Meet Russia's rising handball star Elena Mikhaylichenko

Russia are handball Olympic champions and with teen sensation Elena Mikhaylichenko now in the ranks, they are hopeful of defending their title at Tokyo 2020. 

By Ken Browne and Ekaterina Kuznetsova

Elena Mikhaylichenko is headed to the top of women's handball.

When Russia became Olympic champions at Rio 2016, she was just 17-years-old and still breaking into the team.

Fast-forward two years to 2018, and her 10 goals helped Russia to victory over Hungary in the final of the Youth World Championships. Unsurprisingly she was named tournament MVP. A year later, she secured her first senior medal.

More recently, the prodigy was recruited by CSKA Moscow to play club handball at an ambitious new project.

Mikhaylichenko was with her junior team when the Russian women won gold in Rio: "We were so happy we nearly jumped through the roof, as if it was us who won this gold," she told Olympic Channel.

"These Games became a symbol of hope for us young handball players. They showed us that everything is possible and that everything is in our hands."

Now the player born in 2001 is on the same team as many of her Rio heroes like Anna Sen and Daria Dmitrieva.

You can watch highlights or the entire Russia v France Rio 2016 final here...

And keep scrolling to read Mikhaylichenko's full story.

“Sometimes I put pressure on myself when I realise that I play together with a number of Olympic champions," she told the European Handball Federation recently.

"But teammates and coaches treat me very well, they always help and ask me to relax.”

Despite a world put on pause by the coronavirus outbreak, her one clear goal is fixed:

“I would like to play at the Olympics and I hope that maybe I will get my chance,” she says, aiming to help Russia successfully defend their Olympic title.

Elena Mikhaylichenko: The making of

She was born in September 2001 in Togliatti, on the banks of Russia's Volga River.

"My parents always wanted me to do sports," she says, "either basketball or volleyball. Back then they didn't even know about handball. And when the opportunity came, I signed up for a group out of interest just to see what the sport is all about."

She started playing handball at 10, and quickly fell in love.

"I am attracted to the sport because of how dynamic it is, because of its combinations and the adrenaline that you get throughout the game," and Elena gives a clear indication that she's a team player:

"A big part of why I am attracted to handball is that it's a team sport. Throughout your whole career in handball it's possible to meet a lot of interesting people as well as build lifelong friendships."

But a young Elena was not an obvious candidate to become a future pro for one big - or small - reason.

“Once coaches came to my school and selected tall children for playing handball," she says. "Actually they didn’t want to take me as I was not tall then."

There is an old saying in handball that 'you can teach a tall person to play handball, but you can't teach a handball player to be tall.'

Luckily for a young Elena - and for Russian handball - she convinced the selectors to look at her due to other sporting attributes.

"I persuaded them by saying that I was fast,” she remembers.

The growing spurts came, she's now 1.77m tall (5'8) - not super tall - but her speed, jump, strength and natural understanding of the game have made her a valued teammate and feared rival.

Elena Mikhaylichenko's inspirations

Her early inspirations came from that team in Rio, which won Russia's first ever women's handball gold medal.

Olympic champ Anna Sen was a young Mikhaylichenko's first handball hero, and now they play together on the Russian national team.

“She played in my position and wore my No. 8 But I have never told her that she was my idol,” Mikhaylichenko explains, shyly.

"She is very experienced and also a great central defender, she does everything in a very smart way, on time and it's very hard to play against her, especially when she is in that central zone, defending."

When she later joined Lada’s first team at 16, teammate Daria Dmitrieva - another Rio gold medallist - became her new go-to girl.

“Daria is a great person. She is very kind, responsive and always tries to help young players. She is also a very cheerful and energetic person, I have never seen her in low spirits,” Mikhaylichenko continues.

"I played with Dasha on the same team for some time and I can say that it was an amazing experience for me. She is a nice person and a great player that you can learn a lot from."

As she started getting a little older, her awareness of foreign handball stars grew, “Cristina Neagu (from Romania) is extremely good, and so is Eduarda Amorim (A Brazilian 2013 world champion)."

The EHF spotted the young Russian as a standout youth talent and she was supported under the 'Respect Your Talent' program.

The project helps talented young women in handball to reach their potential.

As part of the program Mikhaylichenko was mentored by Rio 2016 bronze medallist and double world champ Stine Oftedal from Norway in the summer of 2019.

“I had a very positive impression," Mikhaylichenko said of her mentor. "Stine gave detailed and interesting answers to every question. She told us about her life, studies and career. She said that she wasn't born with a natural talent, but had to work very hard to become one of the best players of the world."

"Handball is my life"

Like most young people Mikhaylichenko tried different things, but handball was always the one.

“I also ran for my school and did ballroom dancing, but later I realised that handball is my life,” she recounted to EHF.

It wasn't long before her talent was recognised, and she moved to a sports school where playing and practising were built into her daily lessons.

By the age of 16 she had signed her first pro contract with local club HC Lada.

A year later at the 2018 Junior (Under 20) Worlds, she finished as Russia's top scorer with 45 goals, including 7 in the 3rd-place final where Russia narrowly lost to tournament MVP Song Hye-soo's South Korea.

So close to a medal in Hungary in July, a month later she had a chance to make amends. This time the U-18 World Championship was up for grabs in Poland, and no way was she going home without a medal.

Mikhaylichenko bossed the tournament, and the final, scoring 10 goals to help defeat Hungary 29-27. She went home with gold, and the tournament's MVP trophy.

“I had inexpressible emotions. I couldn’t believe that it all was true. It was the most perfect competition in my life,” she said afterwards, overcome with emotion.

In 2019, the then 17-year-old was brought into the senior Russian side.

She took home a bronze medal from the World Championships in Japan alongside Olympic gold medallists Anna Vyakhireva and Victoria Kalinina, with fellow youth product Yaroslava Frolova also having a superb tournament.

At just 18-years-old, she was already the undisputed leader of her hometown club HC Lada.

Lada's leader

At the start of the 2019/20 season things looked a bit bleak for Handball Club Lada.

The team had to rebuild after a number of key players left in the summer of 2019, like Daria Dmitrieva and Polina Vedekhina, who moved over to the new CSKA Moscow project.

With four matches played in the Women’s EHF Cup group phase, Lada sat bottom of the group with just two points.

“Of course their departure has affected us," Mikhaylichenko said of the players now at CSKA. "It takes time to create a new team, and now we are just starting to find chemistry,” she continued, taking on a leadership role at Lada beyond her years.

She scored 37 goals in those four group matches played, at least eight in each one, including one game at Bietigheim where she rattled the onion bag 11 times in a losing cause.

In January 2020, the EHF awarded her player of the month with 31-year-old Croatian hero Domagoj Duvnjak taking the men's gong.

She became only the third Russian to win the award after Daria Dmitrieva and Anna Vyakhireva.

"It is very unexpected and a great pleasure to be honoured like this," Elena said. "I do not even know what to say, I am full of emotions, it is really cool."

Elena Mikhaylichenko to CSKA

Despite being basement dwellers after their first four group games, Lada still made it to the quarter-finals thanks in large part to their young star.

They lost out by a single goal 62-61 over the two-leg quarter-final to strong Danish outfit Odense, Mikhaylichenko bagging 10 during the tie.

When competition was shut down before the semi-finals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 18-year-old was EHF Cup top scorer with 75 goals.

CSKA Moscow, with their big ambitions of national and continental dominance, could no longer ignore arguably the most talented and exciting young player on the planet and swooped in to sign her. Their ambitions match Mikhaylichenko's.

"My inner voice was telling me that I need to move to a new level," she told Handball Fast Center after the move was officially announced.

Revealing that CSKA had actually tried to sign her a year before, she gave her childhood club another year before deciding that it was the moment to move on.

"I want to thank Lada and her amazing fans for everything. I was very comfortable in my hometown, I grew to the Russian team, I gave all my strength to to the games for the club... But now I face a new challenge."

She had expressed her desire to be reunited with her ex-Lada teammates.

"It would be great to play with Daria and Polina again," Mikhaylichenko said in January 2020. “They can both teach me a lot, and I feel comfortable on the court with them.”

Only her mother knew about this decision.

"Perhaps this was the first time I made such a responsible decision on my own, without consulting with anyone, only my mother knew about this," she said. "Of course, like any mom, she was on my side."

Elena Mikhaylichenko - A star on the rise

Tokyo Olympics postponement an 'advantage'

Born on 14 September 2001 Mikhaylichenko would have been 18 going-on 19 at Tokyo 2020, but with the postponement of the Olympics by a year because of the new coronavirus, she will be 19 going-on 20 next summer.

"For me, as for a young player, this extra year should work as an advantage," she says, "it will help me to learn some new things and to do what I already know better."

The difference between nearly 19 and nearly 20 can be big for an athlete, both physically and mentally, and with CSKA training back and running in July 2020, Elena got a head-start on preseason at home during lockdown.

"I tried to stay in shape and even bought some special equipment in order to train at home."

The girl with the private Instagram account likes to keep it quiet and discreet, using her time productively during quarantine, positive things that will help in the future.

"I didn't do anything special like learning to dance or to sing, for example. But I tried to dedicate more time to studying English, and also to cooking."

The future of Russian handball

For now Mikhaylichenko isn't worried about the future, or the tags other people put on her. The focus is on making the Olympic team in 2021.

She has watched and re-watched the Olympic matches from Russia's golden moment at Rio:

"This Olympics will be remembered by me for a long time. It was just a thrill to watch, to rewatch. Probably the most I will remember this match with the Norwegians because it was this one last mini step to make it to the final.

"These emotions, these over-times. Every time you start feeling the excitement again even though you know the outcome."

It would be a dream to help Russia make it two-in-a-row.

At the November/December 2019 world championships Olympic champs Russia were stunned in the semi-finals by an upstart Netherlands team who went on to win their first ever World title.

Russia took home bronze but did not qualify automatically for the Olympics. They did book their spot in a qualifying tournament in March 2021.

"Of course, I really want to make it to the Olympics," she tells Olympic Channel, "this aim is very important to me just like to any other athlete. And I understand that to reach this aim I have to work a lot."

Beyond that, she's just staying in the moment and enjoying the ride.

“I don’t want to know what the future holds for me, I try to live for today and not to think about tomorrow.”