Torremolinos. Nina Zhivanevskaya has a long list of success stories. She has been a Soviet, Russian and Spanish backstroke swimmer, two-time Olympic bronze medallist (1992 and 2000), world champion, and multiple champion of Europe, Russia and Spain and winner of the Mediterranean Games.

The Torremolinos resident, who founded and coaches youngsters at the local swimming club, competed in five Olympic Games in total, between 1992 and 2008, under three different flags.

Watching the Tokyo Olympics this week has been especially emotional for Nina, bringing back memories and a slight adrenaline rush when watching her own sport - swimming.

Nina, how did you come to represent three countries?

I was born in Russia in 1977. In that period my country was the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1991, that enormous country was split into smaller units, 15 republics. The following year, Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympic Games, and it was decided to let sports people from the former Soviet Union (except the Baltic states) participate together for the last time under the name Unified Team. Only at the 1994 Winter Olympics and the 1996 Summer Olympics did the nations that were part of the Unified Team start to make their Olympic debuts as independent countries.

So, after that you started representing Russia...

At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 I was a member of the Russian team. By then we had our flag and our anthem. As in Barcelona, I competed in three events - 100-metres backstroke, 200-metre backstroke and the 4 x 100 metres medley relay. But unlike in 1992, when we won bronze in the medley relay, this time there were no medals.

Another change of countries came later, but this time thanks to a love story on the Costa del Sol, is that right?

One day in 1999 I arrived on vacation in Torremolinos. I stayed at a hotel, where I accidentally met its director. We immediately got on well. He didn't know I was a swimmer. I didn't know where this story was going to lead me. I ended up falling in love with Francisco. I returned to Russia, and we started building a long-distance relationship. When he suggested we get married, I agreed. Everything happened unpredictably, and lovingly.

At that moment only two questions arose - Where? and How? I had never had any plans to move or to live in another country, especially Spain. And I was considered one of the world's top female backstroke sprinters, and it was obvious that some obstacles might appear. Moreover, the transition of an athlete from one national team to another has always caused a lot of misinterpretations. In the Soviet Union, this definitely would be equated with dissidence. However, at that time 'new' Russia was quite calm about this issue.

Where in Spain did you start training?

I had to look for a swimming club to continue my sports career. So, in March 1997 I began to train in Malaga, at the Real Club Mediterráneo. By law, I could not represent another country for a year. The last contribution to Russian sport was my European record at the 1997 World Cup. My first Olympics for Spain was Sydney, where I won bronze again, in the 100-metre backstroke.

Did representing three countries at the Olympics cause emotional differences for you?

Not really. There were no differences. Emotions, of course, are always overwhelming. In sport, you are already happy if you qualify for the Olympics. For any athlete, the Olympic Games are a dream, and if you win a medal, then you feel on top of the world. I was a 15-year-old girl when I won my first Olympic medal. I was so happy and definitely above all the physical borders that are only important to politicians.

Is patriotism, in your opinion, irrelevant at the Olympics?

When I started to compete internationally, at the beginning of the 1990s, my home country was falling apart, and many values were re-examined at that time. It was difficult to be patriotic. Moreover, we, the athletes, lived in our own world - let's say, the kingdom of sports - where friendship, a healthy spirit of competition and support were most important. Perhaps that is why I was able to win an Olympic bronze medal in Barcelona.

As for patriotic feelings for a particular country, for me, there was no national team of a particular country. For me, there was an organisation that believed in me and gave me the opportunity to show what I was capable of.

Did you retire because you knew you were not able to give your best anymore?

Participating at five Olympics is a great achievement. After Sydney, I represented Spain in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008 where I reached the semi-finals in the 100m backstroke. I was aware that it would be difficult to win an Olympic medal in Beijing, but it was important for me to participate. After all, for me, the Olympics in Beijing were the fifth, and it just seemed to me symbolic - five Olympic rings, five continents. Frankly speaking, it was also morally important for me to get back into the sport, since in 2005 I gave birth to a daughter. I proved to myself that I was still capable of a lot.

After the Olympics in Beijing I announced my retirement from competition. I wanted to concentrate on my family and devote myself to coaching at my swimming club in Torremolinos where I work with my husband.

There I feel the international atmosphere every day. I train kids who were born in different countries and now live on the Costa del Sol, or were born here but of parents of different origins. There are lots of people from Great Britain, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, among others.

They speak different languages but they have one thing in common - a love for sports and swimming. And for me, only that counts.