Alexander Mikhailin, athlete

After Greco-Roman wrestler and three-time Olympic Champion Alexander Karelin lost his gold medal match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he announced his departure from sports. For a time, it seemed as if Russia had lost its most prominent sports symbol. But now another talented “heavyweight” has stepped into the vacuum created by Karelin’s absence. Alexander Mikhailin, a 21-year-old Muscovite, recently won the World Championship in judo, held in Germany, and thus became one of the top candidates to bear Russia’s flag at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Judo has found a new popularity in Russia, thanks to the fact that President Vladimir Putin is himself an accomplished practitioner of the ancient martial art. Indeed, a popular joke making the rounds in Russia quotes a classified ad posted on a Kremlin bulletin board: “Swapping my tennis racket for a kimono.” Under former President Yeltsin, a devoted tennis player and fan (hardly missing a Kremlin Cup final), tennis was the sport of choice “at court.” Today, Putin is a regular at major Russian judo competitions and sometimes even goes out on the tatami himself.

So it was at the World Championships that the Russian national judo team was dubbed “Putin’s team.” And Mikhailin became the team’s leader by a stroke of chance. But then, that is appropriate, since Mikhailin sort of “fell into” judo.

As a child, young Alexander took up sambo–a more traditional, Soviet-born type of wrestling, at the Sambo-70 school in Moscow. “Sasha came to our school when he was 11,” recalled school Director Renat Layshev. “He was such a quiet guy, keeping a low profile and all that.” Yet Layshev noticed in Mikhailin one character trait which helped him grow into a true champion: he was very focused on his goals and never sank into despair, despite failures. To the contrary, his defeats encouraged him to work even harder.

Mikhailin also did not lack for ambition. In fact he switched from sambo to judo for the singular reason that his main goal in life was to participate in the Olympics. And sambo is not an Olympic sport, while judo is. “I had a hard time in this new type of wrestling at the beginning,” Mikhailin recalled. “I lost the very first tournament I participated in … But maybe it was all for the better: I will therefore never suffer from the ‘stardom disease.’ I know there can be no invincible wrestlers.”

Russia’s bronze medalist in judo at Sydney, Tamerlan Tmenov, was slated to be the team’s heavyweight competitor at the World Championship. For, aside from his Olympic achievement, Tmenov is also the leader of the sports club in St. Petersburg whose president is … Vladimir Putin. But Tmenov was injured and Mikhailin took up the baton, a chance he couldn’t let slip by.

Mikhailin won his heavyweight category with a total time for all bouts of less than seven minutes. He even beat Japan’s famous Shinichi Shinohara (who defeated Tmenov in Sydney) in just 14 seconds.

“After this first success, I felt very confident,” Mikhailin said. This led to his second, even more phenomenal success in the all-round category, where the weight of the wrestlers is not limited. Mikhailin became only the fifth wrestler in the world to ever win two golds at a judo world championship. At that, he had to fight with opponents’ whose weight surpassed his own weight (115 kg) by some twenty kilograms. “But then I move better,” smiled Mikhailin after winning the final match against Ariel Zeevi (Israel) in just 25 seconds. Several experts who saw the match said no other judo wrestler has ever shown such perfect technique.

But Mikhailin disagrees. Nor does he like to be compared with outstanding wrestlers–e.g his namesake Alexander (Karelin). Yet there is a likeable resemblance. Both Mikhailin and Karelin are very particular about their sports regimes, both are always very polite with the press and fans and neither think of themselves as a know-it-all superstar. “I still see lots of shortcomings in my wrestling,” Mikhailin said. “I have several holds to learn. Then I will be confident that I will be able to perform successfully at any tournament, including the Olympics.”

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