Quadruple Olympic medalist in PyeongChang Alexander Bolshunov, 21, and Anna Zherebyateva, 21, winner of the Junior World Ski Championships talk about their lives, the burden of fame at the young age, and their love for each other.
First impressions last. You can sense how close they are as a couple from the moment they sit down for the interview. The can’t stop laughing and poking each other playfully.
In fact, about the only time Bolshunov, who is normally serious, even scornful (“concentrated,” is how he describes himself), looks positively happy and relaxed is in the presence of Anna.
Bolshunov is known for his aversion to media exposure – but this is the first time they have done an interview together, as a couple – and it’s about them and their story. Well, mostly…
They met three years ago. Or, rather, Alexander started showing interest. But Anna was “too slow on the uptake” (both laugh)
Professional cross-country skiing is time- and effort-intensive in extreme. Elite skiers spend more than 250 days a year in training camps or competing during the season. Now, both are training in the group led by Yuri Borodavko. The Russian team is split into four groups, each lead by a senior trainer. There is no Team A, B and so on, all groups are considered equal in status. They train and travel separately from the other groups. All but one is of mixed gender. It is very unlikely that Zherebyateva and Bolshunov are in the same group by mere chance.
The media, especially the Scandinavian outlets, have started playing up the Klaebo v Bolshunov stand-off in the past year – and, as far as media goes, for a good reason. Both are fantastically young for their sport and both are incredibly talented, together re-writing every notion about the age of champions in a storied sport of cross-country skiing. Klaebo won three gold medals at the Olympics in PyeongChang this year, Bolshunov already got two silvers and a bronze in the first races when he was on track to become the youngest Olympic champion ever in the most prestigious 50k distance, but made a tactical mistake and finished second. The one thing Alexander does not want to talk about is that race.
Bolshunov frowns: “I am tired of every reporter always asking me about what I think about Johannes.” He suddenly smiles at Anna: “Remember the pig?”
In April, after securing his World Cup title, the Norwegian prodigy went on vacation to the Bahamas and swam with wild pigs on a remote island, as everybody does out there these days.
Not a month passed and the Zherebyateva-Bolshunov power duo posted their own version of the “me with a swimming pig” photo, which everybody took as back-to-you!
Except their photos were taken on the sandy dunes of Vietnam, which is far closer than the Bahamas, from Russia at least (the pig was real, they swear – and really liked swimming too, just like his Caribbean counterparts). Both laugh as they remember how fans of both (of which there are hundreds of thousands by now) reacted.
The fun idea that they really like to discuss? Well, Alexander’s father, who is his first coach and quite an inventor, is doing his very personal version of “city ski sprint.” In winter, Alexander Bolshunov Sr stores snow in his barn (Bolshunov grew up on the farm in the Bryansk area) and then, come May or June, together with Alexander Jr, his sister Anastacia, Anna and the rest of the family, lays a 150m snow track in his own backyard. It is not something you often see done – putting it mildly.
Guess who they want to invite to “Bolshunovs’ Grand Prix” next year? You guessed it! But where’s Klaebo going to stay?” asks Anna worriedly, as if the Norwegian’s arrival was a done deal. “The house is not that big! He can pitch his tent in the corner,” says Alexander with a serious expression on his face. “It’s like an outdoor trip for the good Norwegian that he is.”
But back to Alexander and Anna.
You spend so much time traveling, training and competing together. Training is exhausting and so is traveling after a while. Do you get tired of each other? Do you fight?
“Fight? Perhaps we do – but I can’t quite remember when or about what,” laughs Anna. “You know, we are just really happy with each other and we know how to support one another.”
After his success at the Olympics, Bolshunov woke up to fame in Russia. He’s famous – and suddenly quite rich. Among the assets he accumulated is an apartment gifted by the oil city of Tyumen where he currently resides, a swanky BMW SUV (“assembled in Russia”), and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bonuses. It’s enough a bit to make any 21-year old’s head spin. Not Bolshunov, though, it seems. Moreover, the conversation about money and bonuses makes him clearly uncomfortable and he starts looking at his watch while casting hinting glances at Anna – so we have to pull out a trump card: Would they like to see mixed relay, like in biathlon, to come to cross-country skiing?
“Totally!” both exclaim at once. There is no need to ask who either sees as a teammate. “I’d do my very, very best were I to run a mixed relay with Anna,” says the Olympic medalist with such gravity in his voice, that it would send chills down the spine of any potential competitor. Too bad the International Skiing Federation (FIS) currently has no plans for such an event. Imagine Bolshunov v Klaebo and his teammate, whoever that might be?
Conversation again drifts back to Klaebo, and the color pink, which Johannes likes to popularize. “I can relate to that,” says Anna,“my ‘lucky buff’ is of that color.”
Favorite food? “Porridge – any type of porridge. We can eat a lot of that. And tea, we much prefer tea to coffee.”
“I really feel that I do not train enough,” says Bolshunov. The irony is that their training group is considered to have the toughest regime of all. The next day, both are expected to give it their all in a brutal uphill interval training session, so conversation gets wrapped up. They get up, say their farewells, and leave with that springy walk of young people doing almost 100 hours of hard training per month. Just a happy pair of 21-year olds who found each other – and their meaning of life.
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