Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.InternationalIndiaAfricaVitaliy Kochnev, who was forced to abandon a military career in the Russian Army’s special forces after a serious spinal injury, cannot walk without crutches, yet he has become an inspiring example for others, overcoming all odds to master marathon swimming and claim prizes at prestigious Russian and international competitions.Russian paralympic swimmer Vitaliy Kochnev was unfazed by daunting waves, cold water, and strong currents when he conquered a dangerous bay in Chile, dedicating his feat to the fighters and people of Donbass.
"It so happened that now I live and train in Chile. But, despite this, I wanted to show that I am with Russia, that I support our military, performing combat missions on the territory of Ukraine," the paratrooper veteran told media.
The athlete braved inclement weather near the Chilean port city of Antofagasta as part of the Russian “Force of Spirit” marathon in January. Held under the auspices of the All-Russian Winter Swimming Federation, all proceeds of the event went towards supporting soldiers and civilians of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, as well as the Pereslavl orphanage.“Unfortunately, only a few people watched me swim. And yet, by personal example, I wanted to show people who find themselves in a difficult life situation that you should never give up and to demonstrate how strong a Russian person can be,” Kochnev said.
Dubbed the “Crazy Russian,” Vitaliy is the only paralympic athlete in the world who competes on an equal footing with healthy opponents. Just recently, in the coastal city of Iquique, northern Chile, the indefatigable paralympic sportsman claimed the gold at a national swimming championship. The Army vet, hailing originally from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, showed the best time at a distance of 2,800 meters among 170 swimmers from Chile and Peru. Despite the towering three-meter-high waves, Kochnev covered the distance in 40 minutes. © Photo : Vitaliy Kochnev/Personal ArchivesVitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk-on-AmurVitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk-on-AmurWhen asked what his first thoughts at the finish line were, he told Sputnik:
"I could no longer think about anything. I was thinking during the race. I just had to distribute my strength. I often swim in 'big waves' here when there are storms and bad weather. They call me 'crazy Russian' here for that, because no one swims like that except me. So even if I'm training or competing during a storm, it's not that hard for me. Somewhere in the middle of the race, a big wave came in. I saw it started to carry the rivals to the shore, and here I managed to overcome it, and after a kilometer, I surpassed all of them. Of course, there were obstacles. It was difficult. An unfamiliar route, then this wave of three meters, there were no landmarks – I lost a lot of time trying to orientate myself in space. I could not even see where to swim because of the wave, that is, you had to stick your head out, catch your breath, and everything else. There were many jellyfish, too. That's why there were a lot of difficulties."
© Photo : Vitaliy Kochnev/Personal ArchiveVitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.
‘Set Goal & Achieve It, No Matter What’
Vitaliy Kochnev is a former Army special forces officer who suffered a serious back injury and was forced to abandon all hopes of a military career. Now, he can only move relying on crutches. But when life throws such hardships at people like Vitaliy, they do not baulk, but, rather, rise up to the challenge. That is precisely what this ex-Army man did: he mustered all his willpower and became an excellent swimmer. © Photo : Vitaliy Kochnev/Personal ArchivesVitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.Moreover, while most physically-challenged and disabled swimmers cannot swim more than 100 meters, Kochnev can cover 200 and 400-meter distances alongside healthy peers. He claims his military background has been a great boost.”I didn’t make it to officer in the academy. I was a squad leader. I was a petty officer. And, of course, yeah. That helps me a lot. Unlike other, even healthy athletes, I have the advantage of military training. It gives you the psychological preparation for overcoming all kinds of obstacles. And when it’s absolutely impossible, when you are already out of strength, you can mobilize yourself with your willpower, when you have set the goal and must achieve it, no matter what it costs you.”© Photo : Vitaliy Kochnev/Personal ArchivesVitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic swimmer from Komsomolsk.Kochnev said that his training track record had fully geared him up for the ocean’s challenges. “I used to compete in Para swimming, in the pool, sport swimming. Then I got married, and for a few years, I, so to speak, retired from big sports. Then I came back, divorced my wife, came back to the big sports, and I was just offered to try my hand at winter swimming. It’s a new sport. And it all moved along really fast. I mean it’s an extreme sport, it has its own methods, its own techniques, everything is a little bit different there. And of course for the health and for the body this is a lot of stress. That is why I can safely swim now. They are all in special suits, but I don’t get cold in principle. I can stand the cold water,” the remarkable para athlete told Sputnik.According to Kochnev, there have been precedents of swimmers pulling out of competitions after seeing that he had entered for them, saying, “if this Russian competes here again, it means there is no hope for us.” The Russian swimmer recalled how last year, competitors in the championships swam in flippers and with healthy legs“I only had my arms. The bottom line is that I won,” Vitaliy Kochnev said.© Photo : Vitaliy Kochnev/Personal ArchiveSwimmin awards of Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic athlete from Komsomolsk.Swimmin awards of Vitaliy Kochnev, a Russian Paralympic athlete from Komsomolsk.As to how he came to be training in Chile, the athlete said he could not turn down an invitation when it came from the country’s authorities, especially since it meant an opportunity to face off against the force of ocean waves.
"When I got back into the big sports again… I was looking for opportunities to fulfill my goals and ideas… and I came to Moscow, to the Moscow suburbs. I lived there, I trained there and was looking for opportunities. And then I received an invitation from Chile to train there. Of course, there are a lot of advantages in Chile. And the first is, of course, the ocean. There are swimming pools: they give me the opportunity to train there. And if you are an athlete with disabilities, they treat you with care and create conditions. When I came here, I said: 'I can win, participate in competitions, and even break Guinness Records.' Now I'm getting a residence permit and I will compete as a Russian and as a Chilean."
But despite currently being so far away from his Motherland, this iron-willed man never forgets the friends and acquaintances of his who participate in Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine.“‘Return home to live!’ is what we used to say. ‘To come back home alive.’ That is what I want to pass on,” he said in a message to them all.As far as the para swimmer’s future plans go, as he mentioned earlier, he has every intention of breaking a Guinness World Record and swimming across the English Channel.
"Both the English Channel and Antarctica, you name it! I currently plan to do Santa Catarina [River] and La Plata [River], and many other things. I mean, I could do it, but I didn't have the funding. Now I don't know, I hope the Chileans will help me do it. I have physical and psychological ability to do it. I am ready now. Now we are waiting to see how it happens. I need literally three or four months to prepare. That is, in principle, I am ready," Vitaliy said.
Swimming ‘Against the Current’
The Army veteran offered words of advice to people that are struggling to find their way in life. As someone who spent “10 years looking for myself” while trying to cope with his injury, he acknowledged how tremendously difficult it was to “readjust.””Many people come to me, even the healthy ones, not to mention those with disabilities. My advice is as follows: you need goals. That is you set goals in terms of some things that are tangible, and some things that are intangible. Set intangible goals. I have found myself. I have found my vocation, let’s say, my way. And I advise everyone the same thing: to find YOUR way. That is, not to live for the sake of, for example, buying a new car or an apartment or something like that. That is not for the sake of these petty things. You must live for something big and what is indeed important – to live for the sake of family and children.”