Running Career Determined Soviet-style
Born in the USSR in 1968, Masterkova showed an early talent for track. Placed under the compulsory tutelage of a zealous and staunchly Soviet physical education teacher, she was competing by the time she was 12 and was clocked at an 800-meter time of 2:04:3 by age fifteen. She competed in middle-distance events, but only began to show the promise of her early talent in her late twenties, a period considered late in a professional runner's career. Her early races were uneven; a 1991 Soviet championship yielded her a first-place victory in the 800 meters, while the same distance at the World Track and Field Championships held in Tokyo, Japan a month later left her with a disappointing eighth. A virus sidelined her dreams of running at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, then back injuries forced her out of the Russian trials for the 1993 World Championships.
While such a run of bad luck may have discouraged some runners, the blonde-haired, energetic Masterkova held on to her dreams of running in the Olympics. In 1993 she raced and placed second in the 800 meters at the World Indoor Track and Field Championships in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Married to professional cyclist Assiat Saitov, Masterkova became pregnant in 1994 and took time off from competition to give birth to her daughter, Anastasia, in March of 1995. After nine months away from serious running, the five-foot-seven-inch runner quickly regained her racing weight of 130 pounds and threw herself back into a strenuous training regime designed by coach Svetlana Styrkina in order to regain her speed and stamina. By the time Anastasiya was two months old her mother was ready to return to competition. Once again in top form, she looked ahead to the July, 1996, Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
Despite a winning performance at the Russian National Championships, Masterkova was considered a longshot for an Olympic victory, particularly against a strong 800-meter field that included world-class runners such as Mozambiquen Maria Mulota and Cuban Ana Quirot. Equally daunting was the 1,500-meter field, which included the talented Irish runner Sonia O'Sullivan alongside Romanian Gabriela Szabo, Hassiba Boulmerka, and Portugal's Carla Sacramento. But the Russian surprised everyone by taking the gold in both events, completing the 800 meter in 1:57:33 and the 1,500 meter five days later in just over four minutes.
Her wins in 1996 propelled Masterkova into the spotlight, and earned her more than just celebrity status. In addition to the Olympic prize money, the Russian government provided her with a new car, an upscale apartment, the equivalent of $250,000 in cash, and land on which she planned to build a vacation home. In December of 1996 she joined noted U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson as co-recipient of the International Athletic Federation's Athletes' Legends prize. She set two world records on the 1996 International Athletic Federation Grand Prix circuit. At Zurich, Switzerland she clocked a personal best of 4:12:56 seconds in her first-ever mile competition, then went on to win the 1,000-meter in the record-setting time of 2:28:98 in Brussels nine days later.
Competing in the 800-meter event requires immediate speed, while the longer 1,500-meter run draws on stamina and endurance as the runner must sustain race pace for a much longer period. Because she trained hard in running short intervals as well as incorporating longer tempo runs into her running schedule, Masterkova was able to excel in both speed and endurance. When racing, she often avoided taking the lead early on, preferring to "draft" off the front runner and then accelerate for her final "kick" past the front runner and across the finish line. Confident sometimes to the point of arrogance, she was known to disparage her opponents for not developing more aggressive racing strategies.
Unfortunately for Masterkova, the intensive training required for her to maintain peak physical performance began to take its toll. In addition to an abnormally high heart rate, in the wake of her 1996 Olympic victory her Achilles tendons began to hamper her performance, forcing her to cut back her training to one day in three. Although she was able to earn wins in the 800, her longer races suffered. Finally, following a last-place finish at the 1997 World semi-finals and a lackluster third-place finish in the 800 meter during 1999's World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, Masterkova underwent surgery to correct the problem. It surprised no one when, as she had after giving birth to her daughter, the 30-year-old Masterkova quickly rebounded and resumed her rigorous training schedule. With one Olympic triumph under her belt, she looked ahead eagerly to the 2000 Games.
Believing herself to be fully recovered from her injury, Masterkova easily qualified for the upcoming games to be held in Sydney, Australia, beginning in mid-September of 2000. Unfortunately, the intensive training she undertook to prepare her for the 800 and 1,500 meter events rekindled her Achilles problems. Half way through her heat for the 1,500 meters, Masterkova collided with another runner and crumpled, the pain tearing up her calf bringing tears to her eyes. She limped off the track, her Olympic hopes dashed and her running career at an end.
Retiring from international competition shortly thereafter, the thirty-something Masterkova could look back on a career dotted by setbacks and yet successful in that she surprised the track world by attaining both Olympics and World Championship gold medals relatively late in her career.