When Sergey Shubenkov settled into his blocks for the heats of the 110m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015, his mind was laced with doubt.
Aware that he had taken a high-stakes gamble by only travelling to Beijing the previous evening – in an effort, as he says, to “cheat jetlag” – the Russian turned in his worst performance of the season, finishing third in just 13.31.
Two days later, he was world champion.
It may seem like the story of an unlikely underdog overcoming the odds but for the 24-year-old from Siberia, it was all part of the plan.
“It was a risk,” admitted Shubenkov of his decision to arrive at the 11th hour. “Unlike smart people who come a week before to adjust, we just came and I ran right away. The first round was terrible; I wanted to skip it.
“It was the hardest race for the last three years. I was sleeping on the start line and it was like the starting pistol was an alarm clock. As a general result, though, it worked. I felt like a hero that I could wrestle out that performance.”
The next evening, Shubenkov returned for the semi-final and powered away from the field to win in 13.09.
All of a sudden, the reigning European champion looked ready to conquer the world.
To do it though, he would have to beat the acknowledged heavyweights of the event, athletes like world record holder Aries Merritt or world champion David Oliver, and probably go faster than his national record of 13.06.
Explosion of talent
In the final, the starting gun wasn’t so much an alarm clock dragging Shubenkov from his slumber; it was a grenade exploding him into action.
He was marginally behind to the first hurdle – and Shubenkov usually is – but he soon clicked into an aggressive, precise rhythm unlike any he had achieved before.
As his rivals began to falter, he maintained perfectly, and in the end came home a clear winner in 12.98.
When you ask Shubenkov to replay the race, there is nothing but a blank slate. “I don’t remember anything,” he reflected. “There was a starting shot and then the next moment I was crossing the finish line.”
In the end, the risk paid off, just as his coach Sergey Klevtsov suspected it would.
“Everybody around was so sure, but personally I wasn’t,” said Shubenkov. “It was a bit of a surprise; it’s not every day a guy from Russia wins a world championship in hurdling.”
Even though his gold medal was a mild upset, it wasn’t the greatest of shocks that Shubenkov eventually rose to the top of the hurdling world. His home city of Barnaul in Siberia isn’t the place you’d expect to breed a world champion hurdler but he was unquestionably born with a set of sporting genes.
Shubenkov’s mother, Natalya, was one of the world’s best heptathletes in the 1980s and though she was happy for her son to follow in her footsteps, he was always allowed to gravitate towards whatever he loved best.
“She didn’t push me into track and field,” says Shubenkov. “Growing up, she didn’t tell me much about her own career. She insisted on me doing an activity apart from school, whether it was going into sports or an art class or music school, but I had a privilege to choose.”
In his early teens, he tried his hand at swimming, football, ice hockey and just about every sport he could find. “Finally I chose track and field,” he says. “It was a good decision.”
Shubenkov’s talent was recognised early and he was selected as one of the promising few to be handed over to Klevtsov, who has coached him for the past 12 years.
In that time, he has continued to live and train in Barnaul, something that doesn’t inconvenience Shubenkov, despite temperatures regularly dipping to minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter.
“It’s refreshing,” said Shubenkov, who does most of his training at a basic indoor facility. “We do step outside for cross country runs in winter, but of course we dress up well.”
On these winter runs, Shubenkov is out in the wilds for up to 30 minutes, though due to an online tracking tool his training group uses, he is made acutely aware of his limitations.
“Everyone else is doing more than me,” he said with a laugh, “and everyone is going faster than me.”
Since taking gold, Shubenkov hasn’t had the chance to return to Barnaul but he did manage to spend a day in Moscow. “There was a lot of interest,” he added. “Everybody started calling me. My telephone was so hot.”
However, there was scant time for the 24-year-old to reflect as he headed straight for the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich, where Shubenkov proved his Beijing win was no fluke by taking a clear victory in 13.14, winning by 0.16 on a chilly night from Oliver.
Having climbed to the top, Shubenkov now hopes his win will provide inspiration for youngsters at home to follow in his footsteps and also push the decision-makers to invest more in the sport.
“Maybe we can influence them to fix our indoor facility in Siberia. I hope that my victory will inspire parents and children to come to the sport, but it’s pretty difficult to get people involved. It’s not only about role models; it’s about having a system to search for better talent and recruit people, but I’m trying to do the best I can.”
After his win in Zurich, Shubenkov appeared equally as elated, equally as buoyant, as he was in Beijing.
“It’s not even a week and I’m still super happy and positive,” he said. “I’m enjoying everything: the process, warming up, hurdling, and competing. This is my favourite job.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF