It was the final turning point for Elena Kravtsov – as she was then known – in the final race of the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympics in Tokyo. The almost completely blind swimmer was about a second behind Britain’s Rebecca Redfern. It was nail-biting. Kravtsov fought to gain on her competitor, but only in the last few meters did the 27-year-old overtake her and reach the edge of the pool first. With a lead of 0.64 seconds, the native of Kazakhstan won gold.

After claiming silver over the same distance at London 2012, it was her first win at the Paralympics. “That was the last medal I was missing,” the athlete recalls in an interview with DW. “After ten years of hard work, a real weight fell off my shoulders.” Previously, Kravtsov had collected titles at European and World Championships, but with gold at the Paralympics, the swimmer had reached the pinnacle of her career.

“Many athletes fall into a hole after such a title. It wasn’t like that for me at all. I had a wonderful time afterwards and really enjoyed it,” she explained. “Only my headaches, which plagued me, were the reason why I couldn’t enjoy every day.”

“When will I be able to train again?”

Those headaches led to Kravtsov getting a check-up with her doctors. The day she got the diagnosis, she and her fiance had just picked out wedding rings. Afterwards, she went for an MRI exam. “After the first diagnosis, it was clear that something was wrong. And then after another examination, I was told that there was a brain tumor in my head. That was a blow, of course.”

Elena Semechin

Semechin celebrates her greatest success with victory in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympics in Tokyo

Suddenly, life was different, she says. “There was no longer any joy, happiness or euphoria, but fear and uncertainty. I didn’t know what was coming.” Kravtsov cancelled all appointments and made her illness public. “I didn’t want to hide it. I didn’t want people to ask me weird questions,” she says. “That helped me a lot. I had a pretty good handle on it, and I think I handled it very well.”

In early November, two days before the surgery, Kravtsov married her long-time coach, Philip Semechin, and changed her last name. The wedding and surgery were another turning point in the competitive athlete’s life and after the tumor was removed, she immediately began looking ahead. 

Giving up was and is not an option for the now 28-year-old. She wants to get back into the pool as soon as possible. “After the surgery, I woke up and immediately asked the doctor when I could train again.”

Training and chemotherapy in tandem

Just a week later, she began rehab and chemotherapy. At first, Semechin only trained outside the pool to allow the scar to fully heal. “Competitive sports helped me a lot during this phase because my body is used to extreme stress. I learned early on what it means to push the limits physically and mentally. I benefit a lot from that,” says Semechin. Her fighting spirit had been awakened.

Together with her trainer and husband, she adjusted her training plans to include more recovery phases, “so that I don’t completely destroy myself and then can’t take the chemo anymore.” Semechin had to listen to her body more than ever. Because the cycles of chemotherapy ran differently. Sometimes she could exercise more and sometimes less, she admits. “Finding that balance between rest and stress and regulating my athletic ambition down a bit” is the biggest challenge in the current situation.

Elena Semechin

The German Championships in Berlin were the first competition after Semechin’s operation

Just five months after the brain tumor was removed, Semechin was competing at the German Championships in Berlin having just finished another cycle of chemo. “I was a little scared,” she reported in an interview with ZDF. “I was feeling really dirty. I was lying in bed and I was sick to my stomach. I hadn’t eaten anything. But I thought, this is the only competition before the World Championships where you can swim again.”

Semechin made it to the final heat and ended up in last place in the final, but it felt like a victory. “The goal was not to have the lifeguard fish me out of the water,” she said, delighted, “I was totally relieved that I could still swim at all.”

Big goals for the future

In May, Semechin will fly to Turkey for a training camp to prepare for the World Championships in Portugal in June. Chemotherapy treatments will run in tandem with her training, but the 28-year-old is taking on the challenge in impressive style. 

At the age of seven, she already had to accept that her life would be different. Back then, she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, the condition that caused her vision to diminish increasingly over time. “A diagnosis like this would perhaps pull the rug out from under many other people, but I saw it as a sign that you have to live in moments,” she says. “I enjoy life now perhaps even more than before the diagnosis.”

Elena Semechin

Semechin says she enjoys life more than ever after being given a new lease on it

Semechin: “Maybe there won’t be a later”

Semechin will have to live with cancer because she hasn’t beaten the disease yet. She doesn’t know how long she will live – but that doesn’t matter at the moment. “I live in the here and now and don’t put anything off. Of course, competitive sport still plays a big role in my life, but if I want to get a diving certificate now, for example, I’ll do it and take my time,” Semechin says. “I’m planning it now, because maybe there won’t be a later.”

Her athletic goals, however, are unchanged. The World Championships in Portugal are to be the first major competition with the swimmer aiming to compete at the Paralympics in Paris in 2024 and repeat her success from Tokyo. 

All dependent, however, on the further course of cancer treatments which are just holding her personal ambitions back. “When I hopefully overcome the disease at some point, I would like to have a child,” she adds. “I want to leave someone there in case I do die sooner. I want my family not to be all alone then.”

This article was translated from German

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