Anton Chupkov: "If I am nervous it means I am ready"

The 200-metre breaststroke world record holder spoke to Olympic Channel about breaking records, the diet of Michael Phelps, Cristiano Ronaldo’s energy… and his own wish to “be Batman.”

By Ulyana Lepekha ·

Having claimed a bronze medal in the 200-metre breaststroke at 2016 Olympics, Anton Chupkov approaches Tokyo 2020 as one of the big favorites at this distance. The two-time world champion and world record holder in 200m breaststroke spoke to Olympic Channel about his record, family values, inspiring characters and swimming subtleties.

ОС: Anton, in the 200-metre breaststroke you won all the latest major competitions including two World Championships. Are you always happy with yourself when you win?

Anton Chupkov: I have been winning often lately but there are always some little things, some flaws to correct. Of course I am happy when I win. But here is an example for you. After I broke the world record [completing 200m breaststroke in 2:06.12 at 2019 World Aquatics Championships] I still knew where I could have improved and what I did wrong. There is always room for improvement. I know it before and after every race, no matter if I did well or not.

ОС: Were you expecting to set a world record?

Chupkov: My coach told me that after the semis he knew right away that I would set a [world] record. And I felt it too that if I performed to my best then I would set the world record and win no matter what. And so it happened.

ОС: In principle, can you plan a world record? Can you go for it in training?

Chupkov: You can never beat a record in training. It is always down to the competition. And some details like shaving, swim suits, caps.

ОС: How does shaving help?

Chupkov: You do not just shave off your [body] hair. You have to peel a layer of old skin so that new epidermis is formed. We are shaving dry to peel the skin, and then you can see how reddish new skin generates. I always shave myself on the night before the race. You feel so very differently then.

ОС: How exactly?

Chupkov: There is no way to explain it, you can only feel it. You feel like a fish in its element. Shaving improves your streamlining, you physically feel that you are swimming faster.

ОС: And what effect do swim suits have on the result?

Chupkov: There are two kinds of Speedo suits that I use, the tighter ones and the lighter ones. I always go for the lighter ones because I do not like my legs all squeezed. It really affects the result. At the Rio Olympics, I wore a new suit for the semi-finals and it squeezed my legs so tight that I nearly missed out on the final. My legs went numb and stopped working after 50 meters, I just could not do anything. So I grabbed my favorite suit for the final and won the [bronze] medal easily with my personal best. Well, not easily but I won it.

ОС: You perform best in the 200-metre breaststroke. Do you want to improve in the 100 meters too?

Chupkov: I guess my body is better adapted to this distance [200 m], both innate qualities and external factors. I look more like a 200-metre man. Sprinters are more powerful while I am somewhat taller and thinner which suits better for the 200 meters. But anyway, I am good in the hundred too and I want to improve in this distance.

ОС: How different are they?

Chupkov: The hundred is a pure sprint distance where you need to make a rapid start, gain speed right away, maintain it and put in even more towards the finish. Hundred is more intense. Two hundred is more intellectual, like a game of chess. You should know how to break down this distance mathematically.

ОС: Have you ever played chess?

Chupkov: I took classes! I used to play chess for two years when I was a kid, I went to tournaments, finished in the top three often.

ОС: So, you could have become a grandmaster!

Chupkov: Yes! (laughs) But we chose the pool.

Anton Chupkov: "I played chess in my childhood, but we chose the pool." Photo: Chupkov's archive

ОС: Looks like your teammates called you Professor for a reason. So, what does it mean to break down distance mathematically? How do you do it?

Chupkov: It is tactics. Before the race we talk through with my coach how to break down those four fifties this particular time. How I should feel and move in every lap, how I should be aware of the time in my head. Because you have to know how you are doing and what is your time.

ОС: Do you really feel the time?

Chupkov: Well, approximately of course. You cannot feel it precisely because they clock it down to hundredths of a second.

ОС: What goes through your head while you are swimming?

Chupkov: There are thoughts but I do not remember about what exactly. I can say for sure that I am counting strokes. One stroke, two... How many strokes in every lap. I guess this is what I am thinking about.

ОС: Any funny thoughts?

Chupkov: Not while I am competing.

ОС: And before the start?

Chupkov: I am usually in my own world. It is because I am nervous I guess but I believe it is a good thing. If I am nervous it means I am ready. Excitement helps me.

Anton Chupkov: "Before the race I am usually in my own world."

ОС: Is there anything that can unsettle you?

Chupkov: My biggest fear is that my goggles or my cap tear. My goggles fell off during the medley relay at 2018 European [Aquatics] Championships. I swam the second leg, I started and did not enter the water properly so they fell off. I was swimming blind and performed far from my best. We finished runners-up and I was sick at heart. So I have a phobia now, especially when I am doing relay, that my goggles fall off.

ОС: You have very positive relationships with your coach. He is very supportive, calls you 'kid'. Where does it come from?

Chupkov: We have been working together since I was a child. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Nemtyryov has been training me since the age of 11, so I was a kid back then. I guess this is just how he called me in every competition, and it stuck. He still says 'good luck kid' or 'good luck boy' to me before the race. I like this small tradition a lot. He says it, I smile and go do my work with a smile on my face.

ОС: There are many versatile swimmers these days. Have you tried different styles?

Chupkov: I did a 4×50-metre medley. The last time it was a year ago on a short course at an International Swimming League tournament. I also finished second at the 2017 Russian Cup with a decent result. I believe I can show decent time in 4×50 medley if I clean up some details and polish subtleties. But I do not want to spend my attention, time and energy for other strokes. I am focused on breaststroke and I have to finish it off.

ОС: So trying something else will not do you good.

Chupkov: I think so. But we are doing all the strokes in training, not just breaststroke. We sometimes do next to nothing of breaststroke and focus on other styles but we only go into the details in breaststroke.

ОС: Your training is very intense. The pool, then the gym. How many calories do you burn?

Chupkov: Swimmers burn a lot of calories. I believe I burn more than I eat. Now I understand why Michael Phelps advertised pasta and sandwiches. He was swimming so many different distances that he had to eat a lot.

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ОС: Could you eat as much?

Chupkov: No way. Not like Michael Phelps. There was an experiment, and people could not eat in one day what he ate in a single meal. I wonder what he was doing in training that he was that hungry. (laughs)

ОС: What is your favorite food? Are you on a diet?

Chupkov: I like pasta, Asian food. But borscht is my eternal love. Anyway, my mom's home cooking is the best. As for the diet, there is nothing special for me. However, I follow certain rules before the races, I do not drink coke or anything sparkling. I stopped drinking carbonated drinks for almost three weeks before the Russian Championships. Only water and some juice. But as soon as the tournament was over I bought an ice-cold coke and drank it right away.

ОС: You hold master classes for children. You opened a swimming school. Do you see yourself as a coach in the future?

Chupkov: I have the necessary education so I can coach. I also love kids, I am good with them and I like doing master classes. But one day I see myself as a coach, another I do not. (laughs) I guess I would not want to be a coach at the end of the day. In fact, my dream is that my future career has nothing to do with any sports. But let us wait and see, time will tell.

ОС: What are your considerations about your post-retirement career?

Chupkov: I had that big thought of becoming an airplane pilot. But I understand that this is not doable now. I already have a university degree so I am not eligible for free education. Flight school means very serious studies that are impossible to combine with a job, and I have to provide for my family. I am thinking like an adult now and I do not see how I could train to become a pilot.

ОС: What would you be doing if you were not into sports?

Chupkov: I reckon my mom would have sent me to a military school.

ОС: Do you like order?

Chupkov: Yes, I like everything clear and disciplined.

ОС: Would you become a military pilot?

Chupkov: Oh yes, that would have been cool! With great pleasure.

ОС: Are you disciplined by nature, or was it something brought up by your mother in your childhood?

Chupkov: I am very disciplined myself. When I was a kid I had to get up at six in the morning. When my mom saw I did not get enough sleep she was like: "Stay in bed, sleep in". But I was telling her: "No I have to, I am not missing my training."

ОС: Has something strange or weird happened to you ever?

Chupkov: Let me think... Last year Max Korzh had a gig at VTB Arena [in Moscow]. Me and my friends could not buy tickets timely so we bought them from a ticket tout by the entrance. We went in, and it turned out that our tickets were counterfeit. They nearly took us in but we explained the situation and they understood because they knew it could happen so they just asked us to leave. But what is really interesting is that we met the guy who sold us those tickets, and he returned our money! It had to be my first concert ever, I am usually not into that.

ОС: But you do watch football.

Chupkov: Yes, football is my passion. I am a CSKA fan so when I am in Moscow and there is no training I go to the stadium. Last year I even kicked off a CSKA v Krasnodar match. When I took the pitch my knees were trembling like before an Olympics race.

ОС: Have you played football yourself?

Chupkov: Sure I have. Even sprained my ankle and swam with a lame leg several times. I play FIFA a lot both at home and with the other guys in the training camps.

ОС: Who is your favorite player?

Chupkov: If we are talking our clubs then it is all the CSKA squad, if we are talking world then it is Cristiano [Ronaldo]. He is a master of his craft and a leader of his team in every area. You can feel him emanating energy. My coach often says before races that I am radiating energy. Then I know I am ready.

ОС: Could you play in a team?

Chupkov: Yes, football for example. I believe I would even feel more comfortable in team work.

ОС: Could you be the leader of your team?

Chupkov: Yes, I think so. In football, for CSKA. (smiles)

ОС: What about ice-hockey?

Chupkov: I like it and go to games sometimes too. CSKA of course. I watch the NHL from time to time too but only the highlights.

Anton Chupkov: "Football is my passion." Photo: A. Chupkov's archive

ОС: You once said that you would want to talk to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. What would you ask them?

Chupkov: What's up? (smiles) In the NHL, I have been a Penguins fan since childhood. Malkin was already in the team back then, and they carried the whole team on their shoulders together with young Crosby. I was already a fan when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 beating Detroit in the final series. I had a stupid touch-tone phone with poor Internet connection and I still remember waiting for the NHL website to load at six in the morning to check how the game had ended.

ОС: Why Crosby?

Chupkov: Because he found himself in a very tough situation, he might have had to retire after that head injury. But he returned to the ice, continued playing and remained the leader of the team.

ОС: Are you fascinated by people who overcome hardships?

Chupkov: Yes. Like when they tell you that you might have to quit doing what you love the most but you return and prove that you grew even better. This is massive. I would like to talk to such people.

ОС: Which fictional character inspires you?

Chupkov: I like strong personalities. Like Heath Ledger's character in A Knight's Tale. A positive movie about how a man from nowhere achieves success and fame but is then caught in a lie, yet he overcomes it, grows even stronger and wins despite the pain of losses. Characters like that are close to me.

ОС: What superpowers would you like to have?

Chupkov: This is a difficult one. If you ask me Batman or Superman, I choose Batman. I have been watching all the Batman movies since I was a kid. He is strong, fit, in a cool bat suit. I would love to be the Batman.

ОС: If you could have three wishes granted, what would you wish for?

Chupkov: I do not need that. I would not make any wish. I would like to live like I do now. Well, maybe I would have wished money – to give to the ones in need and help children.

ОС: Not even an Olympic gold medal for yourself?

Chupkov: You have to earn everything by your own labor.

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ОС: Who is your main competition in Tokyo?

Chupkov: I have to qualify for the Olympics, in the first place. And we will have a super tough selection. The competition is very high in Russian national team but I believe it is the key to success. It is the competition that makes us improve and produce better results. Apart from that, all the 200-metre breaststroke finalists would be in contention for medals. It will be one hell of a scuffle! I expect it to be the most exciting race of all the Olympic swimming program.

ОС: Will you have to go for the world record to win gold?

Chupkov: Rio 2016 champion did not produce a world record. In London 2012 too if I remember it right. It is fifty-fifty. Besides, Tokyo finals will be held in the morning, not in the evening as usual. This is harder. Morning races are usually the worst. Evening is the best possible time. That said, Rio finals started at ten in the evening which was not very good for the body too. It was already bedtime but we were just getting started.

Chupkov won bronze at Rio 2016

ОС: Do you feel the pressure because Russia has not won gold for quite a while?

Chupkov: We have not had swimming gold since 1996. But I am not affected by that personally, I just do not think about it. However, there is a burden of responsibility towards the Olympics. This is the biggest tournament of the four years and I want to show my best, to claim the highest place possible.

ОС: Are you hungry for wins?

Chupkov: No. When I feel I am ready I get on the starting blocks to enjoy myself in the race and enjoy what I am about to do.

ОС: What do you plan to do after Tokyo?

Chupkov: I do not know yet. Whether I retire or not, depends on how I perform. I do not want to go to three or four Olympic Games. Many athletes continue to compete because they cannot find themselves. But the moment for you to quit comes anyway. Let me put it like that: I already have plans for my life after sports. There will be a new page in my life, that is for sure.