"Before the game listen to your coach, not music"

Interview with the 2018 World Cup ambassador from Kaliningrad Natalia Ishchenko
Share 09 March
Five-time synchronized swimming Olympic champion, 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ ambassador from Kaliningrad Natalia Ishchenko recalled, why she was called Einstein, told how our players surprise her, and explained why it is necessary to turn off your ipod before the game.

Who won? Our team, of course

My husband always watches football. If a match is between Russian clubs, he says: "Root for the strongest." So in our family our team always wins. I also don't have an explicit preference for the teams. I root for Russia and beautiful game. Frankly, I'm not a big fan, but I like watching my husband and son sit in front of TV and attentively watch the game.

I like listening to football. I think the way the game will be seen depends a lot on the commentator voice, what moments he emphasizes. The most familiar commentary voice for me is the voice of Vasily Utkin. I am used to it. Maybe because it is also the voice of the navigator in my car.

All jokes aside, I have great respect for football. Sometimes I got amazed at the incredible endurance of the players. Nobody probably thinks that spending 90 minutes on the field in constant exertion, game combinations, competition is an easy feat.

Footballer from the swimming family

My husband and I enrolled our son Semyon into a football class. Although he is only three years old, he already played several short friendlies. The coach ensures that there is more than one ball, because kids sometimes try not to score the ball, but just take it. But they learn to work as a team. In my opinion, this is a very important element of education.

Here he comes out, so little, with his team. I see him trying, running. And I, like any mother, am already very worried about him, I watch his games holding my breath. Honestly, I can not imagine him as an adult on a big football field. In any case, it will not happen soon.

I think football is a very interesting sport, especially for a boy. Of course, Semyon must swim. After all, we are a swimming family. But to our shame the son can not swim yet, only with the arm floaties. (Laughs.)

Yunost (Youth) is still out there

My mother put me into a serious sport. She always wanted to be a synchronized swimmer, but in Smolensk, where she used to live, there were no such schools.

Then my mother moved to Kaliningrad, and in 1991 a section of synchronized swimming was opened at the Yunost (Youth) sports palace. I was five years old. Of course, my mother put me into the class. The selection was very strict. Just in case we decided to go to the rhythmic gymnastics class as well. Eventually I got into both. Clearly, it is impossible for a child to combine these two disciplines. So we chose synchronized swimming. And, as it turned out, we were not mistaken.

Recently I went to visit my Yunost (Youth) sport palace. You can say, plunged into memories. The building did not change much. Everything is so dear there. When I felt the smell of bleach, as when I was little, nostalgia struck me. It seems to me that it is important for an athlete to keep these moments. Surely, football players often remember their special "Yunost", the first box, the first training field... It's just that they do not talk about it extensively in interviews. Still, these are common sentiments, and men reluctantly share such intimate moments.
© Vitaly Nevar / TASS

Before competition the ipod is silent

My most outstanding sporting nickname is Russian Mermaid. I, along with Sveta Romashina (five-time Olympic champion in synchronized swimming, performing in a duet with Natalia Ishchenko - Welcome2018) got this nickname after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. We were called little mermaids as a joke before. At the Olympics we fulfilled our old dream: we performed in this role. I remember it took us a while to choose music. Then the song was specially written for us.

Music in general is very important, and not only during the performance. A right song can both set you up and upset. But my ipod is silent both before the competition and after. We do not listen to music, we listen to the coach. That's what I wish to our footballers.

Guys, set yourself a goal

I can imagine what our players will feel during the 2018 World Cup. When you come out, and the whole world is looking at you.

I have no doubt in our guys character. Especially, as they say in Russia, native walls help. On the other hand, imagine how many expectations there are. I can tell you, the burden of responsibility is really heavy. Expectations from an athlete are always over and above.

I think the most important thing is to set a goal, and then everything is possible. We have talented players.

When the stands are silent

A lot depends on the audience and fans. And I'm not just saying this, it really is important. When people believe in you and wish you victory, athletes are very sensitive to it. And of course, it's much easier to perform. Sometimes our football fans can be greedy with support - they love to scold more than to cheer. And you need to believe in our team and pass along the right attitude. Do you know how difficult it is to perform in an unfriendly situation?

We had this kind of situation with Sveta Romashina. We performed in Italy. Actually, the Italians were our main rivals then. The stands were almost exclusively occupied by local fans, and there were very few of our own. I remember we are coming out, but the stands are silent. It is very difficult, to go out like this, in silence. Huge pressure. Back then Sveta and I did not even look at each other. We both somehow managed to cope on our own with this awkwardness and silence, which froze for a few seconds in the ears. But we exchanged glances later, when the result was announced: this Italian cold shoulder could not stop us.

As we are taught, it is necessary to completely disengage from external factors, just think about your routine and the result. This is right. But athletes are people. So I call our football fans: guys, let's be more friendly. Let's support our team.

I recognized you by your cough

Many football players in the streets are surrounded by crowds of fans, many ask for autographs. It's a bit different with us, not everyone recognizes us. But after the Olympics in Rio people began to recognize me more often.

There's a very funny story - I was recognized by my cough. After the Olympic Games in London, I came back still ill, because I performed with a fever. I was called to a radio show, despite the fact that my voice was not very good. On the air, I constantly coughed. The next day I'm taking a taxi. A couple of times I coughed, I apologized. And then the taxi driver, without turning around, says: "I'm terribly sorry, but are you by any chance Natalia Ishchenko?" I do not hide my surprise and say with caution: "Ye-e-es, it's me." And he smiles: "I recognized you by your cough."

Turgenev girls do not belong in sports

I think the World Cup will unite us all. This is the law of almost all large-scale sports events.

Take at least the Olympic Games. At this time, the whole Russia is a big sports family. Not only "Mom, Dad and me", but also the neighbors, a passer-by with a tricolor, managers, medical workers, coaches, fans in the stands... All of us. And by this unity we will charge our football players for victory.

This is a powerful bonus to the players' morale. And they certainly must be in combative mood. However if I talk about myself... I don't think that I have a temper that is really competitive. But I'm clearly not a Turgenev girl. (Laughs.) They have nothing to do in sports. You need to have an inner core, willpower.

You can't overpraise your city

Of course, I am more often recognized in my native Kaliningrad. But sometimes I don't recognize the city - it has changed so much. The changes are immense. Finally, the airport is being built, which we, people of Kaliningrad, have been waiting for so long. The roads are being renovated, the infrastructure is improving, hotels are being constructed, the stadium is growing before our very eyes. Very high rate of improvement. We will meet the World Cup with dignity.

Kaliningrad is a city with an incredible history. It's a small Russian Europe, so to say. Not only the architecture is amazing, but the sea is nearby! When I come here, I definitely walk by the sea. That's because I'm a mermaid. (Laughs.) And our people are friendly, kind, sympathetic. And the fish is always delicious, fresh. And the quality of air! I overpraised it, probably. But what can I do, I love my city.

Natalia Ishchenko and the interim governor of Kaliningrad region Anton Alikhanov during the 2018 World Cup countdown opening ceremony in Kaliningrad. © Vitaliy Nevar / TASS

Look at the clock

When I was offered to become the 2018 FIFA World Cup ambassador, I didn't doubt it for a moment. It is very important for me to represent my native city. As an ambassador I take part in many events. So I started the countdown clock during the 1000 days before the 2018 World Cup and 500 days before the 2018 World Cup events. Time flies... Before you know it there'll be only a few days left before the championship.

I have no doubt in the level of our preparations. I often talk with volunteers. These meetings are very interesting and useful for me and for the kids. As an athlete I have seen a lot of volunteers in my life. I know not by hearsay what role they play in hosting major events and how important a friendly volunteer welcome to athletes, fans and guests of the major championships is. So I've something to tell them. It's nice to see such a response from the children. I feel their sincere interest. And those who want to become a volunteer, always ask a lot of questions. I'm trying to do something to help them, to direct, to tell something interesting. 

A very important welcome

The fact is that when you come to any major sporting event, the first ones you meet are always volunteers. Here you got off the plane and you hear: welcome! In this simple greeting you can feel the mood and attitude to you.

Volunteers set the right mood. These people will always help or point where you need to go. They accompany us, athletes, throughout the event. As I usually say, the most truthful volunteers are those who do not interfere, who are doing their job correctly, without breaking into others personal space.

Most often volunteers become a part of a sports team. They help and cheer on. After a meeting with candidates for volunteers in Kaliningrad, I realized that many people want to be closer to the athletes. It is believed that this is the most interesting assignment. And I explain to them that there are other important functions. It does not matter, if you are working with the players or fans, or just standing at checkout. A single organism. I think I succeed to pass on the right mood.

However, after a meeting with our volunteers I was pleasantly surprised. There were many very different intelligent people, some of them know several languages. Yet, in my view, a very important feature of a good volunteer is a sense of humor.

I think that our volunteers are ready for the 2018 World Cup, and even more so for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017. The most important thing is desire to help and right attitude to their duties. That is a simple idea. You'll love your job and everything just happens.

Natalia Ishchenko recommends:

If you have time I strongly advise to go to Svetlogorsk to see the sea. And the Curonian Spit National Park. Nature is gorgeous there.

In Kaliningrad be sure to come by the Konigsberg Cathedral and the Amber Museum. Also the World Ocean Museum is worth a visit.

The Fishing village is the best place to try out local seafood. There are many cafes and cozy restaurants. Try the smoked eel, all the tourists order it in the first place.


Interviewed by Natalia Luchkina