Yuri Kudinov Remembers His Prolific Career on WOWSA Live

Yuri Kudinov Remembers His Prolific Career on WOWSA Live

Yuri Kudinov is an Olympic marathon swimmer, Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, fourth fastest English Channel swimmer in history, and a multiple world champion. He represented both Russia and Kazakhstan during his prolific career.

His greatest run of races was between 2000 and 2008 when he was on the podium in the 25 km FINA World Championships an incredible 8 out of 9 years:

  • He was 5th in the 25 km at the 1998 FINA World Swimming Championships.
  • He won the 25 km race at the 2000 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships
  • He won the 25 km race at the 2001 FINA World Swimming Championships.
  • He won the 25 km race at the 2002 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships.
  • He won the 25 km race at the 2003 FINA World Swimming Championships.
  • He was 2nd in the 25 km race at the 2004 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships.
  • He was 9th in the 25 km race at the 2005 FINA World Swimming Championships.
  • He was 2nd in the 25 km race at the 2006 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships.
  • He won the 25 km race at the 2007 FINA World Swimming Championships.
  • He was 3rd in the 25 km race at the 2008 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships.

Madina Kurmanbaeva, a marathon swimmer, triathlete, and English Channel swimmer and coach, conducted the WOWSA Live interview on January 13th 2022 [posted above] and helped translate the words and memories of Kudinov. Note: the English-language translation is not exact, so Ned Denison of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and Kurmanbaeva edited the translation to make it more easily readable in English while keeping true to Yuri’s thoughts.

Note on Kudinov’s 7 hour 5 minute English Channel crossing:  he left several minutes after fellow International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Petar Stoychev.  Both men were attempting independently to break the overall speed record.  Stoychev arrived to set the record and Kudinov arrived minutes later. 

Madina Kurmanbaeva: I’ll conduct this conversation in Russian and then it’ll be translated in English. Please tell us about your first steps in swimming and about your period before you got into marathon swimming, before the open water. How did it start?

Yuri Kudinov: The beginning was complicated. I got into sport thanks to illness. I had frequent colds and coughs. On the advice of doctors, we were advised to go to swimming to strengthen immunity. Thus, I got to meet my coach, and from the beginning to the end, I trained with Zakharov’s family. It was a husband and wife who led me, Vladimir Nikolaevich and Svetlana Anatolyevna.  Our collaboration continued from the time I was 7 years old until I was 33 years old. So 25 years, or 26 as it turns out. Well, the standard way – teaching swimming, then the coach saw, so to speak, at the initial stage, the indications that I was talented for swimming long distances. But at that time, there was no marathon swimming in Russia. We naturally trained in the pool and I raced 400m (at the time, 800m was not held for men) and the 1500m. In principle, I did not have any success in the beginning in swimming. I mean, I was far from a podium, and probably even closer to the middle of all the participants.

 I had my first success at my first Russian Junior Championships. I was third in the 400 meters, and first in the 1,500 meters. The next success was the selection for the European Junior Championship for the next two years.  So in 1996 Sochi, I took second place behind IMSHOF Honoree Aleksey Akatyev. I lost quite a lot to him. At that time, Aleksey already had experience swimming marathon distances. He was already a bronze medalist, if I am not mistaken, at the 1993 Rome World Championships.  It was the start in the open water for Russian swimmers. I understand that it was not a Soviet swimmer’s first start in the international scene. There were only 5 km and 25 km, or only 25 km. I can’t say exactly now, especially in the years 1995 and 1996, when I was 17 years old, I guess. The next year in Anapa in 1997, I was second in the 16 kilometers and I ended up at two European Championships, one for 1,500 meters and the second in the 25 kilometer race.

Then my coach decided that we will not go to the European Youth Championship, as we were preparing for 25 km. This was my race at that distance. The European Championship was in Spain in Madrid, and if I’m not mistaken. I took 6th place in the race. Six months later, in 1998, we went to the World Championships in Perth, Australia where I was 5th in 25 kilometers.

Then there was an unpleasant moment; I got ill, cardiac arrhythmia.  This is called extrasystoles; this is when the heartbeat is at the wrong time. So after that I had a long treatment, out for a year and a half. My comeback was in 2000. It was my first separate FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships held in Hawaii where I began my return with a triumph – my first world championship gold. Then I repeated the success in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

In 2003, the world championships were held in Barcelona. Then in 2004 in Dubai, I was second in the 25 km. In 2005 I lost in Canada, finishing 9th. In 2008 I was third in Italy. Then I thought I had finished my athletic career, but two years later I resumed it in Kazakhstan. Then they asked Russia to let me compete as they needed a man who can compete for them to get to the Olympics. I managed to achieve the task and earned the way to the 2012 Olympic Games.

That’s my whole sports career, so to speak. It ended when I was at the London Olympics. And then further, I won the Asian Championship in 5 kilometers. After that, I finished my sports career.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: To stay at such a high level for so long time is certainly a significant achievement.

Yuri Kudinov: Well, we had a good team. We had a strong group, including IMSHOF Honoree Larisa Dmitriyevna Ilchenko, who later became our first Olympic marathon swimming champion, and Daniil Silverbrennikov, and a lot of good athletes who joined our team.

Well, how did I manage to hold on? There was a good competent strong coach, there were good strong teammates in the group and in everything. So this is where it all worked out so well.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: OK, please tell us about your favorite race.

Yuri Kudinov: Well, the best season, it was probably 2002 when I won both the European Championship in Potsdam, Germany and the FINA World Championship in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. I won both races with comfortable margins.  Those were probably my best races. It’s nice when you win by 7 to 10 minutes. Probably this is one of the best races when I managed to win with a huge advantage. There is such a certain buzz when you swim further ahead, and you know that you are out of reach.  Probably the most interesting race for me was Barcelona in 2003 – the 25 km FINA World Championships. The leaders approached the buoy incorrectly and lost many minutes.  There were two laps of 12.5 kilometers each.  And on the first lap we lost about four and a half minutes. And no one believed that we could recover that much in a world championship. But we still managed to close the gap.  And we managed to take part in the final fight for the medals – 3 swimmers who came down to a photo finish. I managed to win.  David Meca Medina from Spain and IMSHOF Honoree Petar Stoychev from Bulgaria took second and third. On the final meters, we touched the finish pads together. In the end, the officials were not even able to determine the lead by the time, and the winner was determined by video recording.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: You have competed with many swimmers who, like you, are IMSHOF Honor Swimmers. Now you have already talked about competitors, then the next question is: Who do you consider to be your main competitors?  Which of them are your closest friends?

Yuri Kudinov: You know, we had such a small international competitive group.  The swimmers were all the same over these years – they practically did not change. Well, that was some kind of “chamber” sport. And we were competitors in the water, but out of the water we were all absolutely familiar with each other. We communicated, with our English unfortunately as far as we could communicate. But not only that, after the competition, we got together with the Russian team, the German team, the Italian team, the Australian team, we went to cafes and discos together. That is, we were absolutely friendly, not everyone on their own, but we gathered in groups and celebrated, discussed competitions and distances, what and how and so on, that is, I can say that everyone were friends.  There was no such thing as exclusively rivals.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: Clear. Interesting. Okay. And here is a question that I think is of interest to many. In 2007 you swam across the English Channel in 7 hours 5 minutes 42 seconds, the third fastest crossing ever. On the same day, IMSHOF Honoree Petar Stoychev swam it in 6 hours 57 minutes 50 seconds. Please tell us a little about this day, firstly, about the preparation, and about the day itself, and in general how it all happened, because it is very interesting.

Yuri Kudinov: Well, a year before that, the first Russian ever to complete the English Channel was Pavel Kuznetsov, an amateur solo swimmer. And they came up with the idea to break both the male and female channel records on consecutive days: first, me and then Natalia Pankina.   But it didn’t work that way. The distance training is standard with the addition of some cold water training.  The only thing is that the team is more involved than just the swimmer.  The captain (pilot) of the boat which accompanies you plays a big role. He calculates the start time, he expects you to swim at a certain speed, and get there at a certain point in the tide.  So, you time it to catch the ebb tide in the second half.  You need to hit the very small tip of Cap Gris-Nez in France.  According to the rules of the English Channel, the swim is finished only at the moment when the swimmer’s feet are completely on land. And this optimal piece of land, where you can get, is small and the swim trajectory should hit it clearly.

Well, there were challenges and obstacles.  We met a cargo ship and had to let it pass.  It was much larger than us and in fact it was very scary to swim next to it because I never swam next to those huge ships.  It doesn’t look so bad far away.  But closer, it is a moving twelve-story building.  It’s very scary, and moreover, when we crossed behind the ship, there was a tremendous water swirl.  Even quite far behind it, I could barely swim in the water’s swirl: my hands could not move; my hands were wrapped in a fist because for me it was a shock that such a water swirl remained for so long.  We lost time in this – one of the normal obstacles of the channel.  I didn’t appreciate these things when I started – it was my first time there.

Then we tried to prepare and adapt for the cold water.  My training in Dover included long swims – 16 or 17 kilometers, almost half of the English Channel. This also played a certain negative role because, in hindsight, I was tired and did not have time to recover as my attempt was the next day.  This is kind of a lottery on weather – which was not very favorable to us. We swam the English Channel straight after the World Championship.  I was recovering from an illness so didn’t confirm my Channel swim until the last moment.  There was a whole team involved; Russians who organized it, the pilot was booked – so the decision was made to swim – so as not to let the team down. It was a kind of perfect (bad) storm: I peaked for the World Championship, had illness, too much cold water training the day before, and therefore not the best mental confidence to start.  The English Channel is such a complicated challenge. 

The most difficult thing in the English Channel was not so much to cross it, but for me the hardest thing was to return back by boat because you swim roughly 7 hours, and then on the boat back to Dover you return for 3 or 4 hours.  I kind of fell asleep on the boat, but I didn’t sleep until the end, when I woke up at sea there were rough waves and I spent an unpleasant 30-40 minutes being sick on an empty stomach with a tired body. This is not pleasant what I am saying, but I felt sick with incomprehensible green dots like seaweed. It was unpleasant. When Natalia Pankina planned to swim the next day and they offered me: maybe you will accompany her in a boat. I remember how nauseous I felt. I said, ‘Thanks, but no, I’ll stay to lie down.’ This is one of the negatives of the whole Dover trip – as I wanted to help her and be a part of her team. It is a pity of course that we did not set a record.

Stoychev set the record in the English Channel – but a few weeks earlier I beat him to win the 25 km FINA World Championship – so it was not a bad month overall.  Of course, it left a bad aftertaste.  But unfortunately there was no way to return there. But we probably repeated some sort of tradition. We know from history that the first to cross it was an Englishman IMSHOF Honoree Captain Matthew Webb, a British officer. And according to history, the English Channel was not conquered by him from the first try. He swam to some part of it and there were waves, and he was forced to abandon the swim, and only on the second attempt did he master it, so to speak.

Stoychev swum the English Channel the year before – so had more experience and fewer surprises.  Then there are some many elements in play to set a record:  knowledge of the route, knowledge of the captain (pilot) who is chosen, captain’s strategy, the right speed, the right escort, start time, and luck. All this critical to achieve the record.

And of course let’s say when we were swimming, the weather was not quite favorable.  The wind was on scale 3-4, and it was quite wavy.  I am told that the previous record by IMSHOF Honoree Christof Wandratsch I think 7 hours 3 minutes 52 seconds had better conditions.  It is part of nature; part of the open water swimming, and we cannot influence the way it behaves.  We should work in any conditions and that, in principle, we have demonstrated.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: Your last performance in the professional sport was in 2012-2013.

Yuri Kudinov: Yes, it was the Olympic year. 2012 at the Olympics I was not quite successful, although I was ready in principle, I had an injury.  I didn’t think going in that I had the speed to win, but I wanted to challenge for a medal. Unfortunately, the shoulder injury came back into play. There was immediate contact with another swimmer who started off the dive with breaststroke.  It was a disaster:  the injured shoulder, two vertebrae came out of place and the muscular system of my left arm was disabled.  So, I was not able to compete for a medal. But then I recovered, the injury healed, and few months later I swam 5 kilometers at the Asian Championship. I won there and became the champion of Asia. I decided to end my sports career. Although, in principle, I could continue it further, and my age allowed it, but the circumstances turned out that way, but I don’t regret anything.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: Yuri, are you still swimming, and in general how are you involved now with swimming?

Yuri Kudinov: Now I work in the pool as a trainer (coach), but I work exclusively with amateur swimmers. It is amateur sport, but my coaching is a commercial business. But I really like it because I think that Russian amateurs with whom I have opportunity to work I can say that they are all very good and despite their main workload, they manage to allocate enough time for sport. They work with huge motivation and I can say I like to work with them more than with professional swimmers. Regarding the sport that is present in my life, yes, I still swim a little, so to say, now I was called to take part in the relay in Dubai, which will be on March 6th Ironman race. It will be a swimming stage. There will be another person to cycle, and the third one to run. Well, I got into running. Last year I did two marathon runs. One marathon I ran in Moscow, and then I ran another ice marathon on Lake Baikal.

What is interesting, yes, I kind of work in sports, so sport is probably still present in my life, although in terms of a professional sport, I certainly had enough of it, so to speak.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: I think that’s the last question.

Yuri Kudinov: Thanks to you, thank you very much for having connected us and helping to translate.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: IMSHOF wanted to talk to you for a long time and this opportunity finally happened.

Yuri Kudinov: You see, unfortunately, due to my very poor knowledge of English, we could not connect earlier, and thanks to you, we succeeded. So it’s time now to talk, to remember the old achievements, to share some information.

Madina Kurmanbaeva: Well, honestly, there’s a lot more to talk about, but I understand we have limited time. Well, thank you very much.

Yuri Kudinov: Thank you for the opportunity to perform on some international arena in a slightly different role, not as an athlete, but as an Honoree of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. It’s nice that I’ve been inducted, and my name and career there during my lifetime. It’s very cool. It’s a pity, of course, that I didn’t manage to get there for the ceremony, but I was still training and I couldn’t carve out the time.

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