Viktoriya Rybalko turned 26 last Sunday and she spent it at a star-studded luncheon at the Best Western Black Bear Inn in Orono.
Rybalko was one of six University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame inductees.
Long jumper Rybalko competed in the Olympics for her native Ukraine last summer and now has her sights set on the London Olympics in 2012.
She said the Beijing experience was “amazing” but her performance was marred by a “microtear in my Achilles’ tendon” and the fastest track she has ever competed on.
The combination led to two fouls and a cautious jump of 6.43 meters that was 23rd best in the preliminary rounds, preventing her from reaching the finals.
“I got injured a couple of weeks before the Olympics so I couldn’t do any running [leading up to the Olympics] and that led to major problems technically,” said Rybalko.
The fast surface, she explained, led to several fouls among the field.
“We didn’t know what to do. It threw everybody off. We kept moving back. I didn’t want to foul all three times and go back to the Ukraine with zero. And you can’t be careful if you want high results,” she said.
She now concedes that the Beijing Olympics “wasn’t quite my Olympics” but the experience she received will prove valuable in her training for London.
“I need to keep going and shoot for the next one,” said Rybalko.
She realized that even though the Olympics are the highlight of every athlete’s career and gets tremendous global exposure, it is important to treat it like any other meet.
“When I started my professional career, it was really stressful, even beginning with the European Championships and going on to the World Championships,” said Rybalko. “The Olympics are the next step. That’s the biggest scale. But then you realized it’s just a meet and you have to focus on doing your best.”
She is training in the Ukraine in preparation for March’s European Championships and admitted adjusting to the Ukrainian training methods represented a “difficult switch” from her training in America.
The facilities are much better in America and she hopes to return to the United States and become a coach while also training for the London Olympics.
Her fiancée is one of her coaches and she would like him to join her as a coach here, too.
Rybalko enjoyed her time at Maine where she won 10 America East track and field championships, six New England titles and owns three league and 10 school records.
She finished second in the NCAA outdoor championships in 2003 and was chosen an All-American.
“It was lots of fun. I loved studying at Maine and have fond memories of our teams. It was a great school. I still like school but I had to get out of graduate school because combining a professional sports career and studies was way too difficult,” said Rybalko, who earned a degree in biochemistry/microbiology at Maine and was the 2003 Dean Smith Award winner which goes to the school’s top scholar-athlete.
Rybalko, whose career-best is 6.82 meters, feels she can break the 7-meter mark in London.
“My magic number is 7.04. Getting over the 7-meter mark would be a great achievement. I’ve gotten close to it before,” said Rybalko. “Track and field has gotten older. A lot of athletes in their 30s are winning medals. I’m still young.”
As for spending her 26th birthday back at Maine, she called it “wonderful.”