PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — They are hailed as the vanguard of a new generation of clean Russian cross-country skiers, all are under the age of 23 and all are coached by a man who was once suspended for doping offenses.
The youthful quartet is trained by Yuri Borodavko and has combined for three silver and three bronze medals at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Alexander Bolshunov, Alexei Chervotkin, Denis Spitsov and Natalia Nepryaeva have improved remarkably since working with Borodavko two years ago. Spitsov hadn't even competed in a World Cup race until December but now has two Olympic silver medals and a bronze.
Last week, the head of the Russian delegation in Pyeongchang described the cross-country team's results as one of Russia's "main achievements" at the games.
That makes the 58-year-old Borodavko the star coach behind a surprise Russian revival — even though he wasn't invited to the Olympics and has to watch on TV in Moscow.
"I've put all my knowledge, strength and skill into training these athletes and this is just the realization of that," he told The Associated Press by telephone. "We're constantly in contact. We talk and I help as much as I can with advice."
Borodavko was suspended from working with the Russian national team for two years in 2010 after the Russian Cross-Country Ski Federation said he was among a group of coaches "involved in doping cases." He worked with the 2006 Olympic gold medalist Evgeny Dementiev, who was banned for two years in 2009 after testing positive for the banned blood-booster EPO.
Borodavko denies ever being involved with doping and says his four athletes in Pyeongchang are clean. He now has the backing of the federation and the sports ministry which gives him "complete carte blanche."
"The whole training program is arranged with every training camp that I want to hold," he told the AP. "I'm really happy that my athletes were able to realize their potential at this age at such a high level. In some way it's a reflection of the work I've put in."
Borodavko said he'd been temporarily barred from working with the national team after Dementiev was suspended.
"I was the senior coach at that time, so they fired me automatically," he said, adding he believes Dementiev was a clean athlete tricked into taking banned substances because he was "too trusting."
The International Olympic Committee instituted a strict vetting process ahead of the Pyeongchang Games to exclude Russians it suspected were linked to a state-backed doping program around the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
When assessing Borodavko's skiers, it appears that his two-year suspension wasn't considered a problem, perhaps because it predated the Sochi Games, and wasn't an official sanction under World Anti-Doping Agency rules.
The International Olympic Committee didn't respond to requests for comment on Borodavko's coaching status.
Instead of a formal ban, the Russian Cross-Country Ski Federation simply said at the time it wouldn't let Borodavko work with its national team. He was listed among a group of coaches and support staff who were "involved in doping cases in one way or another."
Federation president Yelena Valbe on Saturday said she believed Borodavko's athletes are clean.
"I believe those who are training with Borodavko aren't doing anything like that," Valbe said. "He wasn't banned, I just temporarily suspended him from work."
According to Borodavko, he spent six years outside top-level skiing between 2010 and 2016, when he started to assemble his young squad.
The skiers spend three weeks at a time at training camps, then 10 days training on their own before the cycle begins again.
Under Borodavko, they gradually cemented their place on the Russian team, but they found their path to the Olympics greatly smoothed when IOC vetting excluded better-known Russians.
While the IOC invited Borodavko's young skiers to compete, it refused to invite other top Russian skiers, including world champion Sergei Ustyugov and key athletes from the 2014 Olympic team.
The IOC hasn't revealed the evidence it used in individual cases but says it consulted newly obtained data from the Moscow anti-doping laboratory showing how drug use was covered up across multiple sports. That evidence could form the basis of new sanctions against Russian athletes, the IOC has said.
Bolshunov, who is 21, defended Borodavko's role after winning his third silver medal of the games.
"Everything is fine with our training," he said. "We work a lot (so) this result was inevitable."