Meet the Russian Olympic gold medalist who now coaches suburban swimmers
Vladimir "Vlad" Pyshnenko storms up and down the pool deck like a general, whistling at his swimmers.
"Make a difference now," he shouts as he tries to motivate them to go faster.
Pyshnenko, 45, of Lake Bluff, is the head senior coach on CATS Aquatic Team, a Libertyville-based swim club. He's also a former Olympic medalist with a passion for the pool.
"I love it. Swimming is my whole life. It's all I know and all I care about. Swimming is everything for me," he said.
He grew up in the former Soviet Union in the city of Rostov-on-Don. When he was 6 years old, his mother signed him up for ballet and swimming.
But, as he grew, he realized he would have a hard time pursuing ballet because his height (6 feet, 4 inches) would limit the partners he would be able to dance with. So, he started concentrating on swimming at the age of 10.
Pyshnenko has four Olympic medals: gold in 4×200 freestyle relay and a silver medal in 4×100 free and the medley relay at the Barcelona games in 1992 for the Unified Team after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a silver medal at Atlanta in 1996 in the 4×100 freestyle relay for the Russian team.
His 4x200 team set the world record in 1992 with a time of 7:11.95, bettering the former U.S. record of 7:12.51 set in Seoul, Korea, he said.
"As a swimmer, I've achieved all my goals," he said, "and my goal right now is to help the kids achieve their goals."
Pyshnenko prefers coaching high school kids.
"In college you have diamonds, and you are just polishing those diamonds," he explained. "Here, you get just the regular rock and you create that diamond. That's what I like about what I'm doing at this level."
He coaches his 16-year-old daughter, Daria, who is following in his footsteps. She is the reigning IHSA state champion in the 50 freestyle and has qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials in the same event.
"As a father, I'd like to see her go to the Olympics," Pyshnenko said. "But as a coach, I realize it's the tough part and I know what it takes to be there."
Swimming is definitely part of his family. His wife, Natalia Meshcheryakova, is a bronze medalist in the 1992 Olympics. She held the European record in the 50 freestyle for 11 years and now coaches the silver group at CATS. Pyshnenko and his wife came to the U.S. in 1999; he became a U.S. citizen in 2008.
Pyshnenko is still swimming. At the Masters level, he broke the world record for the age 36-39 division and qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials at the age of 38. And he brings that experience and knowledge to his coaching.
"I think what's important to me is that the kids are happy, healthy, having fun and (swimming) their best times," he said. "That's what it's all about."
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