Anastasia Zueva (8 May, 1990) is a Russian backstroke specialist who won her first international titles as a teenager in 2008, and today competes with the world’s best at all of the discipline’s distances (50m, 100m, 200m).
Having started swimming at the instigation of her mother, Anastasia displayed a rare talent that brought her a Russian National School Championship title as a 15-year-old in 2005, prompting coach Natalya Kozlova to take her under her wing at her training centre in Penza. Two years later she made the Russian team for the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where she competed in all three backstroke events (making the 50m semis and the 100m finals), and swam the backstroke leg in the 4x100m medley relay final.
Her international breakthrough wasn’t far away, however, and at the 2008 European Championships in Eindhoven, she announced herself with gold medals and European records in both the 50m and 100m backstroke, and a second-placed finish at 200m. Five months later at the Olympic Games in Beijing, she made the finals of both the 100m and 200m backstroke, finishing just six-hundredths of a second out of the medals in the 100m (after breaking the Olympic record in her heat), and fourth in the 200m.
2009 was a record-breaking year for Anastasia, who twice broke the 50m backstroke world record at the Russian Championships in April, only to have the records nullified in late June by FINA for an unapproved swimsuit. Just two weeks before the FINA ruling, she once again broke the existing world record at the Monte Carlo meet of the Mare Nostrum series. However, since it was slower than her pending April times, she wasn’t drug-tested, and when her April swims were overturned two weeks later, her Monte Carlo effort was not eligible. Undeterred by the controversy, she promptly went on the break both the 50m and 100m backstroke world records six weeks later in her semi-finals at the World Championships in Rome. Despite improving on both times in the finals, she finished second in the 100m and three-hundredths of a second outside the medals in the 50m.
A lower back injury in 2010 threatened to derail – and even end – Anastasia’s career, but specialist treatment in Regensburg, Germany, helped to address the issue and return her to tip-top shape for the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. A frantic 100m backstroke final saw her lose the gold medal by a mere one-hundredth of second – the same losing margin as two years earlier in Rome – but two days later she finally won the world title that her talent and perseverance deserves, as she led both the heats and the semi-finals into the 50m backstroke final, swimming faster with each race, and taking gold in a time of 27.79.
Leading up to the 2012 Olympics, Zueva swam only the second sub-59s textile suit backstroke with her 58.97 victory at the Russian nationals in April, and went into the Games with the year’s second fastest times in both 100m and 200m backstroke. Despite swimming close to her seasonal best, Zueva narrowly missed out on a medal in the 100m backstroke, but atoned with an all-time personal best of 2:05.92, which earned her the silver medal.
Anastasia Zueva’s mother can’t swim, and so, as any caring parent would do to provide a better life for their child than they had, she took her daughter to the pool. In the forefront of her mind were the health and security of her offspring. Little did she know how it would change their lives. Several years later, her fifteen-year-old daughter’s prowess in the pool led them to an agonizing decision – move away from home to further her potential, or forego the possibility of seeing where it might lead. They chose the difficult path, and she left for a distant city some 500km away from home. “It would be better to be sorry about things you did than things you could have done but didn't,” explains her mother’s selfless philosophy, despite the wrenching consequences of sending off her beloved teenage daughter.
Her subsequent rise to the top echelons of the sport wasn’t free of its challenges, however. Having notched her first European titles in 2008, in 2009 she broke the 50m backstroke world record three times in the space of two months, only to have all three nullified, through no fault of her own. For a quiet, hardworking teenager that just wanted to swim, finding herself at the centre of the hi-tech swimsuit storm, as well as being the unwitting victim of bureaucratic inefficiencies, must have been an unsettling distraction. But Anastasia showed her maturity and resolve by doing what worthy champions do – kept her head down and simply broke the record again a month later. She could not have made a more emphatic statement.
A year later Anastasia was confronted by a different kind of challenge, one rather more serious than questions of the legitimacy of a swim time. A lower back injury threatened her entire career, and she was withdrawn from all swimming, even training, which doctors told her could result in paralysis. For a world record holder hoping to move on to greater things, it was devastating news, particularly when she didn’t respond to initial treatment, and simply sitting down for any length of time was extremely painful. Thankfully, however, intensive treatment at the German Academy of Applied Sports Medicine in Regensburg under the expert eye – and hands – of Dr. Homayun Gharavi rendered her pain-free in relatively short order, without the need for any invasive therapy, medication, or injections.
It gave Anastasia a new lease on life – and her swimming career – leading to her first world title in Shanghai in 2011, only the second Russian women’s gold medal in the post-Soviet era. Following her rehabilitation stint in Regensburg, she has emerged with a new energy and belief, and further insight into “how to release the brakes and to peak my performance for practice and competition. With all these newly acquired skills, I have just started to unfold myself.”
These were promising signs with the 2012 Olympics then clearly on the horizon. As Anastasia made her preparations, her mother’s encouragement of years ago echoed in her mind: “A view from the top can be awesome and you could miss such a chance, one that might otherwise be yours for the taking ...” It was a near thing, but she didn’t quite make the top, coming away with an Olympic silver medal rather than the gold, but with her steadfast determination and work ethic, one wouldn’t bet on it not becoming a reality in the future.