Harrison Lee" />
side bar
Friday, September 29, 2023

Swimming & Diving

Combining mettle with gold medals

From UH diver to head coach, Yuliya Pakhalina had five medals across three Olympics. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

From UH diver to head coach, Yuliya Pakhalina had five medals across three Olympics. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

She is, in many ways, what a successful Olympic diver would look like. Short and slim, her frame is a testament to the balance that won her five medals in three different Olympic games. She is focused and intense, which reflects in her deliberate, almost uncompromising speech. These traits are ones she thinks will serve well in her new station in life.

Yuliya Pakhalina, a native of Penza, Russia and the interim coach of the women’s diving team, is 36 years old and only six years removed from the last time she left the three-meter diving board at the Olympics in Beijing, China. She’s so new to the job that her office looks like she hasn’t yet unpacked. The sparse nature of the surroundings suits Pakhalina, who is the embodiment of no-nonsense.

Pakhalina has both confidence and aloofness, which are necessary when replacing Jane Figueiredo, one of the more famous diving coaches in the NCAA. Figueiredo, a four-time NCAA diving coach of the year, was selected Conference USA diving coach of the year for 12 consecutive years, and Olympic medalist Tom Daley sought her out to train.

Pakhalina acknowledges her predecessor’s influence in some aspects of her coaching and game plans while making her goals known to the team.

“You’re always maybe looking for changes, but I don’t know how UH would embrace the change. I’m still trying to figure that out,” Pakhalina said. “But there are certain things that I do different with the girls because, you know, I just believe that what has gotten them to point B would not get them to point C, so they have to do different things. Change is always difficult for anybody. I’m trying to incorporate Jane’s style of work and bring something of mine.”

UH swimming head coach, Rich Murphy, said he thinks she has a lot to offer the team.

“I think any time you have a chance to listen to a gold medalist talk about what it takes to get there, it’s often wise to listen,” Murphy said. “We’re fortunate to be able to attract Yulyia to the position for the balance of the season, and then I’d love to see a scenario where she was who we have as a coach moving forward.”

Her own experiences at UH from 2000 to 2002 helped shape her view of her craft, while she acknowledges that her dedication is now somewhat out of step with the modern priorities of the NCAA relative to the responsibilities of the student athlete.

“Well, I want to change the culture a little bit. I know when I was training and going to school here, surprisingly, diving was always the first No. 1 for me, not school,” she said. “This sounds maybe a little strange, but I came here to UH because it was a great setting for any international athlete to have school and be able to do the sports that you’re involved in. For me, it was always about training and getting ready for the next Olympics.”

Pakhalina’s own Olympic experiences are something she prides herself on, and she insists they are part of her coaching mentality. Finding evidence of her accomplishments is as easy as a simple Google Images search, which reveals her on podiums, holding a bushel of Olympic medals or in the middle of a dive.

“(My accomplishments) factor in a great deal into my coaching. I’ve done so much. I have so much experience that I will not be able to unveil it in such a short period of time as an interim coach. I’ve gone to three Olympic Games, and I was able to stay on the top and bring medals from each of them. (…) I was able to be on the top, and this is something that you go through and you bring experience with every Olympics, and you’re in this atmosphere, and you start learning it and it’s like learning on the job. I was learning on a job since I was five years old.”

Pakhalina’s life as a diver began at age five. The daughter of Vladimir Pakhalina, one of Russia’s most famous diving coaches, she describes her early career as one word: Brutal.

“You’re in the middle of the day, a child at day care, and you just would have fallen asleep, and your grandma comes to pick you up for practice, and practice is about five hours. Just one setting,” she said.

“Do you think it’s easy and it’s not brutal for a child to sustain all this mental and physical pressure? In a sense I never had a time off in my life where I could just kick back, relax and not think of how my daily activities would reflect on my athletics. I’ve always had to take care of myself; I had to mature so much faster compared to other kids.”

Despite her early entrance into the world of diving, Pakhalina did not find joy in what she went through to become one of the world’s top divers, describing her father and coach’s sometimes pushy methods of helping to shape her skills.

“It was painful. I had to do a lot of things that I was not born with. I was not flexible, for example. I had to do a lot of ballet and stretching, and it was really painful. I didn’t enjoy it. I thought that it was something that I had to do because in Russia, athletes get paid for what they do, and I started earning money around age 10. The Russian government pays you money for results. For me it was like a like a job — I was working along with my parents.”

Professor Emeritus of psychology Alex Siegel, who was a professor during the height of the Cold War, recounted rumors that were later revealed as facts from his friends and contemporaries who were behind the Iron Curtain.
“There were always rumors that the Russian government would start scouting Olympic athletes at age three. Three. That’s preschool,” Siegel said.

Pakhalina began to enjoy diving only when she realized she enjoyed the feeling of winning. Her winning took the form of a gold medal at the 1995 European Championships in Seville, Spain, helping to start a career that would include some 24 medals, reaching a high point at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, where she won a gold medal for three-meter synchronized diving.

When asked how she functioned for 13 years at a highly specialized task without enjoying it, she responded with a simple shrug. “I don’t know.”

The intensity of a grueling training regimen has begun to fade, but her desire to positively enforce and motivate the lives of her divers is just as evident.

“First of all, I want them to learn the work ethic. That you have to come to the pool and enjoy what you’re doing,” she said. “Diving is an art. You need to really embrace what you are doing … and love it with every cell of your body. (…) I want them to really love what they are doing and create that piece of art in the air that no one else can do.”

[email protected]

Tags: , , ,

One Response to Combining mettle with gold medals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑
  • Sign up for our Email Edition

  • Polls

    What about UH will you miss the least this summer?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...