Elena Semechin wins para swimming silver - despite chemotherapy | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW | 14.06.2022

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Elena Semechin wins para swimming silver - despite chemotherapy

Germany's Elena Semechin was just 0.02 seconds away from a gold medal at the para swimming world championships in Madeira, despite having just completed a fourth round of chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor.

The lead changed hands several times on the home straight as Elena Semechin felt the effects of chemotherapy taking their toll.

"I noticed on the second length that I was short of energy," she said after finishing just two hundreths of a second behind Colleen Young of the USA to take silver.

It wasn't quite the Paralympic gold she had won in Tokyo in 2020 but silver in the 100-meter breaststroke at the para swimming world championships in Maderia still represented a mammoth achievement for the 27-year-old, who is currently undergoing cancer treatment on a brain tumor.

"I've proven that I've still got it," she said. "I can still compete."

Semechin, née Kravtsov, was born in Kazakhstan and collected titles at European and World Championships, but with gold at the Paralympics, the swimmer had reached the pinnacle of her career.

"That was the last medal I was missing," the athlete recalled in an interview with DW. "After 10 years of hard work, a real weight fell off my shoulders. Many athletes fall into a hole after such a title. It wasn't like that for me at all. I had a wonderful time afterwards and really enjoyed it."

But then the headaches started.

"My headaches, which plagued me, were the only reason I couldn't enjoy every day."

"When will I be able to train again?"

Those headaches led to Kravtsov getting a checkup with her doctors. The day she got the diagnosis, she and her fiance had just picked out wedding rings. Afterwards, she went for an MRI exam.

"After the first diagnosis, it was clear that something was wrong. And then after another examination, I was told that there was a brain tumor in my head. That was a blow, of course," she says.

Elena Semechin raises a medal

Semechin celebrates her greatest success with victory in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympics in Tokyo

Suddenly, life was different. "There was no longer any joy, happiness or euphoria, just fear and uncertainty. I didn't know what was coming," she recalled. 

The swimmer canceled all appointments and made her illness public in late 2021.

"I didn't want to hide it. I didn't want people to ask me weird questions," she says. "That helped me a lot. I had a pretty good handle on it, and I think I handled it very well."

In early November, two days before the surgery, Kravtsov married her fiance, long-time coach, Philip Semechin, and changed her last name. The wedding and surgery were another turning point in the competitive athlete's life. After the tumor was removed, she immediately began looking ahead. 

Giving up has never been an option for the now 28-year-old. She wanted to get back into the pool as soon as possible. "After the surgery, I woke up and immediately asked the doctor when I could train again."

Training and chemotherapy in tandem

Barely one week later, she began chemotherapy. At first, Semechin only trained outside the pool to allow the scar from the operation to fully heal.

"Competitive sports helped me a lot during this phase because my body is used to extreme stress. I learned early on what it means to push the limits physically and mentally. I benefit a lot from that," Semechin explained. Her fighting spirit had been awakened.

Together with her coach-turned-husband, she adjusted her training plans to include more recovery phases, "so that I don't completely destroy myself and then can't take the chemo anymore," she said.

Semechin had to listen to her body more than ever, since the cycles of chemotherapy would have different impacts. Sometimes she can exercise more and sometimes less, she explains. "Finding that balance between rest and stress and regulating my athletic ambition down a bit" are the biggest challenges in the current situation, she said.

Elena Semechin

The German Championships in Berlin were the first competition after Semechin's operation

Just five months after the tumor was removed, Semechin was competing at the German Championships in Berlin, having just finished another cycle of chemo.

"I was a little scared," she admitted in an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF. "I was feeling really dirty. I was lying in bed and I was sick to my stomach. I hadn't eaten anything. But I thought, this is the only competition before the World Championships where you can swim again."

Semechin made it to the final heat and ended up in last place in the final, but it felt like a victory. "The goal was not to have the lifeguard fish me out of the water," she said, delighted. "I was totally relieved that I could still swim at all."

Big goals for the future

In May, Semechin flew to Turkey for a training camp to prepare for the World Championships in Portugal. Chemotherapy treatment continued in tandem with her training, but the 28-year-old has taken on the challenge in impressive style. 

At the age of seven, she had already had to accept that her life would be different. Back then, she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, the condition that caused her vision to diminish increasingly over time.

"A diagnosis like this would perhaps pull the rug out from under many other people, but I saw it as a sign that you have to live in the moment," she said. "I enjoy life now perhaps even more than before the diagnosis."

Elena Semechin raises her arms in the pool

Semechin says she enjoys life more than ever

'Maybe there won't be a later'

Semechin will have to live with cancer because she hasn't beaten the disease yet. She doesn't know how long she will live, but that doesn't matter at the moment.

"I live in the here and now and don't put anything off. Of course, competitive sport still plays a big role in my life, but if I want to get a diving certificate now, for example, I'll do it," she says. "I'm planning it now, because maybe there won't be a later."

Her athletic goals, however, remained unchanged - and she ticked off another major box in Madeira. She is also aiming to compete at the Paralympics in Paris in 2024 and repeat her success from Tokyo. 

But everything depends on the further course of cancer treatments, which are also holding her personal ambitions back.

"When I hopefully overcome the disease at some point, I would like to have a child," she says. "I want to leave someone there in case I do die sooner. I want my family not to be all alone."

This article was translated from German

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