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Olympic Profile: Russia's Anna Biryukova

Prague, June 26 (RFE/RL) -- Anna Biryukova first leapt into the headlines in Stuttgart, back in 1993. That was the year the Moscow athlete set a world record in the triple jump, taking home the gold medal for her country at the World Track and Field Championship.

Biryukova told RFE/RL in a recent conversation in Prague that standing on the winner's pedestal and listening to the Russian hymn was one of the most memorable moments in her life.

But back in Moscow after the competition, Biryukova's achievements weren't being matched by any funds. Despite her win and promising future, the Russian sports federation could not afford to pay her any monthly allowance, even as the cost of living escalated dramatically. Not only were costs rising, but many of Biryukova's fellow competitors were leaving the country for more lucrative training conditions abroad.

It was then that Biryukova decided to leave Moscow with her husband and newborn son, determined to find a place where she could train and earn a living - at least until the situation improved at home.

In 1994, Biryukova found that place - in the small northern Czech city of Jablonec. The local track and field club gave her housing, a salary and her husband soon found a coaching job in Prague.

Biryukova says she has had few problems, aside from a recent article in the Czech press claiming her reason for leaving Russia was "mafia" pressure. Biryukova laughs it off, "I've never had any contact with the mafia. It's ridiculous. And anyway, if they really want you, you can't run away from the mafia."

Rather than the mafia, Biryukova has tangled with the Czech authorities, who barred her purchase of an apartment in Jablonec, even after she had advanced a down payment on the property. Under current law, foreigners cannot buy real estate in the Czech Republic as private individuals. Biryukova says no one told her this before she parted with her money. For the moment, the case is unresolved.

But Biryukova has other worries now. And fortune, literally, is changing for the Russian athlete. Since this is an Olympic year, the Russian federation has started to pay her a monthly salary - about 700 dollars a month. This helps to cover her living expenses and in addition, sponsorship deals have started coming in - notably from the athletic giant Reebok.

Czech trainer and manager Jan Pospisil, who also coaches Olympic gold medalist Jan Zelezny, has taken Biryukova under his wing. Biryukova just returned from a three month training stint with Pospisil in South Africa, where the balmy weather and world class facilities enabled her to stay in shape through the long European winter. Soon, Biryukova will return to Russia, where she must qualify for the Olympic team. But winning a spot should pose little problem for the one-time world record holder.

These will be Biryukova's first Olympics. But first times are lucky for the 29-year old Russian. After all, it was while attending her first World Championship that Biryukova set a world record in the triple jump. Biryukova, however, remains modest. "I still have a lot to learn," she says. "After all, I've only been at the top of my sport for just three years."

It's been a long road to the top for the 29 year-old - who was first noticed 15 years ago as a teenager - when she used to beat all the boys in track and field races at summer camp. It was then that a coach told her she should go in for the long jump. And Biryukova has been jumping to larger and larger victories ever since.

Does this Muscovite worry that the hot and humid August Atlanta weather could affect her performance? "No," says Biryukova. "If you're in shape, you can jump well under any conditions. But if you're not, the wind can be at your back and the sun pleasantly shining, but you won't do it." It's not the weather or the gear that matters, says Biryukova, adding, "If you're ready to compete, then you can even run barefoot."