Today Tatiana Ovechkina, the great basketball player and double Olympic games winner, is 60 years old. She is also the great mother who raised three sons and one of them plays hockey. You know him, it is Alexander Ovechkin, the world champion and super forward of Washington Capitals. On the eve of the birthday Sovietsky Sport correspondent called Tatiana Nikolaevna in the U.S. capital, where she is visiting her sons (Michael, the elder brother of Sasha, lives there too and works for the
Wizards Mystics women's basketball team).
Tatiana Ovechkina with her son Alex Ovechkin and the legendary center of the USSR basketball team, the tallest woman in the world Uljana Semjonova (6'11"). Ed 'Too Tall' Jones (6'9") is actually not too tall. Photo courtesy Sovetsky Sport.
At first Tatiana Nikolaevna flatly refused to give an interview, "Well, why I'd stick out myself? Is it even worth at all to talk about me? Big deal, a birthday...".
Still, I persuaded... "Sashka won't be at home on March 19th. He flies with Washington for a road game", says Ovechkina. "So we decided to celebrate the birthday on the 21st." [After the game vs Tampa Bay Lightning - tj] We'll gather in the family circle. We'll make a dinner, drink tea, I'll make a cake. I'll prepare jellied fish, pirogi. We'll play a game of fants.
Pavel Lysenkov: What will be your [birthday] wish?
Tatiana Ovechkina: I have one great desire, one wish, all to be good for the family. For the good health not to leave us and nobody would get sick. For my mother to be alive and well, she is now 85 years old. The health and happiness to my sister. Can there be anything more important?
Why did you choose basketball?
When I was in first grade, I got hit by the car. That was September 6th. I was in hospital for over six months. The fractures were very serious. It was healing pretty bad and there was a dispute if the leg should be amputated or not. After several surgeries the leg, thank God, was saved. But, despite the fact that I am in sports all my life, the leg is still noticeably different from the other.
My dad, God rest his soul, worked as a driver and was also in a lot of sports. We lived in a hut on Khoroshevka. We had soccer balls in the basement, miscellaneous equipment. The neighbors were borrowing sports equipment from us. The whole subdivision got together and built the execise site by themselfs. The boys played basketball, soccer...
I was terribly upset that all the kids were running, jumping, playing, and I could not. The doctors forbade me to engage in physical activities. I went to school in the boots so as not to damage the leg. I was released even from the the rhythm gymnastics, but I was taking my mother's slippers to school and worked out with everyone quietly. I was just hiding behind the other kids.
In the yard we had a basketball and volleyball sites. When parents would go to work, I'd take the ball and go to throw ball into the ring. It didn't turn out very good, my legs were weak. And then I figured out that I needed to strengthen the muscles. I'd put the bricks in a string bag and work out. I still don't get how I came up with that idea when I was only eight years old.
My sister played basketball for juniors at Dynamo. I tried to keep up with her though I liked volleyball more. Valya said, "Let's go to sign you up for volleyball". But that day they were not signing up for the volleyball team. And I went and signed up for basketball.
And how did you come up with your trademark, the number eight which you have weared your whole career, and under which Sasha plays now?
When I first started with juniors in Dynamo, they began to put me with the older group. I almost did not play with my age. I immensely liked one basketball player, Vladimir
Zinman Tsinman. He played under eight.
I was in love with him as an athlete! How awesome he played! He was a luxury playmaker. I still haven't seen anyone equal to him. He was older than me by two years. I went to all the championship games in Moscow where
Zinman Tsinman played. And when I started playing I asked for the number eight. Since then the eight has always been with me, starting with juniors and ending with the Olympic team.
Can you remind us about the Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980, where the USSR women's team took the gold?
The Canadian Olympic Games turned out very difficult. Our main rival at that time was Czechoslovakia. In Montreal game against them I scored 28 points, a very decent result. I generally have always liked to play against stronger teams when you have to mobilize yourself above and beyond.
But what about Americans, were they not competitive to our team?
They were not as strong as they are now. We went on tour across the United States. One can say we have taught the U.S. national team to play basketball. We had the major battles with the European teams, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria...
Because of that the level of the Moscow Olympics, when many West countries refused to come, was not below normal in the women's basketball. But we won the gold on those games too.
I'm sometimes asked what title I think was the most valuable in my career. And I'm not just talking about the two Olympics, World and European championships, but also about the national championship. It was so strong that the leaders could easily lose to outsiders. I was never able to become the USSR Champion. This title I got only as a coach of women's Dynamo, when we won the championship of Russia.
Alexander Ovechkin is a very strong and physical hockey player. From whom he got such an epic hero genes?
I took everything through desire, dedication. Sashka too has extreme performance drive. He can train to exhaustion for many hours.
I played for 40 minutes a game without any substitutions, in Dynamo, and for the USSR national team, when there were serious games. In regular ones you can relax. But when needed, I'd collect myself in a fist.
And, besides, my husband, Sasha's father, is not a random person in the sports. He played soccer for the Dynamo Moscow reserve team, he was a good defenseman.
Misha asked me for ice cream money
How did you and Uncle Misha meet?
We met at the Dynamo soccer stadium. Is it interesting?
Of course! How he approached you? What did he say?
Misha asked me for ice cream money (laughing). I was in company with my girlfriend and her young man. And here comes some footballer. I just returned from Bulgaria, looked very fashionable, stylish, with a beautiful purse. And there I had a change scattered. And he joked, "Hey, girl, can you buy me an ice cream?" It was in 1968...
I read the story about your family, you're not rich lived. Uncle Misha was moonlighting as a taxi cab driver, and once he was nearly strangled in the car. It was a hard time...
I don't want to cry poverty. We lived modestly and worked hard. I soon received a grant from the State Sports Committee. I was making decent money, my husband too. And the car - yes, he was working at night as a private taxi cab driver during perestroyka. Back then I was the head coach of the Dynamo's basketball team, the team nobody needed except me. The money earned didn't go to the family, but to the team.
Wow, how much do you have to make in taxi cab business in order to feed the whole Dynamo team?
I had to start somewhere, so that my team wouldn't perish. But I don't like to talk about it.
Actually I had a happy career in sports. Now I look at each photo, I remember every single story. It is like a balm to the soul.
During the celebration of the centenary of national basketball you were recognized as the best playmaker of all times, you were chosen to the Russian Centennial All-Star team.
Yes, these titles are not given lavishly. I was very pleased.
You have given so many years to Dynamo. And how are your relations with the club now? How do they treat you?
On the eve of my birthday, I'd rather not to talk about sad things.
You have given a birth to three children...
I actually was the only two-time Olympic champion in the country with the title "mother of many children". [According to the Russian labor legislation mothers with 3 or more children are eligible for certain benefits - tj]
It is a fact?
Yes, it is. The only other one is Elena Vaytsehovskaya, "mother of many children", but she is the winner of only one Olympics... Raising three kids is not easy, of course. I think about it, I remember... I am already 60 years old. You'd rather cry instead of being happy. Life went fast. As if you went out on the balcony, stood there and all flew in an instant before your eyes. Do you understand?
But there is something to remember, to be proud. There's something to fill your life with. It's like in the song, "the most important is the weather in the house." To all of them to be well and everything else going well.
I often visit them in America, where Sasha, his brother, Misha, work. The boys have grown, but they still need help. I cook the food and the moral support is important.
What are you cooking for your sons?
They are very fond of burgers, pelmenies, stuffed cabbage, any home cooking. Sometimes friends from the Washington Capitals come for a dinner. Not only our guys, but also foreigners - Niklas Backstrom and the other hockey players.
When Washington plays I'm even afraid to greet you during the intermissions. You concentrate upon yourself, turn inward away from the crowd. You are really concentrated even during ordinary games, against not very strong teams like Tampa or Carolina...
How else? Sashka has a very hard job. Hockey is a contact sport, it has a very heavy workload. In each episode it is as in the war. They want to hit you and you hit.
Why did you choose hockey for Alexander then?
He is a very athletic guy. In any team sports he would be able to prove himself. And in the childhood he watched a lot of hockey, ran with a stick around the apartment. He was always in motion, his eyes on fire. Since the time he started to walk Sasha was the most ardent fan of the Moscow Dynamo in any sport.
Did you have in your career just as hard a time as Sasha had after the Vancouver Olympics?
Yes, I had. Ten years ago we were in the Final Four of the Euroleague and failed to win that tournament. We yielded just one point to Frenchwomen... I had a horrible depression.
My husband and I watched the Vancouver Olympics in Moscow. But after the loss to Canadians (3:7) we flew to Washington to support Sasha. It's between me and my son what I said to him back then. It's hard to revive him after that loss.
For some reason everyone decided that Russia would beat everyone, including Canadians, and take the gold medals with ease. But look how many strong teams arrived in Vancouver. There is no need to judge our guys too hard. They all had a great desire to win. I won't say that team Russia lost at the Olympics. I'd say they couldn't win.
Why you didn't go to the Games? A lot of parents of NHL players rooted for their kids there.
I'd rather help my son from a distance. In any case we wouldn't have seen each other during the tournament. And he is always calling us prior to the game anyway. He has this habit since he started playing for Moscow Dynamo.
And then there was a scandal with two broken cameras in Vancouver. Everyone [in Russia] believes that Ovechkin attacked the girl who was his fan and the journalist. Although in reality these were two journalists who decided to work paparazzi style. They were filming where they were prohibited to shoot. They were asked not to film there. This all happened before my own eyes. How Alexander himself reacted to the fact that he was so misrepresented?
I told him, "Sasha, it's their job. Yes, it is unfortunate. But don't pay any attention to it. I didn't have really good relationship with the press either. And I don't like giving interviews. But if they have written some disgusting stuff about you, so what now, cry about it? Let people write and say what they want. And you, son, do you work - play hockey."
Is Sasha already out of depression after Vancouver?
It's left a bad taste in his mouth. We are trying to sidestep the talk about the Olympics. But the unpleasant moments still happen like surfing TV channels and switching to Vancouver games. Or watching KHL playoffs where our Moscow Dynamo lost to Spartacus. He gets into a depressive mood again.
He had high hopes for these Olympics. He believed that the hockey players will be able to please the country. He was preparing for the Vancouver and dreamed about the victory. He wanted to overtake me, to win at least one Olympic gold medal. But now you have to wait till Sochi.
He'd sigh and I'd say, "Time heals and new victories will heal too. Don't give up. You have all it ahead of you."
Rest your head
You worry too much
It's going to be alright
When times get rough
You can fall back on us
Don't give up
Please don't give up