Milena Bykova: ''Snowboard needs its own Conor McGregor''
An exclusive interview with a hope of Russian snowboard who chose Tatarstan
Milena Bykova made her debut at the Olympics in PyeongChang at the age of 20 and is performing better competition after competition. Right after the 2018 Olympics, Milena won her first World Cup going ahead of Olympic champion Ester Ledecká in the final. At the World Championships in the USA, which ended two weeks ago, she almost won a medal, and in March she will debut at the Winter Universiade. Realnoe Vremya talked with the athlete before her departure to the next World Cup stage and found out why she preferred Tatarstan over Bashkortostan, what Russia lacked to become a snowboard power and why Ukraine wouldn't come to the Universiade to Krasnoyarsk.
''When I went for a medal at the World Championships, the course was harder, but I finished fourth and I'm glad''
Milena, whenever I call you, you are always at airports. Where are you always flying? From competition to competition?
Now we will be flying to Korea, we will have two World Cup stages in giant slalom, which is on the Olympic programme, on the Olympic downhill. I'm just back from home. We had three days off after the World Cup, which was in the USA – to do laundry and smarten up. And now we're immediately going to competitions. So I will be at home only in April.
I've seen your performance in the World Cup in the USA, which ended a week ago. And it was seen your course was harder.
Yes, I didn't choose the course that day. To be honest, it wasn't just harder, it was different in general. As for giant slalom, when I was going for a medal in the small final, I led in the course, the surface and snow made decelerate in the last gates, and I felt the snowboard sticking on the finishing line, and I was simply left behind in the end.
The Olympics last year was the goal of the season, even World Cups didn't matter. I don't mean they didn't matter, your attitude to the Olympics is special
In addition, the weather was quite bad. This is why it was very important to win the qualification not to carry the can on hard courses. But I made a mistake in the second attempt, and I was ranked 15 th in the qualification. But I did my best and was in the top 4, so I'm satisfied in general!
''The Universiade is incomparable with the Olympics for me''
You once said that your goal is to win a gold at the Olympics. Now there is a chance to win a medal at the Universiade. Do you consider it serious measurement of success?
No, you can't compare the Universiade with the Olympics. It's completely different, you prepare for it in a different way. When I had the Olympics last year, it was the goal of the season, even World Cups didn't matter. More precisely, I don't mean they didn't matter, your attitude to the Olympics is special, you prepare yourself during the cycle, for four years. And the Universiade… I will take part for the first time, but it's incomparable with the Olympics for me. It's two completely different competitions.
The snowboard world is quite close, in general, and everyone, especially those who speak the language communicate well. There is no envious competition. Everyone is friendly, we have our own circle and our own world
This season you are 10th in the World Cuprankings with 1,210 points. How do you assess such preliminary results yourself?
To tell the truth, I've learned I am 10 th from you because competitions are underway, and their number is very big. Major competitions will be precisely in February, which can affect the result in the World Cup and help to be in the top 3. Generally speaking, the World Championships are my key goal of the season. I haven't won medals, it disappointed a bit. As for world cups… This year they are more stable than last year, so I'm content that I grow year after year and I'm content with myself.
''The refusal of Ukraine to participate in the Universiade isn't about politics. They just don't have money''
You've recently claimed that foreigners are glad to be back to one of the stages to Russia (which was in late January in Moscow). Do you often learn foreign athletes' attitude to Russia and our athletes?
Oh, yes, the snowboard world is quite close, in general, and everyone, especially those who speak the language communicate well. There is no envious competition. Everyone is friendly, we have our own circle and our own world.
Still, what's the attitude to Russia and Russians? For instance, there is permanent pressure on the Russian national team and certain athletes in biathlon. Is there such a thing in slalom?
Talking about the same Olympics, I was also constantly asked then how we were doing here, if we were bullied because of the Olympic flag and with all these doping scandals. But personally I don't feel anything, there is no negative attitude. We don't talk if we don't like each other. I think it's because competition in snowboard is lower than in biathlon. Probably this is why there isn't a lot of mud and all this noise.
Ukraine refused to take part in the Universiade in Krasnoyarsk. You've probably talked with Ukrainians in other competitions. Were they tuned not to go or was it a political decision? What do you think?
I don't think it's a political decision. I will say to you that the national team of Ukraine has financing problems. I think it's the only reason. In addition, they don't have really promising athletes who can fight for medals and, of course, they try to invest as little money as possible in it. They didn't manage to come to that World Cup stage in Moscow. They won't go to Korea and China now. The Ukrainians arrived only in the World Championships in the USA because they managed to provide financing only there. Our relations with the Ukrainians are as good as with everyone. I'm sure if it were up to them, the athletes would come.
''Snowboard needs such people as Conor McGregor in the UFC''
What are your relations with Ester Ledecká? Do you talk?
To be honest, I don't have any relations with her. Not because we don't talk but because she's a very closed athlete. She's constantly in her team and talks with them. If we have some meetings after World Cups, Ester is never in our circle.
It meant a victory (in the World Cup) over myself for me because even now I know I'm in good shape to win medals and podiums. But I always have some ''breaks'' in my head, that's to say, I need to work on myself in terms of psychology in order to win
Doesn't it generate talks like that of around Sharapova? Like she's arrogant and doesn't talk with anyone.
No, no, there is no such thing. Even when I was taken to my first World Cup, of course, nobody knew me, nobody greeted and noticed. And it was she who said ''Hello'', and I had known who Ester was who began to win World Cups aged 18. It was very cool for me.
Is the win over Ledecká in the World Cup in Turkey that step after which you can be sure that you did right having chosen snowboard?
This victory is important for me not because it's Ester. It meant a victory over myself for me because even now I know I'm in good shape to win medals and podiums. But I always have some ''breaks'' in my head, that's to say, I need to work on myself in terms of psychology in order to win.
For instance, I had a problem during the last year – I couldn't fall asleep before competitions and went to compete jaded. But it gave me a respite, so to speak, I relaxed after the Olympics in PyeongChang ended. This is why I won Ledecká in the World Cup. Not because I was faster than Ester, I was simply happy to have won myself, I just raced as I knew. I got all my potential out.
I think snowboard isn't so popular, and our sport doesn't have amateurs, almost nobody goes snowboarding. Firstly, because it's expensive, and, secondly, it's very hard
Generally speaking, it's a preliminary victory, I hope it's not the last because I'm going to fight. I'm sure I chose my path correctly. I see my growth, which means all will be fine.
Snowboard and slalom are historically not very traditional sports for Russia. How much time do you think it will take our country to catch up with the rest of the world and perhaps become a dominating country in these disciplines?
In general, I think we're already dominating. If we look at same Dima Loginov, who won the World Cup in slalom and giant, or Vic (Editor's Note: Wild) who won two golds here, I think our team is already dominating. The point is different. I think snowboard isn't so popular, and our sport doesn't have amateurs, almost nobody goes snowboarding. Firstly, because it's expensive, and, secondly, it's very hard.
So all the athletes who are going snowboarding now came to the sport as kids. To make our sport more popular, it seems to me that open and bright people are needed. For instance, the same UFC, it wasn't so interesting, then Conor McGregor appeared. Now the level of interest is so high there! Apart from a fight itself, both press conferences and weigh-in and all the buzz are followed in social networks between rivals.
Our sport needs people-discoveries who will attract the youth. I always meet the media halfway because I want as many people as possible to know about our sport.
''I've never seen a competition in Russia with such a level of organisation''
We have our own Sviyaga ski resort outside Kazan. As a person who has seen many slopes, does it suit to hold international competitions?
Our Russian Championships were there twice. And judging by these competitions, the organisation was unreal. I've never seen a competition in Russia with such a level. For this reason, indeed, international competitions can be held in Kazan, and children there can also achieve a good level.
I come from Ufa, and our mountain isn't high – almost 200 metres. And I have always been surprised and at the same time glad that I am a participant of the world championships who started with such a low mountain.
''After leaving, I don't want to be in contact with Bashkiria''
Last year, you also noted quite a professional approach in Tatarstan, while in Ufa you had to solve everything on your own. Did it become a decisive factor when choosing the region?
I will even say it became a decisive factor in my results. The better results are the region's job again. Of course, we have some competitions at the expense of the country's national team. But the region supports as much as possible – all my problems are solved here.
As for the choice of region, I probably followed my coach first because the head coach of the national team also was fir Tatarstan (Editor's Note: Denis Salagayev). And it was harder for me to come to an agreement in Ufa, though I tried. I didn't get the attention I expected. In the end, it didn't work for me.
Now Mr Leonov (Editor's Note: Minister of Sport of Tatarstan) have written me today on WhatsApp before the World Championships, wished good luck. And, of course, it's an additional motivator for me. In this respect, Tatarstan is very different from other regions, while I've been in many regions besides Bashkiria. Here you're always welcome, and everything is always ready.
Tatarstan is very different from other regions, while I've been in many regions. Here you're always welcome, and everything is always ready
What's the attitude to you in Ufa after such a departure? Both the attitude of ordinary fans of the sport and the local Ministry of Sport and the federation.
I don't keep in touch with them. I was at home before New Year and I needed to go snowboarding somewhere. But, of course, I can't go snowboarding there with the sports school because I'm not competing for them. But neither did I want to arrange it. After leaving, I don't want to keep in touch with Bashkiria. If you've gone once, don't go back.
Back to Sviyaga Hills. What do you think about our amateurs' level of skiing in general?
Of course, I saw a big number of tourists skiing here because it's both close and living conditions are great. It's pleasant to come to have a rest, so to speak. I like it very much because snow is kind of cool, it's levelled like velvet. But I don't go there often to train because the mountains are flat, while I need to train at a high speed.
Valentine's Day was on14 February. What do you think of this holiday?
I will say this way: I'm already ready for it (laughing). The holiday isn't too unimportant and too important.
But do you have anyone to celebrate with?
Let's not specify this (laughing).