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Legendary sports doctor is Russia’s secret Olympic weapon

The amazing career of sports medicine pioneer Vasily Avramenko has been immortalized on film. But far from resting on his laurels, the veteran doctor is now bringing his skills to bear on Russia’s preparations for London 2012.

­At 62, Vasily Avramenko has a wealth of experience and achievements under his belt.  Success with the Russian basketball team in Seoul over 23 years ago is the focus of a documentary about his life.

He discovered the crucial importance of morning sleep to the team’s recovery and his players were the only ones to miss breakfast every day – a factor they believe contributed to their gold medal triumph.

"I remember that at the Olympic Games in Seoul we had to walk to the canteen. It was very far and inconvenient. The Soviet delegation lived on the outskirts of the Olympic village and we had to cover quite a long distance on the road. You know, if you have a training session at ten o’clock in the morning, it’s very hard to wake up after intensive games the day before. You wish to sleep longer, and Vasily managed to order breakfast in bed for 15 people,” Rimas Kurtinaits, Khimki Coach and former USSR basketball player, said.

That built Avramenko’s reputation as a lateral thinker and his expertise is still being called on by Russia’s medal hopes for the next Olympics.

Olympic long jump champion Tatyana Lebedeva is one of them. In 2009, she was on the brink of withdrawing from the world championships in Berlin with a back injury.

But with his help she managed to recover and developed a new mental toughness.

"Vasily has disclosed his secrets himself and we, the athletes, can only confirm that everything comes from your head and no matter in what depressed state an athlete can be, an ability to implant a feeling that you are the best, confident, the most focused and the strongest person of all is the most important thing. Not every person has an ability to inspire these feelings. But Vasily Antonovich is the one who has this gift. We are ready to fight and win even with traumas. I don’t have the words to express our gratitude to him,"
Lebedeva said.

For Avramenko, understanding an athlete requires more than an understanding of medicine. It means appreciating how their mind works and, he believes, appreciating the person’s soul.

"I am probably a bit different from other sport doctors. I spend one third of my life in monasteries where I try to cognize the meaning of life. I learn from the elders how to penetrate into the depths of a human soul and how to find the thinnest thread in it. I then apply my knowledge in sport especially with athletes who suffer serious defeats. The elders say that it’s not a sin to fall but it’s a sin not to wake up," he said.

With his track record of success, Avramenko commands great respect within Russian sport. Patients have included pole vaulting greats Elena Isinbayeva and Sergey Bubka.

But the doctor insists his results are not just based on modern techniques. Plenty of answers can be found in the past and alternative medicine.

"I have international patents for rehabilitation methods, except doping. You can be closer to God by using traditional medicine and nature, including treatment with products of apiculture. This method has been forgotten but I like it, and all my patients like Lena Lebedeva, Slesarenko and Elena Isinbayeva use my methods of traditional medicine (royal jelly and propolis). I’ve been to thousands of doping controls with them at world and European championships, and they were clean," Vasily Avramenko said.

The doctor may be celebrating his 63rd birthday this year, but he has no immediate plans to retire and intends to lead Russia to more gold next summer.