By Jennifer Cherkasova
Photos By Yevgeny Akimenko
For most residents of Voronezh, the gray industrial metropolis of almost 2 million holds little in the way of hopes for travel or international fame. The city’s claim to importance lies in its near-total destruction by the Nazis in World War II and its present-day production of rocket engines. This summer, however, the factory workers in Voronezh may have a reason to be proud of their hometown for reasons beyond the fact that Russia’s first potato was cultivated there. When they tune into television coverage of the Athens Olympic Games they will see one of their native sons pedaling his heart out on the indoor track of the Greek veledrome in pursuit of a gold medal. At age 19, Alexander (Sasha) Khatuntsev will be the youngest member of the Russian Track Cycling Olympic squad – and the smallest as well. But the kid from Voronezh makes up for these qualities with his passion and heart.
Khatuntsev grew up during the fall of the Soviet Union on the banks of the Voronezh River. He and his twin brother, Vassily, began riding at age ten with their parents who had been international-level cyclists. The sport became a passion for the two brothers, who dreamed of someday competing in the Olympic Games. Together they trained for long hours on the poorly paved roads surrounding their central Russian city, and they began wining races on the track in their early teens.
In 2000, a stroke of misfortune for Sasha’s family turned into a hidden blessing for the cycling careers of the talented twins. Sasha’s grandmother in Moscow became paralyzed and couldn’t take care of herself. The Khatuntsev family uprooted and moved to the big city to care for the grandmother in her one-room apartment. Life was crowded and difficult for the 15-year-old new to Moscow – but the stressful circumstances seemed only to fuel the fires of his determination. He passed the entrance exam for the prestigious Olympic Sports School and became a pupil of illustrious Olympic coach Gleb Groissman. With the support of the Russian National Team and encouragement and coaching from Groissman, Sasha began winning important races in 2001 and 2002. At the 2003 World Championships held in Moscow, he captured the gold medal in the Individual Pursuit – a three-kilometer cat and mouse-like race between two cyclists. Soon after winning the World Championships, he began racing as a member of the Russian National Pursuit Team. This group of four cyclists works together as they ride at full speed on a track banked more than 45 degree in pursuit of their opponents. He has already proven himself to be an invaluable member of the team.
Khatuntsev says the strength and encouragement of his family provides the foundation for the confidence and courage with his cycling career. He says he is inspired by the spirit of his grandmother who he finds to be exceptionally strong and wise.
Now, living with his teammates at the Olympic Training Center near the velodrome in Krylatskoe where he trains six to eight hours each day, Khatuntsev rarely has time to see his family. But he continues to draw on their encouragement and support as he looks to trade in the bumpy roads along the Voronezh River for Olympic gold in Athens.