The Fastest Women's Mile: Svetlana Masterkova

Svetlana Masterkova crosses the line to set the women's mile world record in 1996. Gary M Prior/Allsport/Getty Images

Sports fans worldwide have paid plenty of attention to the men's mile world record over the years, particularly when the record approached the magical four-minute mark in the 1950s. Women's mile-running accomplishments haven't always received the attention they deserved, which likely explains why the women's world record-holder in the event is less well known than the men's standard bearer, Hicham El Guerrouj.

Introducing Svetlana Masterkova

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, and 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. Nevertheless, the teacher's eye for talent proved sharp.

Masterkova first flashed her potential on the international scene at age 17, by placing sixth in the 800 meters in the 1985 European Junior Championships. Six years later she won the national 800-meter title and finished eighth in the World Championships.

Despite suffering a variety of injuries over the next few years, Masterkova earned an 800-meter 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 to the front and held off Maria Szabo to become the second woman to win the Olympic 800-1500 double.

Masterkova ran a then-personal best 1:56.04 to win an 800-meter event in Monaco on Aug. 10, one week after her Olympic 1500 victory, and 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, and 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, and 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.

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