Yulia Chepalova, athlete

If it were not for 24-year-old Yulia Chepalova, Russia might have returned from the recent Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland without a single gold medal. True, Russia hasn’t lost the women’s 4x5 km relay race at a World Championship since 1989, but this time around Russia’s women’s team was not the odds-on favorite.

In Lahti, when Chepalova took the baton from Nordic skiing legend Larisa Lazutina, Russia had just a 10 second lead over Finland in the relay race, hardly a comfortable margin. But with each kilometer, the young Chepalova widened her gap over the Finnish squad by some seven seconds. By the time Chepalov passed the baton to Nina Gavrilyuk for the final leg of the relay, Russia had a 43 second lead, which made winning the gold purely a technical matter.

Chepalova hails from Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Her father, Anatoly, was her coach and he reportedly sacrificed everything for her success—even selling all his belongings and assets, including a second-hand car, to finance her training and competitions.

The young Chepalova made her debut at the 1996 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. There she unexpectedly won the 30 km race, beating Italy’s heavily-favored Stefania Belmondo by 10 seconds.

With the imminent departure from the sport of Lazutina (who won three gold medals at Nagano), many experts believe that Chepalova will assume the Nordic mantle at Salt Lake City in 2002. Lazutina herself said as much after Chepalova’s stunning Nagano victory. Not insignificantly, Chepalova outraced Lazutina by six seconds in the World Cup 15 km finals this March.

Yet Chepalova is not a narrow-minded athlete who thinks of nothing but skiing. She said she is not planning to ski forever (“to freeze in such cold and keep up this hellish work?”), but likes trying different things. After her skiing career is over, she said, she would like “to find something more suitable for a woman,” like perhaps working as a photo model. Chepalova said she loves posing for photographs, especially when she is in a good mood. And demand for this young skier with the Asian features is climbing. She has already done commercial modeling for Elle magazine and for a number of Scandinavian publications. Playboy sought her out and reportedly offered her $50,000 to pose in the buff, but she refused, reportedly under pressure from her husband, Dmitry Lyashchenko.

Yulia and Dmitry (also a professional skier) married in April 2000. They met for the first time three years ago at a competition, then met again at a summer training camp in Ostov, Estonia. They dated three years before marrying.

Meanwhile, Chepalova has had a very successful skiing season. In March, she led a strong Russian finish in the 40 km freestyle race in the World Cup. This, together with 5 km, 10 km and 15 km World Cup wins, clinched her the title of overall World Cup champion in cross country skiing. Chepalova became only the fourth Russian ever to take this honor, putting her in the ranks of Yelena Vyalbe, Larissa Lazutina and Lyubov Yegorova.

Interestingly, Chepalova said that she did not think she skied her best this season. “I got sick just before the New Year and even now I still have some cold symptoms, like coughing. I also had kidney problems,” she said.

One can’t help wondering what a “healthy” Julia Chepalova will achieve.

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