VTB bank, the main sponsor of the Russian artistic gymnastics federation, published a long interview with Aliya Mustafina today. Here’s our translation of it:
Q: Aliya, you are enjoying your freedom right now. So, how is life after gymnastics? Is it different from how you imagined it?
A: I still think that I’m not done with gymnastics yet and that shapes how I’m perceiving my life. I consider everything that’s going on right now as a temporary break from gymnastics. And that’s different than retiring. When you’re absolutely finished and you need to think what to do next, it’s a different experience. I, on the other hand, can allow myself to just enjoy the vacation.
Q: Only enjoying the vacation? Perhaps, you’re missing the gym already?
A: Just enjoying it for now. With everything that’s going on, I don’t have time to be bored. I have a goal, it’s waiting for me somewhere in the future, and that inspires me, gives meaning to my days. I know why I am resting right now, and that’s important for me. My days are pretty uneventful. I can stay in bed all day or meet my friends and go to the movies, or shopping, or cook something. I live a life of a regular person right now.
Q: Is this unusual for you? Have you discovered any joys of life that you didn’t experience before?
A: Nope, nothing unusual. Even when I was training full time, I didn’t feel deprived of something. Yes, I couldn’t wake up in the afternoon. I won’t argue, that’s a great thing. But, on the other hand, even when I had to wake up at 7 am, it wasn’t that difficult, even though I’m not an early bird.
Q: If you recall the Rio Olympics, what were your thoughts when you were leaving Rio? “Finally it’s all over!” and “Never again!”? Or you were already thinking unconsciously: “it can’t be the last one, I want more”?
A: I was certainly leaving Rio thinking that it’s finally over. The Games were extremely hard, not just for me, for everyone. Whenever I was talking to the other gymnasts, they were all saying: these Games are so exhausting, I wish it was over. So, that’s why I was leaving relieved, thinking more about how I can finally stay at home peacefully and there won’t be anything nerve wrecking anymore.
Q: Aliya, how do you manage to do it? We, the journalists visiting the Olympic training camp at the Round Lake, saw with our own eyes that you weren’t ready, that things didn’t go well in training even though it was so close to the Games. And then suddenly you’re the bars queen with a gold medal again. Is this some sort of magic? What’s your secret?
A: No magic. It’s easier for me to go to the competitions in such a shape that needs improvement. And when I arrive at the competition city – a week, or 10 days, or 2 weeks before competing – I’m reaching my peak shape. Because if I will travel completely ready, I can only go down from there. So, it’s better when I travel to competitions slightly not ready.
Q: You don’t want to talk about your pregnancy, but can I ask you to speculate on whether it’s possible to return to gymnastics after giving birth? Soviet gymnasts could do it and Larisa Latynina’s daughter is calling herself the world champion because her mother competed while pregnant and hid her pregnancy from everyone. But gymnastics became much more difficult since then.
A: I won’t know till I try. Gymnastics is indeed much more difficult now. There are many difficult elements, everything has changed since then. I have to try it first before I can talk about it. I don’t have a goal to return to the sport and winning medals again by any means necessary. I’ll just start by getting in shape slowly and we’ll see how it goes.
Q: When did you make this decision to return? The national team coaches told me that when you son is three months old your mom is going to take care of him and you’ll get back to the Round Lake when the national team returns from the Worlds.
A: I don’t really have such specific plans about the time, when, what. Whatever will be will be. I don’t think you can make plans about the time with things like that. I guess, in the fall I’ll know better when I can return: whether it will happen this year, as Valentina Aleksandrovna [Rodionenko] says, or next year. I’ll repeat: I don’t know for sure.
Q: Aliya, do you think you got married because you loved your husband or you were just infatuated with him?
A: Of course, because I love him. The fact that he’s an athlete too attracted me to him at first, and then he started opening up to me. He’s very joyful, kind, caring. I can rely on him in any situation. He’s the person I’ve always wanted to me.
Q: Was it love at the first sight?
A: Not at the first sight. We met in a hospital where we were both treated for sports injuries, we were on the same floor. Then we wrote to each other for a long time, then started to skype.
Q: When you came home after the London Olympics you became crazy famous and started getting invited to all kinds of cooking shows and asked to cook some traditional Tatar dish. Your father answered: “Don’t tempt the Lord, what Tatar cuisine, she can’t cook anything but eggs!” Can you cook anything else besides eggs now?
A: I can and I could do it then, too. It’s just that my dad was protective of me. I’ve always liked cooking when I wasn’t at the Round Lake. So, it’s not a problem for me. The first dish I learned to make was borscht. Then dad taught me this genius soup recipe: put everything you find in the fridge into the pot. I think that’s how many great dishes were invented, including pizza and paella. I’m especially good at making soups. What else do I cook? Everything that people cook in Russian. I’m not yet ready to start baking though, I’ve never even tried to make the Charlotte cake. I haven’t studied the Tatar cuisine either. If I’ll try, I’ll ask my mom to teach me, she’s very good at making Tatar dishes. My granny, my father’s mom, taught her everything.
Q: What’s your recipe for happy family life? How would you define it?
A: To respect, to trust, to love each other. Deep in my heart, I wish to have the kind of family my parents have, being together for so many years. They’re the example of respect, trust, and love for me.
Q: How did your family react to your decision to come back to the sport? Did they take it for granted?
A: My husband supports me in everything, in all my dreams. Mom was mostly against it. Well, against is a strong word, it’s not like she was saying “no, you can’t, never!”. She was just telling her opinion: “why do you need it? Remember how many injuries you had!” and so on. But then dad said: “it’s ok, let her try”. My mom said this out of love, it’s understandable.
Q: By the way, why do you really “need” this? Do you think that you haven’t made your statement in gymnastics yet?
A: I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m competing for myself, for my team, for the joy of it. That’s it. I don’t have to make statements. I just do my thing. Especially now, my main measure for everything is whether it brings me joy. Helping the team makes me happy. I’m so happy that I can help the team that I don’t want it to ever end. Even the fact that I have the extra responsibility because the other girls are young and inexperienced and if I make a mistake it can affect their confidence… I have the opportunity to explain to them that it’s ok to make mistakes, I know better than most that it’s not possible to be perfect 100% of the time. I can also help them to avoid some mistakes, I think it’s a very important task. And I like it. Injuries have never stopped me. Also, it’s a very interesting experience to try to come back after giving birth, I think.
Q: Gymnastics continues to change, new rules are implemented. What do you think about the changes in the code? Where is this ship heading?
A: It’s heading… forward. Rules are never changed just because, there are always reasons. I can’t say whether the new rules are convenient for me or not. These are the rules that we need to follow anyway. For example, the changes after London were much more major than the ones after Rio. They make gymnastics more beautiful and pleasant to watch, though. I think it’s good. It’s like a new wind that makes everything develop and grow.
Q: What is happening with the London team that is so precious to you?
A: Kseniya Afanasyeva is rehabbing her injuries, but she wants to come back. Masha Paseka is training, sometimes also rehabbing, but mostly training. She has some issues with her back and has to cut down on the training sometimes, but, in general, she is vaulting. And we’re waiting for Vika Komova. At some point it seemed that she is back, she became the World champion on bars, but she also has a back injury, not a light one. Right before the Olympics her back hurt so much she had to stop training. Of course, it’s really hard psychologically, when you take such a long break, to start all over again. So, that’s how things happened for her. Nevertheless, we’re waiting for her. Gymnasts like her will always be welcome on the team.
Q: Joy in gymnastics – was it always with you?
A: It depended on my age more, I guess. After the London Olympics, it was always fun for me. But there were some moments when I didn’t want anything, although, it was mostly during training. To be honest, I started having fun competing only after London.
Q: I think you had a lot of fun when you were 16. During the first Worlds you won you were just flying with joy.
A: I didn’t really understand anything back then. That was child gymnastics and I wasn’t adult yet. Then different things happened. Sometimes I was so tired mentally. I had to look for special ways to get back into the working mode. When there are no emotions, no wish to continue, and I needed to do something with it… What did I do? I tried to distract myself. Didn’t think about it, tried to think about something else. I still went to the gym and trained. As well as I could in that state. Psychologists? No, I never consulted them. It’s not that I don’t trust them… I guess, only I know how to tune everything in my head. I’ve built everything in my inner world so fine, that I think that if anyone form the outside will try to meddle with it, everything will crash right away!
Q: Two things happened that made basically everyone in Russia to talk about gymnastics. Olga Korbut sold all her medals from an auction and Nastia Grishina publicly told that all her money was stolen by her mother and three unemployed brothers, while she stayed homeless with a baby. I suggest to start with Korbut. What do you think about her situation?
A: I’m impartial about it. It’s her medals, she won them. She did what she wanted with them. I don’t think anything can be added to it.
Q: If you were ever in an extremely hard situation, for example, in deep financial trouble, would you think about selling your medals?
A: If I were in deep financial trouble and couldn’t fix it otherwise… I’d do the same, no doubt. The title of the Olympic champion is not in the medal. The title is not for sale. So, if life makes you sell the medals – sure, you can sell them, it’s not a big deal.
Q: When the information about the sale became public, all the newspapers started printing stories about Olga Korbut painting not such a bright picture of her. We won’t repeat it her, I’m just trying to understand this. She was an idol for millions of people, all of USA fell in love with her, the rise of the gymnastics in USA happened because of her fame. I’ve always thought that you can’t fool the fans. Fans love someone not because of their achievements and Korbut was loved in a way not many are loved. What to make of this? Could people be so mistaken about her?
A: People look at the competitions, first of all. Olga Korbut was amazingly charming on the competition floor. It was difficult to see who she was as a person, what was her personality. People just saw her as a gymnast and loved her as a gymnast. Few knew her as a person. When she retired, she had to continue living as a person, not a gymnast, and that was a very different life. You have to draw a line between sport and life. At least, that’s what I’ve always done. I still think that I’ve achieved a lot in sport, but not in life.
Q: Should you be judging yourself so hard? Especially, since sport has always been your life.
A: Exactly. But they’re not the same. I’d like to find something I would love to do.
Q: Haven’t you found it yet?
A: The sport is not forever. So, I’d like to find something else for myself. Maybe, connected to the sport, but different. Not the training. How do people find what they love to do? Sometimes it happens with some situation in life, sometimes it’s sudden, like, falls form the sky, and people try it and realize they love doing it, even though they’ve never thought about doing this thing before. I don’t have it yet. I just live for my family. And, as I said, I’m thinking about coming back to gymnastics. So I can’t yet think about anything else – it’s too early, I shouldn’t rush.
Q: Aliya, you still haven’t told me how you reacted to the story of Nastia Grishina. She’s your friend from the London Olympics. Her mom lived with all of you at the training camps, was always with her daughter, cared for her, did her hair, and then this happened…
A: You can discuss forever who’s right and who’s wrong in this situation. But… it’s their problem, first of all. Their family’s problem. I know only Nastia’s side. I can only give her my support. All sorts of things happen. As far as I know, Nastia’s not the only one who’s been in a situation like this. It’s just that her story became public. Not everyone decided to go public. Someone already said that Nastia was wrong to talk about it on TV and to newspapers. I disagree. I think it’s Nastia’s right to decide what’s best for her. So, if she made this decision, then she needed it. It’s like with Olga Korbut – people do what they think is right. She protects herself as well as she can. And that’s ok. By the way, my mom is still handling all my prize money, I don’t deal with it and don’t ask questions. It’s normal to trust parents like that. It’s how it should be. We all trust our parents, how could we not? And Nastia Grishina wasn’t an exceptions. It’s just that some of us got lucky and some didn’t. Nastia didn’t.