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Russian shooter to bring gold "home' _ to Largo

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Largo brings home the gold this weekend.

Sure, Olga Klochneva calls Samara, Russia, home most of the time. But in February 1993 she was made an honorary citizen of the city of Largo in a ceremony at City Hall.

"Once you get that certification, you absolutely are" an honorary citizen of Largo "for the rest of your life, whether you want to be or not," said Mayor Thomas "Thom" Feaster.

Klochneva won a gold medal on Sunday in Atlanta in the 10-meter air pistol competition. So when she and her husband, Vladimir Kuznetsov, who also is her coach, visit friends in Largo this weekend, they will be honored as local celebrities.

The couple first learned of Largo in July 1992, when Kuznetsov struck up a conversation on the streets of Moscow with Largo residents Max and Marti Gessner.

The Gessners were on a missionary trip with First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, handing out Bibles.

"He made a commitment to the Lord that night, and she did the next day," Mrs. Gessner said. "They said it changed their lives."

Klochneva and Kuznetsov were dating at the time.

The two couples struck up a friendship, corresponded and, with the help of the church, where Max Gessner is executive associate pastor, and Indian Rocks Christian School, where he is superintendent, the Russian couple visited Largo in 1993.

That's when they became honorary citizens.

In the spring of 1995, the Gessners visited Russia on another mission trip and stayed in Klochneva's home. Largo Commissioner Judy Dean and her husband, Remington, also went on the trip and stayed with Klochneva.

"We got to watch her practice one day," Dean said. "She was talking about qualifying for the Olympics when we were there."

Klochneva, 27, is in the Russian army, and shooting for competition is all she does, much like someone in the U.S. Marine Corps might be assigned full time to be in the band.

When the Gessners learned their friend would be in the Olympics, they made last-minute plans and were able to get tickets and a place to stay in Atlanta to watch her win Sunday morning.

Kuznetsov, who also attended the competition, returned to Largo with the Gessners on Monday.

He said he isn't sure if the gold medal victory will mean changes in their lives.

"Maybe we will be more respected in our town," he said. "Maybe it will not change anything, because we will continue to prepare for the next Olympic games."

Klochneva will remain in Atlanta until Friday afternoon so she can step in if something happens to any of her teammates in the air rifle competition.

The couple will be given a proclamation at a private reception Friday night. They will speak about their experience at the Olympics during services at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks at 9 a.m. and 10:40 a.m. Sunday, and will answer questions after the services. The public is invited to attend.