Angelika Timanina: Artistic swim queen, socialite lioness, and Olympic surf hopeful

She captained Russia to synchronised swimming gold at London 2012, now Timanina is aiming to make the party for surfing's debut at the Tokyo Olympics. Check out this exclusive interview with one of the world's most versatile sportspeople.

By Ken Browne and Ekaterina Kuznetsova ·

Angelika Timanina is a self-proclaimed 'socialite lioness' on the prowl for more Olympic glory.

Nine years after winning gold as a synchronised swimmer at London 2012, she's aiming to make a sensational return to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 in the new Games sport of surfing.

What makes it all the more incredible, is that the 11-time artistic swim world champ only picked up a competitive surf board three years ago.

"Surfing is what saved me, because immediately after artistic swimming I immediately started with surfing." Angelika Timanina told Olympic Channel about her transition.

"I believe it is cool to be a versatile person and to be a versatile girl is even cooler." - Angelika Timanina to Olympic Channel

Born in Yekaterinburg in 1989, the nearest beach was a 21-hour drive away in Kazakhstan, but Timanina has spent a lifetime in the water.

At 15 she moved from her hometown to Moscow to train 10-12 hours a day as an artistic swimmer under legendary coach Tatyana Nikolayevna Pokrovskaya, becoming one of the most dominant athletes in the history of the sport.

Now, this Russian phenomenon has been selected as top pick to represent Russia at the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games, with qualification for Tokyo up for grabs.

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Timanina: Dancing on water

She remembers the question that began her artistic swimming career 25 years ago.

"My parents asked me: 'Would you like to learn how to dance on the water?'" Timanina told Olympic Channel.

"As soon as I was brought into the pool, I knew it was mine. I was immediately selected and started training.

"I was five years old."

Russia has won every single Olympic gold medal since the 2000 Games in Sydney, and a young Angelika was next up on the world's most successful production line of synchro-swim talent.

A system that has shaped the likes of Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina who have won five Olympic gold medals each.

So what's Russia's secret?

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"Our secret of the Russian artistic swimming is, of course, the head coach Tatyana Nikolayevna Pokrovskaya.

"In over twenty years there is not even one loss and it is all happening under her leadership. It speaks volumes. She's a very strong coach, she's a very strong bright woman."

The other secret is no secret: Hard work.

"We work very hard," contines Timanina via videolink.

"For 10-12 hours a day, and there is no other way if you want to achieve such synchronicity, such perfection, making our performances so difficult that nobody can repeat them."

Angelika had to grow strong and independent from a young age.

"At 15, I moved to Moscow from Yekaterinburg from my hometown alone without my parents without family."

"This was a very big and responsible step, very serious, and certainly difficult for a young girl. But it was already my big dream at that point."

At London 2012 the biggest dream of all came true.

Russia claim synchronised swimming gold in London 2012

Our tyro commentators see Russia dominate at the London Games.

London 2012 gold medal

Timanina was 23 when the 2012 Olympics came around, and led the team to the gold medal.

"We were ready a hundred percent and of course, we went there only for the victory."

"And I remember that moment when we stood on a pedestal looking at this water surface of the pool and we had to wait for the whistle and jump into the water."

"This is the moment you were aiming at your entire life, all your conscious life, for more than twenty years."

Russia at the ready. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

"And now you will do what you have waited all your life and you will receive your reward. It's an amazing feeling!

"Emotions are overflowing, even at this moment they do, because of course it was amazing and it was difficult. It wasn't easy."

Having won gold in London and dominated again at the 2013 and 2015 world championships, the new dream was repeating that golden moment at Rio 2016.

But it wasn't to be.

Rio 2016: No regrets

Injuries kept the captain out of the 2016 Olympics.

"It was a fairly considered decision when it came to Rio. I had been training for many years with a serious injury of both of my hands and every day I had to swim with my hands being wrapped in bandages.

"Of course, it was very difficult and I had no opportunity to recover because I had to work and I couldn't just lose my place. It was my full-time job to stay in the team - it was even before London.

"The moment came where I realized I had to make this decision because health was more important. The fact that I was already an Olympic champion and my main dream, the dream of my whole life had already come true.

"So it was necessary to just step aside, to take care of my health, and to move forward. It was difficult but I went through it and it was a weighted, conscious decision.

"And I think it was right."

But she could not stay away from the liquid lifestyle, and surfing rescued Timanina from that big scary word for all true competitors: retirement.

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"Surfing saved me"

Retired from a sparkling career in the pool but still in her 20's, Timanina found another focus.

"This is what saved me because immediately after artistic swimming I started with surfing."

This Olympic star simply couldn't be away from the water.

"It's my natural element," she says.

Angelika and surfing was love at first sight, when she tried it on holiday.

"I actually took a vacation to Bali with my friends and I just really wanted to try surfing at a regular camp for ordinary people - to just learn how to stand on the board.

"I immediately got up on the board and realized it was mine.

"And there's a funny moment - when the coach was shouting to students: 'Row, row, row.' He always shouted to me: 'Angelika, do not row, do not row!'

"I rowed so quickly because I was in such good shape. I rowed faster than the wave."

The switch from pool to open water came quick.

"Practically next month after the last World Cup in Kazan [In August 2015] which we won, I immediately had surfing.

"So right from that moment on, I started training. I still had this 'sports reserve' in me which I immediately gave to surfing and in a year I already won the first stage of the championship of Russia.

"That's why it all worked out."

Artistic swimming vs. Surfing

So what are the differences between the two sports for her?

"Of course, they are similar because they are united by one force - the water. This is my natural element and I am even more comfortable in the water than on the ground.

"I think that it helped me very strongly in surfing - to move from one sport to another and still to show the results.

"But it's a completely different thing. Completely different. I had to learn a lot of things again, of course, there were a lot of difficulties and they still exist to this day.

"It is an individual sport, it is extreme, it's the sport where you depend on the natural forces."

Being out in nature has been one of the big pluses for Timanina.

"It's so cool that it's still the water. Water, the ocean, the sun, and all the things I dreamed of when I was in the pool all my life.

"It was the sport which probably internally I always dreamed about. This whole atmosphere of the waves, ocean, sun palm trees."

The culture is a big change too.

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Surfing: "A more positive attitude towards life"

Surfing has been a bit of a culture shock - in a good way - after the intense life as an elite Russian artistic swimmer where demands are sky-high.

"It is more relaxed and calmer. A lot of smiles and communication, a lot of traveling - it has a very beneficial effect on your mood of well-being and you start having a more positive attitude towards life.

"At the time I finished my career I needed it - it was necessary. It's really great that it turned out like that."

Drafted in as a late replacement at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games, Timanina has already had a chance to go up against some of the early favourites for the Olympic podium.

"Steph Gilmore and Carissa Moore and a huge number of other girls, it was great just to sit in the water and even just to have a chat besides competing, they all are so positive and nice."

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Timanina caused a media scrum when she showed up at the ISA Worlds, she was, after all, the only Olympic gold medallist at the event in Japan.

"It was my debut. And literally at the last moment the decision that I will fly there was made because there was an emergency team replacement situation. I flew in one day, and on that same day, I went into the water to compete with the strongest surfers in the world."

"I received a lot of attention from the international press because it turned out there was only one Olympic champion there. Surfing doesn't have Olympic champions yet, aside from that I am 11 times world champion. The only competition I can have in surfing is Kelly Slater. It made the surf community very interested and a little excited." - Angelika Timanina to Olympic Channel

"That's why there was a lot of attention. Of course, it was very pleasant for me, but in general, to take part with the strongest athletes in the world, it was unforgettable. Especially in Japan."

But having seen the best in the business up close, what does she really think of Russia's shot at qualification for Tokyo?

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Russian surfers at the Tokyo Olympics?

Timanina is realistic about Russian chances. A country with almost no access to beaches and big waves, competing against athletes who surf like they were born on a board.

"Unfortunately, I think Russia at this moment is still very likely not to qualify for the first Olympic Games in surfing. We do not have opportunities like countries where there is an ocean, sea, waves.

"It is very difficult to do this from childhood. All of our Russian surfers get involved at a more mature age.

"You must live by the ocean and most importantly you must understand the ocean to read it, you must feel the ocean. It's very different - it's not a swimming pool, not a stadium - it is absolutely the environment, the natural force on which you completely depend."

But she doesn't rule out Russia completely.

"Maybe some of the Russian surfers, including myself, can qualify, but I think we need to work hard and maybe it will work out for the next Olympics."

For this Olympic champ, it's all about the future.

"You have to work on it for years and years, for decades even. Everything is still ahead, we will raise the younger generation of Russian surfers champions."

"Huge work, enormous effort"

Whatever 'it' is that makes great Olympians, this heavily decorated star has it.

"I've never been the strongest artistic swimmer ever. My result is all about overcoming, it's all a huge work, enormous effort.

"I had to work more than others, I had to force myself, to overcome myself, staying at night when everyone left and the pool was closing.

"It's the same now in surfing. I try to work 30, 40, 50, 70 percent more than others.

"And the result comes much faster though I'm not the most talented surfer either. Everything comes from the strength of the spirit, from faith in yourself, in your dreams and in your result. I think this is the most important in sports."

So watch out surf world!

There are plenty of other things happening in her life right now too, but she likes to look back.

Feeling free

Are there things Timanina misses about her Olympic synchro days?

"Of course, I miss this atmosphere of sports, the atmosphere of training camps, of practices. Working towards fixed goals together.

"When you couldn't take a step right or a step left and at that time it seemed like: 'When will this ever be over? How much longer? I can't do it anymore.'

"And now you realize that in fact it was great and you miss it a little bit. It was practically your entire life... The most important thing is that you felt good because sport gives you strength, you feel strong emotions.

"It lifts you up to a new level, a new life level."

Now there is more time for other things in life.

"I like to eat well, I like to travel, I like to meet friends, to go to exhibitions, to dress well. I like being a woman, to look after myself.

"I believe it is cool to be a versatile person and to be a versatile girl is even cooler."

With 120,000 followers and counting on Instagram, she has built a profile that has allowed her to become a brand ambassador, and is involved in regular photo shoots.

"It's always interesting and people like it. And while I have this opportunity why not? It is very beautiful."

So what's her advice for budding influencers?

"You need to be honest and sincere, and you need to be yourself I think."

Today socialite lioness, tomorrow borscht

Above all, it feels like the Russian is loving the freedom that she can enjoy after all the sacrifice that a sporting high-achiever has to make.

"Today I can be a sportswoman, tomorrow I can be a socialite lioness, the day after tomorrow I can be just a homely girl who prepares borscht."

Timanina also has one eye on a career after sport, finishing a diploma in broadcast journalism from Ostankino Moscow University of Television and Radio.

"So far no one has come up with any offers," she smiles, "but I live today, and tomorrow I maybe will receive a call and then I will be flashing up on your television."

She laughs, and the future feels bright, whatever it might be.