Sprawling across a seat in the Luzhniki Olympic Swim Stadium, a slim young man blends in with the cluster of teenagers sitting around him. At midafternoon on a steamy Moscow day, Igor Polyansky, 21—wearing a blue-and-white tracksuit and Adidas running shoes—divides his attention between the swim meet unfolding before him and the cassette tape of the Soviet rock group Black Coffee ringing in the earphones of his Sony Walkman. Less than 24 hours after breaking the world record for the 100-m backstroke, Polyansky says he is “tired—very, very tired.” But with the Seoul Olympic Games fast approaching, rather than rest, he says, “I work like an elephant.” That ethic has propelled Polyansky from a sickly child to the Soviet Union’s premier swimming medal hope at this
month’s Olympics. In the nine years since he entered his first competition—a meet called The Happy Dolphin, in his home town of Novosibirsk, 2,800 km from Moscow—Polyansky has broken four world swimming records, three this year. His record in the 200-m backstroke, which he set in 1985, is one of swimming’s longest-standing marks. In July in Moscow, he swam the 100-m backstroke in 55 seconds, breaking his own world record by 0.16 seconds. But last month, American David Berkoff, 21, lowered the mark by 0.09 seconds. In Seoul, Polyansky hopes to beat Berkoff and fulfil what he describes as his “greatest ambition” by winning a pair of Olympic golds.
Polyansky’s hopes are reflected in his workout schedule. He spends an average of six days a week, year-round, on a
strict regimen that begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends when he goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. Of his customary Monday off, Polyansky says, “I sleep—usually until lunchtime.”
His dedication mirrors that of most Soviet sports heroes, but his lifestyle reflects that of most North American teenagers. An avid moviegoer—he learned to speak some English in school—his favorite film is the 1984 slapstick American comedy Police Academy, which he recently saw on video cassette in Moscow. Foreign films are not generally available in the Soviet Union.
When he goes abroad, Polyansky attends films whenever possible, favoring the adventures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. And his cassette collection for the ever-present Walkman ranges from such heavy-metal groups as Iron Maiden and Scorpions to the pop group Pet Shop Boys.
Those interests are far outstripped by his fierce passion to excel in the pool. After suffering from frequent colds and respiratory problems as a child, Polyansky first began swimming on the advice of a local doctor who thought it would improve his condition. When he won a series of races in Novosibirsk, Polyansky says that he started thinking of the world championships. “I knew where I was going,” he says. “Since then, it has taken me many hours and years of training to get there.”
Because of his training and competition schedule, Polyansky returns to his home town on an average of just “four to five times a year.” He seldom sees his father and mother, who work as a butcher and librarian in Novosibirsk. Separated from his parents, the strongest influence on his career has been Vladimir Selushev, his coach for the past eight years. Says Polyansky of his mentor: “He is the only one who really helped, and I owe everything to him.”
When he is not swimming, Polyansky now spends most of his private time in Moscow with his fiancée, recently retired Soviet national team swimmer Larisa Moreva, 21. They plan to marry immediately after the Games.
Polyansky admits that he finds the constant training tiresome and he has not yet decided how much longer he will compete after the Games. Acknowledging that his swimming prowess has enabled him to travel the world and enjoy a lifestyle attained by few Soviets, Polyansky said that he is already looking forward to a new career running a video bar or café in Moscow. Said Polyansky: “Many athletes lose themselves after they retire and do not know what to do. One must establish one’s own place in life.” For now at least, his place appears to be the medal podium in Seoul.
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