Fira Dvoskina may have only arrived in Australia 22 years ago, but she has in that short time made a significant impact on hurdling and sprinting in our country. Sadly, Fira passed away in Sydney yesterday afternoon, aged 83, after battling Myeloma in recent years.
Fira coached at all levels, in schools, juniors and the elite. She was Steven Solomon’s first coach and guided him through the key formidable years from a schoolkid footballer to Olympic finalist while still in his teens. Some of the many athletes she coached for over a decade were Australian national 110m hurdles champion Justin Merlino, Andrew Pym (winner of the 2001 Stawell Gift) and Sydney Olympian Debbie Edwards/Schulstad.
Esfir Dvoskina was born in a small Belorussia town Capatkevichi in 1934 (September 20). When the second World War broke out in 1941, her family moved to the centre of Russia for four years, but when they returned to Capatkevichi after the war, it had been bombed and had virtually disappeared. In 1945 the family decided to settle in the Ukraine/Polish border city of Lvov.
She meet her future husband Boris Dvoskina who was a member of the Soviet Union national team. He was selected in the 4x400m relay for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, but didn’t go to the Games. He ran 48.4 for 400m, a time which placed him in the European top-15 during that era. Away from the track, he was an engineer in an Iron factory. Boris and Fira married in 1957 and Fira settled in Boris’ hometown of Dnipropetrovsk in south-east Ukraine.
Fira was herself a fine athlete and ran 12.1 for 100m, she was also a good gymnast and fencer. In 1957 she completed her four-year coaching degree at the University of Physical Culture and Sport (in Lvov). For the next 38 years, Fira was a full-time athletics coach in several sports schools, sporting clubs and national centres of Olympic preparation. During her career, she coached many fine Soviet and Ukrainian athletes including:
Goncharenko Galina a 13.0 100m hurdler; Evgeni Baralei a Soviet Union 4x400m team member from 1973-76 with a PB of 46.80; Evgeni Oleshko a sprinter with personal bests of 100m 10.45 and 200m 20.90; Zoya Voitenko a member of Soviet Union team from 1976 to 1981 with a personal best 100m of 11.40; and Motina Alla a member of Ukrainian team from 1981 to 1987 in the 100m hurdles clocking a personal best of 13.00.
After her a long career of coaching and travelling with the national team, she retired in 1995. Life for elderly people was tough in the Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fira’s had relatives in Australia, including her older sister so she and Boris moved to Sydney in 1996 to retire. But it wasn’t long before she was back into coaching. She started assisting national sprints/relays coach Michael Khmel, a former Russian sprinter. His squad included Matt Shirvington, Pat Dwyer (400 44.73), Daniel Batman (200 20.78), Casey Vincent (400m 45.36) and many others. She assisted Tongan athletes and was their national coach at the Sydney Olympics. She also coached Debbi Schulstad (nee Edwards) to the Sydney Olympics in the 100m hurdles (pb 13.20). She also coached at St Ignatius College and one athlete she developed was Andrew Pym. A good junior sprinter, Fira coached Pym to victory in the richest footrace in Australia, the 2001 Stawell Gift.
Over the next two decades, Fira coached dozens of sprinters and hurdlers. One of the athletes Fira coached the longest was Justin Merlino. He was no standout as a junior athlete, but Fira developed him to the second fastest 110m hurdler in Australian history (he is now number three all-time).
"Fira was more than just a coach,” said Merlino. “She was like a grandmother to me. She has guided me both on and off the track for more than half my life. She has taught me so many valuable lessons about hurdling and sprinting, but also about resilience and hard-work. She is the bravest person that I have ever met and she fought all the way to the end. I will forever be grateful for everything she has done and she will remain in my heart forever. "
One of her undoubted coaching highlights has been the development of Steven Solomon. A good sprinter/hurdler/ jumper at Cranbrook school, Solomon joined Fira’s squad at the encouragement of 400m hurdler James Roff, who coached Solomon at school. Initially Solomon ran 400m hurdles, but hurdle height changes, and some minor injuries and lack of strength due to his young training age, moved him in the direction of the 400m. In 2011, aged 17, he won the national 400m time defeating most members of the Australian 4x400m relay team which in recent years have won Commonwealth Games gold and World Championships silver. A 50 second 400m runner 18 months earlier, Solomon competed at the World Championships in Daegu in 2011.
In 2012, he overcame injury to place third at the 2012 world junior championships and a month later, while still in his teens, make the London Olympic 400m final clocking 44.97 in the semifinal. Over the next few years, with Fira aging and his move to college in the USA, Fira’s daughter Iryna Dvoskina took on the coaching of Steven. In 2003, Fira’s only child, Iryna Dvoskina had joined her in Australia. Iryna, a leading coach in Ukraine, coached in Canberra in the Para-athletics program. Both Fira and Iryna coached Steven by Skype when he was overseas at college competitions.
In an interview in 2011 Steven spoke about the influence Fira has had on his career.
“I can’t put into words the impact Fira has had ... the way Fira is so supremely educated with all this knowledge, not only on the 400m but the hurdles and the sprints and the plyometrics and everything,” he said. “The way she’s passed on her knowledge and such has really been a fundamental reason for my successes so far.”
Fira lived in the Eastern Suburbs and mostly trained at Homebush. As she was elderly, the squad would take turns dropping her home after training, but there would be days she would make the journey to and from training on the train. Uniquely, she refused to charge for coaching. In return, the squad would cover many of her costs. Justin Merlino and the squad would take up a collection and pay for her travel to nationals. She would often stay with the family of a squad member who cared for her. In 2012, the Solomon family ensured the Fira-Steven team were together and supported Fira to the World Juniors and London Olympics, a great thrill for Fira to see the fruits of her labour.
“Her “team” looked after her like a grandmother and always ensured she was cared for,” recalled Doctor Michael Solomon, father of Steven, who personally ensured she and her husband Boris received the best medical care in later years.
“Fira was a very special person to so many. We (the Solomon’s) became very very close to her and regarded her as part of our family. We will miss her enormously but are so grateful for her coming into our lives and for giving Steve the opportunity to run at the highest level against the best in the world.”
Fira improved the lives of so many athletes through ensuring they got the best out of themselves as athletes and people.
Some more of the many athletes she coached over two decades, included: Jacquie Lemcke (nee Munro), Greg Eyears, Robert Marks, Ray Smith, Rachel Hardy, James Roff, Chamath Herath, Jacob Holt, Richard Haggie, James Dooley, Steven Andreazza, Liz Clay, Laura Duncan, Daniel Small, Lewis Horenko, Felipe De Castro Cruz, Colin Browne and Jana Pittman.
Fira was still at the track coaching as recently as this year, despite being aged 83. Her enduring coaching career seemed endless, but her final hurdle of myeloma would be too great for her to clear.
The board and staff of Athletics Australia pass on their condolences to her husband Boris, daughter Iryna and their friends and family.
David Tarbotton for Athletics Australia
Thanks to Iryna Dvoskina, Justin Merlino and Michael Solomon for assistance with this article.
Image: Fira Dvoskina (image courtesy of David Tarbotton )