One minute, Olga Kharlan is a 21-year-old blonde watching cartoons and chomping on sweets with a smile on her face.
The next, she straps on a helmet, grabs a sword and turns into a whirlwind of movement and metal.
Kharlan is Ukraine’s top fencer and a leading contender for a gold medal at the London Olympics in August. She won gold in the saber category in Beijing in 2008 in a dramatic duel with a Chinese swordswoman.
After taking a silver medal at the World Fencing Championship in Kyiv in April, she is now trying to get herself in the right mental and physical shape to go one better in London.
“I’m sure fencing is a sport, above all, of the mind, of intuition and then of the body. The main thing is to outwit your opponent; you need to be a step ahead of him. If you don’t do it, he will,” she said in an interview at her training base in the Koncha Zaspa suburb of Kyiv.
Kharlan was born in 1990 in Mykolayiv, a ship-building town in southern Ukraine and one of the nation’s fencing training centers. Her family was into sports: her father trained yacht crews and swimmers, while her mother was involved in archery and athletics.
Kharlan followed her sister into dancing, but quit when her family had financial problems. She took up fencing, which was free.
Olga Kharlan in training center (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
“I was a restless child so my mother brought me to sports,” Kharlan said. “Everything else, I did all by myself.”
It was her godfather who placed the first saber in her hand when she was 10 years old. This one-meter sword is the only one in fencing that allows scoring with the edge of the blade as well as the point.
It’s a fast but controlled sport, where each fencers duel along a thin piste, trying to score a hit while defending their own body.
Kharlan’s progress was fast, and in 2007 she became a junior world champion. One year later, she was Olympic champion at the age of just 17. She was part of the three-woman saber team alongside Olha Zhovnir and Olena Khomrova. In the final fight with a Chinese fencer, Kharlan scored the decisive point.
“The Chinese fencer was under pressure because of her home crowd backing her vociferously. And I was laid back knowing that I had nothing to lose,” she told reporters after the fight.
Kharlan herself experienced the pressure of fighting at home when the World Fencing Championship took place in Kyiv in April. The Ukrainian team lost to Russia by one point, taking the silver medal.
“I felt a certain responsibility to strive to win and not to disappoint our supporters’ hopes,” Kharlan said in the interview.
Kyiv Post staff writer Denis Rafalsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org