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The Fastest Women's Mile: Svetlana Masterkova


The Fastest Women's Mile: Svetlana Masterkova

Svetlana Masterkova celebrates after breaking the world mile record on Aug. 14, 1996.

Gary M. Prior/Getty Images
For a reluctant athlete, Russia’s Svetlana Masterkova endured a remarkable amount of pain to briefly become the world’s top middle distance runner. During an incredible four-week stretch in 1996, Masterkova won two Olympic gold medals, then set a pair of world records, including the women’s mile record of 4:12.56.

Masterkova’s path to the world mile mark began at age 12, when she started training as a runner. But running wasn’t her idea – she ran at the insistence of a physical education teacher during the last decade of the Soviet Union. She first flashed her potential on the international scene by placing sixth in the 800 meters in the 1985 European Junior Championships at age 17. Six years later she won the national 800-meter title and placed eighth in the World Championships.

She suffered a variety of injuries over the next few years but did manage to earn a silver medal in the 1993 World Indoor Championships. She then took a maternity break in 1994-95, but began training again just two months after giving birth to her daughter, Anastasia.

The time away from the track was clearly good for Masterkova’s legs. She remained healthy in 1996 and not only blossomed in the 800, but also ran in the 1500 at the Russian championships – only the second 1500-meter competition of her career – which she won.

Olympic Glory:

Masterkova then shocked the track world by leading from the start and winning the 800-meter Olympic gold medal on July 29, ahead of the favored Maria Mutola. In the 1500 final five days later, Masterkova ran behind Kelly Holmes for most of the race, then shot in front and held off Maria Szabo to become the second woman to win the Olympic 800-1500 double.

Masterkova ran a then-personal best to win an 800-meter event in Monaco on Aug. 10, one week after her Olympic 1500 victory, then she traveled to Switzerland to run her first-ever competitive mile, at the Weltklasse Grand Prix in Zurich on Aug. 14.

Mastering the Mile:

Starting from the outside position in the Zurich race, Masterkova dashed straight for the inside lane and settled into second place, just behind the right shoulder of pacemaker Ludmilla Borisova. She remained on Borisova’s heels as the pair ran 1:01.91 for the first lap and 2:06.66 through two laps. By the time Borisova dropped out, on the backstretch of the third lap, Masterkova was running by herself. She completed three laps in 3:12.61, hit the 1500-meter mark in 3:56.76, then sprinted through the finish line to beat Paula Ivan’s previous world mile mark of 4:15.61 by three seconds.

After the race a surprised Masterkova told reporters she “felt a bit tired after the Olympics and Monte Carlo last weekend. But I guess only my head was tired, not my legs.”

On Aug. 23, Masterkova capped her four-week surge by setting a world 1000-meter record, running 2:28.98 in Brussels.

The following month, at the height of her success, Masterkova remained a reluctant runner. She revealed that her entry into her sport “wasn’t voluntary. It still isn’t. Sometimes when I’m training now, I’d rather rest than run.”

She continued running for a few more years, but was again hampered by injuries. Masterkova won the European 1500-meter title in 1998, then overcame an ankle injury to win the 1500-meter gold and the 800-meter bronze at the 1999 World Championships, which became her final triumph. She officially retired after the 2002 season.

Read more about the mile:
Women's Mile World Records
Men's Mile World Records
El Guerrouj Breaks the Men's Record

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