[TRANSLATION] Varvara Subbotina: ‘When the meets were canceled, I sat and cried continuously.’

Varvara Subbotina made her international debut on the senior stage only in 2018, but has been hailed as Russia’s next superstar in artistic swimming after her stellar performances during the 2016 season where she swept everything in the 13-15 and junior categories.

At the age of 19, Subbotina is now a full-time member of the senior team that trains at the Round Lake training center all year. In 2018, she became a two-time European Champion in the duet events alongside Svetlana Kolesnichenko, and won her first world titles in 2019 in the free team and free combination events, while also serving as reserve to both duet routines and the technical team. 

In an interview with the Russian media RT on April 23, Subbotina recalled how affected she was from the postponement of the Olympic Games to 2021, and called the lack of pool training “a nightmare for any synchronized swimmer.” She also spoke about her daily life on the national team, her love for junk food, her wish to become an actress in the future, and her addiction to Instagram, where she totals over 40 thousands followers and is second only to 2016 Olympic champion Maria Shurochkina (149k) in terms of most-followed accounts on the entire Russian team.

LEN European Aquatics Championships 2018
Varvara Subbotina (right) and Svetlana Kolesnichenko with coach Tatyana Evgenievna Danchenko (center) at the 2018 European Championships. Photo Pasquale Mesiano/ Deepbluemedia /Insidefoto

Q: Have you ever found yourself out of the water for such a long time over the years of your synchronized swimming career?

A: It’s the first time. These are very strange circumstances. We don’t understand what will happen next, or how to train. However, we do regularly have “dry” training sessions online that are run by Elena Voronova, the right-hand and daughter of our coach Tatyana Danchenko. On the other days, we train on our own. Coaches send us the workout, and we just do it.

Q: I have heard that when you joined Danchenko’s training group seven years ago, you panicked and were afraid of her. Is it true?

A: There was indeed such a moment. When she called me for the first time to see and evaluate my skills, I went into hysterics to my coach Julia Potapova. I was screaming that I was terribly afraid of Tatyana Evgenievna and would never go to her. I don’t know what happened to me then, but the panic was really wild. And in the fall of 2013, a month and a half after the start of the training in Danchenko’s group, I suddenly realized that I felt absolutely comfortable to work, and that I liked everything.

Q: Your coach admitted once that she saw a soloist in you at first glance. When did you feel like a soloist?

A: Not right away. To be honest, I had never imagined that one day I would perform in solo. But when I had that opportunity at the junior international competitions, I thought, ‘I’m doing pretty well.’ I could have competed among juniors longer, but Tatyana Evgenievna and Tatyana Nikolaevna [Pokrovskaya] decided to move me to the senior team.

Q: I got the impression that Pokrovskaya, who is responsible for the [senior] team, is much more demanding of you than of other athletes.

A: It’s difficult for me to judge that, but I can say that Tatyana Nikolaevna is a very fair coach, though she’s strict. She always wants more from all the athletes and to make us work at our maximum. And it is right.

Q: In the senior category of synchronized swimming, soloists have to constantly wait until their predecessor leaves the sport. Do you often think about it? After all, the gold medals you have won in the world championships are in the team events.

A: Of course I know it and I feel it, but I try not to pay attention to it. I work for the result, and in this case it is not particularly important where exactly you will perform. But it’s probably preferable to be in a duet and a team because these are Olympic events.

Q: Which of these events do you prefer to swim?

A: In the solo, definitely.

Q: Because there you don’t have to adapt to anyone else?

A: Yes, but that’s not the point. It’s just that in solo you can 100 percent prove yourself and show everything that you can do.

Q: Not so long ago, Danchenko posted on the Internet a video where you were executing an element called “Barracuda.” And she wrote that only the courageous are capable of this.

A: And she is correct! This Barracuda, especially when it is performed at the end of the program is really for the brave.

Q: Explain…

A: It’s quite difficult to execute this element when you are tired, when the arms and body are already full of lactic acid. You need to make a 720º spin, and your arms don’t always have time to work as they should. Plus, you need to thrust into the first vertical very accurately. If you are afraid to do this and start to doubt yourself, then you will not get it 100 percent. This is from my repeated personal experience. That is, if you don’t feel confident in your abilities, you simply will not execute the element.

Q: In synchronized swimming, soloists are always distinguished by long lines: legs, arms, neck. Do they create additional problems with the execution of elements?

A: On the one hand, long arms and legs are beautiful. But you have to be able to handle them. This is a purely technical matter: to cope with this length could be very difficult. For the command to reach the limbs from the brain, time has passed. So I would say that a soloist needs first of all a good and fast brain, and good coordination.

Q: How many hours a day on average do you spend in the water?

A: Eight to nine.

Q: Working on such a schedule, do you have time to have a meal?

A: Before the morning training, I try not to have breakfast at all because it becomes hard to train. Therefore, I usually have a late breakfast. The girls can bring food to the poolside to snack on before the end of our morning session. If I don’t have team training after the solo practice, I’m going to go have lunch. If the team has training, I just join it and lunch is postponed until 4:00 p.m. We have dinner after the evening practice, but most often I don’t go to dinner.

Q: Problems with the weight?

A: Yes. We have to watch this very strictly because we are weighed in the mornings, and God forbid that I’ll put on some weight.

Q: They don’t kick you out from the base for this, do they?

A: No, but you have to work with extra weights in the gym.

Q: Don’t you get tired of the fact that you constantly have to eat only what you’re allowed to, and not what you want?

A: I’m tired of it, of course. But there is a day off for eating what you want, and when you can afford it, to order out sushi and pizza. Most of all, I usually want some kind of junk food: fried food, burgers, or something sweet. I love cakes very much.

Q: And on Monday, back on the scale again?

A: Again… And again, you lose weight all week. During the weekend, you enjoy a little more, and you lose weight again.

Q: How often do you ask yourself, ‘Lord, why do I need all this?’

A: Once a year, such thoughts appear suddenly, ‘Well, how long can I stay in this water, where all my fingers are wrinkled, why am I doing all of this?!’ But this is a very short-term feeling. The realization for what and why you do this comes almost immediately.

Q: So, for what?

A: Of course, for the Olympics and Olympic gold. It seems to me that every athlete aims for this.

Q: Will you be happy with one Olympic gold ,or will you look towards breaking the records of the five-time Olympic champion and 21-time world champion Svetlana Romashina?

A: If my health allows it. Of course, I thought about how many times I could go to the Olympics, but for starters it would be good to get out for the first one, get into the team, and then think about everything else. Tatyana Evgenievna, it seems to me, hopes and believes that I will have more than one Games. She once said to me, ‘You will swim until you’re 35. In 2036 you will perform at the Olympics, and then go wherever you want and do whatever you want.’

Q: What was the reason for such a conversation with your coach?

A: I really like to behave in an affected manner for a while and make funny faces. I’ve even been thinking about trying out as an actress when I am finished with sports. Everyone around me strongly advises this too. So, the coach said that I would go on to study at GITIS (Russian Institute of Theatre Arts) at 35.

Q: Have you already chosen a line of character?

A: Let’s see how it goes. I think drama is more suited for me. I can cry for no reason at all at any moment. I want to sob, and voilà! I’m sitting down and crying.

Q: Have you ever cried to have an axe to grind?

A: Only in front of the coach. Well, to make her feel sorry so she would let me get out early from training, or at least to take pity on me. We have the same story at the beginning of each season, as it is especially difficult to start training after a vacation. Accordingly, it becomes especially all about self-pity. But as soon as I start to make that face of ‘I feel very bad, take pity on me,’ Tatyana Evgenievna usually says, ‘You know, I’m looking at you, and I don’t feel sorry for you, but I want to strangle you!’ On the other hand, I like that a coach can be a very, very gentle soul too when I am good and calls me ‘sweetheart,’ ‘bunny,’ and ‘my good, my dear.’ But she also clearly knows when to be tough and demanding, and when to push to make me do more than I can.

Q: Have you ever lost?

A: At international competitions, I have never lost. And nationally in my last year in the very young age category with my club Trud, there was one occasion. I messed up quite badly in the team and we placed second, losing to Anastasia Davydova’s school.

Q: Were you not eaten alive after that?

A: Well, I was not the only one who messed up a lot! But of course the coach wasn’t very happy.

Q: You are the strongest soloist in the country right after Svetlana Romashina and Svetlana Kolesnichenko at the moment. Do you feel the danger in terms of rivalry coming from those behind you?

A: Of course. My best friend Tatiana Gayday, with whom we work with Danchenko and used to perform in a duet as juniors, is also a strong soloist. When I was already in the senior team and worked in the team routines, Tanya continued to compete in the junior category and performed in solo.

Q: How often do you have to compete with each other?

A: The last time it happened in 2016, I think…

Q: Then, where does the feeling of danger come from?

A: I didn’t perform in solo at all last year, but during training I was constantly watching what Tanya was doing, what kind of programs she had, and whether there were elements that I didn’t have.

Q: What are your main goals now?

A: To get back in shape which we all have lost during quarantine. And to return to all the competitions, this is the only wish.

Q: What competitions, in addition to the Olympics and European Championships, were you preparing for this season?

A: First, we had the World Series. I was going to perform two solo routines at the meet in France, but unfortunately we could not fly there because of the coronavirus. And later, they began to cancel all competitions in a row. When it was announced that all meets of the World Series were being canceled one by one, I sat and cried continuously, to be honest. I called my mother and told her through my tears, ‘How is that possible?! I’ve been dying in the pool for two months, losing weight especially for these competitions, and now we are not going anywhere!’

Q: And what about mom?

A: She calmed me down. She said that everything happening is always for the better.

Q: Maybe it’s better for you that the Olympics were postponed for a year?

A: It’s too hard emotionally. And physically as well. It seemed that everything had already been worked out. There were three months left before the Games, you would have performed, you did everything you could, and the Olympic season would have been over. And now you have to start working again, to get fit again, to work out all the routines again, to endure the whole year again…

Q: How is it for a synchronized swimmer to spend several months without water?

A: This is a nightmare, a bad dream. It’s difficult to spend even a month without water, and even when you are on vacation, you swim in the pool or in the sea and the feeling of water doesn’t disappear completely. But when you stay home and the only entertainment is to walk to the store or take a bath, it’s terrible! I don’t know how we will get in shape after such a break. The feeling of the water will be completely lost surely.

Q: Can you explain for those who don’t know, what kind of feeling?

A: The support disappears. Roughly speaking, you start to swim, doing strokes with your hands, and they feel like cotton. It will feel like doing swim strokes through the air without experiencing any intelligible sensations. But when you are constantly training, you get that feeling that you can lean on the water, push off from that support, and be strong. Respectively, there is a confidence that you can do anything.

Q: You talk as if it is more comfortable for you to be in the water, not on land.

A: It probably is. Water is such a familiar environment for me that even on vacation I can’t get out of the pool. I can stay in the bath for two, three hours. It becomes very hard without water.

Q: Can you remember the most vivid emotion associated with a competition?

A: It was in Korea at the 2019 World Championships, when we were standing on the podium after performing in free combination. The combination was the last event on the schedule and we won it. I remember I was standing on the podium and thought, ‘Oh Lord, I’m going to get down from this podium now, I’ll perform in the gala and that’s it! The real two-months vacation will start, and I’ll finally have a rest!’

Q: Romashina, like Danchenko, prefers to go sailing on vacation and participate in international regattas.

A: This is definitely not for me. I love these lazy vacations when you can go to the beach, bask in the sun and on the sand, and do nothing at all. I usually spend two weeks of vacation on the coast, and then I go to visit friends in other cities. I went to St. Petersburg, Minsk, Volgograd – to my friends from the world of diving.

Q: Have you ever jumped from the diving platform?

A: Once I even did from the 10 meter one. I climbed there at my own risks, and I already wanted to tell my coach that I wouldn’t dive, but I heard, ‘Either you dive, or you’ll go into a duet training right now.’ My duet partner Tanya Gayday was standing on the deck and shouted, ‘Jump, please, I want to go home!’ I was standing there and understanding that it wasn’t possible to get down anymore. I kept telling myself, ‘The main thing is to not look down, the main thing is to not look down.’

Q: And how did it end?

A: My mistake was to splay out my arms when I landed. After that, I had bruises on my arms for a week and a half or two. In general, I like to jump from the platforms, from the three or five meters one. 10 is, of course, quite extreme. It’s for when the soul especially wants adrenaline.

Q: There is the Internet for extremes! Your Instagram for example.

A: I’m really dependent on it; I spend a lot of time on there. I’m constantly talking with someone, watching something, searching for something…

Q: Is Varvara Subbotina obsessed with social networks?

A: It turns out that yes. This is just such a real addiction. I can’t say that I’m proud of it, but I don’t hide it either.

Q: Have you ever received nasty comments?

A: Recently. It happens on a regular basis.

Q: How long did it take to get used to this?

A: I won’t say I’m used to it. All this is terrible for me, because it hurts a lot. Sometimes to such an extent that I can even cry about it. I understand that it’s stupid to be really upset because of what strangers write, but that’s how I am. They offended me, told me nasty things, so I need to grieve for a while about it. At first, I block all my offenders, and it immediately makes me feel better: they wanted to offend me, yes, I was offended. And I got revenge. You won’t see me again, bye…

TRANSLATED FROM RUSSIAN BY VLADA SOROKINA.

Original author is Elena Vaytsekhovskaya. Cover photo by Photo Dance.

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