Alina Kozich, the 2004 all-around European champion, became a coach and a choreographer after retiring from her competitive career. She worked with the Japanese and Hungarian national teams and in 2017, she moved to Belarus where she’s currently working with the WAG national team. She gave an interview to Gymnovosti about her work in Belarus.
Q: You started working with the Belorussian national team when Oleg Ostapenko was the head coach but he then returned to Ukraine. Do you plan on staying in Belarus?
A: Yes, he left last year, in May, and since I had a contract for a year, till the end of the year, I decided to stay [till the end of the contract] and there were some moments there, I was contemplating what to do next. But at the end, there were many changes here as well, and generally, I’m comfortable here right now, so I stayed.
Q: What sort of changes?
A: Well, since Oleg Vasilyevich Ostapenko resigned, they had to look for another coach. Then Nikolay Vasilyevich Gryadovkin replaced him but he also stayed only until October. Now there’s a woman – Olya Barkalova, she started working as the head coach since January. The coaching staff has almost completely changed, that’s why I was waiting – to see if I’d be comfortable. Generally, it’s fine for me to work with these people and so I decided to stay.
Q: Poor Belorussian team, so many changes all the time…
A: Tell me about it. In the past half a year they’ve surely endured a lot. And the state coach is new as well because it used to be Antonina Koshel, she resigned and now it’s Ekaterina Kolmogorova. That also led so many changes.
Q: Are you working only with the senior team, or with the juniors as well?
A: The problem is that we only have two, maybe three seniors max. That’s why the main work is with the girls aged 12-13-14, the junior team which in two-three years will make the senior national team. By the way, these are the girls that were selected by Oleg Vasilyevich Ostapenko, the best in Belarus and we’re working with them at the moment.
Q: Why didn’t WAG gymnasts from Belarus participate at last Worlds? Was it because of injuries?
A: Both injuries and, as I said, there aren’t that many gymnasts here, only two people who were age-eligible for these championships. Anna Travkova missed because she was injured and only half-recovered, there was no point to take her there just to participate. After all, it wasn’t a short trip, it was in Canada, there are financial issues, so it all came to that.
Q: What do you think, will the current juniors show good results in about three years?
A: Yes, because already the work here is going really well and the girls already train as a part of a team, there’s some competition which is very important. And right now we focus less on preparing the individual gymnasts since we want a team. Because when you have a team, there will always be a couple of people in it who will compete with each other. First of all, we need numbers. When there will be 5, 6 or 7 people who’ll be trying to make the team, we’ll be able to demand some results from them. So, our goal, for now, is to create a team.
Q: In what conditions is the Belorussian national team training now? Do the gymnasts have everything they need?
A: In that aspect, of course, there are big issues here – since there aren’t results in WAG, there’s no funding. And it’s been happening for a long time now. The Belorussian gymnastics hasn’t been bringing medals for a long time – we’re talking about WAG. So that’s why there are issues with funding. And with camps, too. Their number was cut, there aren’t enough camps.
Q: Are you talking about camps in Minsk or abroad?
A: In Minsk. Camps abroad are off the table. We’re only talking about Minsk right now. At the moment we were given funding for two camps which will be before the European Championships, in summer. Well, it’s good that the girls live in the dorms, in the sports school where they study. They live there and come to the gym two times a day. Generally, you can say that at the moment they’re all training together. It’s just that during the camps they’re free from school and naturally the training process goes better because the girls don’t need to shuttle back and forth and stay here, at the gym, there’s a hotel nearby. And their whole attention is focused on the training, not thinking about school. That was cut for now because there’s no funding for the camps. We’ll see because I think that with the changes of the head coaches, they haven’t yet approved the plan and the funding. We’re going to hope for the better, that everything will be back. That there will be camps at least once every two months because they’re necessary. I can’t say that the kids are training all in different cities, no, they’re with us, but the issue is the school. They get tired and the training process is interrupted.
Q: Does the national team have choreography classes?
A: Of course. That’s why I’m there because we’re practicing at the barre, and we have beam choreography, floor choreography lessons, and there’s separate time for leaps because at the moment, according to the rules, it’s almost 80% of the success. We’re dancing and we’re being silly when we have the time when it’s not a practice before the competition. Overall, I’m trying to do everything to make them less shy. Because often the girls are just shy, especially since they’re not very mature yet, we’re trying to make them dance. But choreography lessons are necessary, you can’t go far without it.
Q: Were there any floor routines from last season that were memorable for you, that you liked?
A: Lately, I’ve been enjoying the routines and some moments in the choreography of the Dutch gymnasts. The Netherlands improved a lot, of course. Well, and Russia – they’ve always been elegant, they have beautiful floor routines. And that’s more or less it, I can’t single out anyone else.
Q: Do you think there are trends on floor, when certain music or choreography styles become more fashionable?
A: You know, I’m pleased with the rules that now there’s a big emphasis on choreography, on artistry, on some sort of elegance at last. Not just tumbling and more tumbling. I don’t know about trends. I guess we’ll see this year because it’s going to be the first stage of the selection for the Olympic Games. Different gymnasts have different styles. Because there are those that dance more, that can show themselves more, and there are those who just need to dance to “boom-boom”, to get the crowd started, because the elegance doesn’t necessarily fit these girls.
Q: Do you have a certain music or choreography that you wanted to use in a floor routine but couldn’t because there were no gymnasts it would fit?
A: You know, I always set myself such goals that I can achieve. If I see a girl, I usually more or less understand what she can do and try to create a routine with that in mind. I just need to see a person in order to understand for whom and how I will need to choreograph. I don’t really dream of creating something without a gymnast in mind.
Q: Do the gymnasts have input, too – can they say “I’d like to use this music, this style”? Or they do whatever’s given to them?
A: Of course, when we start putting a floor routine together, I always give the girls a few choices. It’s not just one or two songs to choose from, it’s five or six because the girl has to like the music and she has to enjoy it when it plays. It’s more important whether she likes the music than whether I do. Because she’ll be competing to it and she has to take it into her heart. Of course, we’re deciding together with the girl and her coach and the last word is mine. If I see her in this music, I’ll say yes. If not, we’ll look for some other option. But we find a compromise in any case.
Q: The rhythmic gymnastics now allows to use music with words, unlike artistic. Would you want to use music with words in artistic gymnastics as well?
A: Yes, I’m for it, why not? After all, at the moment there is a lot of the same music, it’s repeated – I guess because it’s hard to find something original. Right now we can only use music with voice as an instrument. If there will be even one word, it can lead to deductions. I’m for using music with words – so that there would be more variety and more originality.
Q: Could you tell a bit about what was going on in 2008 – why did you decide to represent Uzbekistan?
A: It was, so to speak, a breaking moment for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was at the crossroads – to retire or to continue. I only competed for Uzbekistan for a year and that year helped me to decide where I was ready to continue fighting or it was time to go into a different direction, to start a new life after sport. I happened because I saw that I had a certain conflict with the head coach after the Olympics. And we talked with my personal coach, Sergei Mikhailovich Gutsula and decided that we needed to do something. At that moment Oksana Chusovitina was close to me, she was my good friend and she offered [to compete for Uzbekistan]. So, since I realized that I didn’t have any certain plans, I decided to just try it, why not. That year, when I represented Uzbekistan, has given me some clarity – in my life and in my coach’s life. And after that, it so happened that my coach went to Japan and he invited me as a choreographer. So, that year became a starting point for my coaching career.
Sergei Mikhailovich was preparing me to become a choreographer at the time when I was still training. He saw that I can create routines, that I hear the music, that I like dancing, and he already at that time when I was training, was preparing me – create something for yourself, change something. And he simply invited me, he said: I know that you can, I know that you want it, I know that you love it, so come here and just do what you like doing. And at the same time, you’re not leaving gymnastics, you’re staying in it, you’re doing what you love and you know what you do, So it was a simple choice. While ending my athletic career, I knew what I was going to do next. I wasn’t thinking about doing circus, I wasn’t thinking about any other career, I knew what I was going to do for work, but I just didn’t understand yet where it would happen.
Q: Is Sergei Mikhailovich still in Japan?
A: No, we worked together in Japan, but then I left Japan to go to Hungary and he’s working in Hungary right now as well. Wherever we’re working, we end up working together. I think that in the future we’ll be working together as well. Because this person knows me so well, and I know him, we know each other both as a coach and a pupil and as colleagues, we’ve been working together for so many years. So, we’ll see, who knows, perhaps we’ll be working together in Ukraine, or perhaps it will be possible to invite him here.
My sister was also a gymnast, she also trained with my coach and was on the Ukrainian national team. We also worked together in Hungary, she was in one city, I was in another, she’s a coach and a choreographer. Olga is younger than me by 2,5 years and she’s the person I’m the closest with. And I also always try for us to be together, to help her. I really want us to work together somewhere. I guess at the moment all the roads lead to Ukraine because she’s there now and perhaps my coach will come back there as well. All in good time, but at the moment I’m here.
Q: What do you feel when you think that the last time Ukraine was represented by a full team at the Olympics was when you still competed and after that, there was a decline?
A: It’s horrible to think about it because for so many years there was such strong gymnastics in Ukraine. Not even talking about medals, I’m talking about the team. There was always the team. And it’s so bitter, hurtful and sad to think about it but we’ll keep believing and hoping for the best. And I’m sure that with the arrival of Oleg Vasilyevich, during this quad, or rather the three years left till the Olympics, let’s hope, let’s have faith that the team will make it to the 12 best teams that will go to the Olympics.
As far as I know, the girls have a lot of injuries. But it seems, from what I know, there will be a full team for these Worlds which will be the first qualifier for the Olympics. I’m glad that there is Diana Varinska there who’s already on the senior team. I think she’ll help the team a lot, she’s their number one right now. And I think that the others will try to keep up with her – when there’s a leader, it’s much easier to follow and much easier to create some sort of a team. And Oleg Vasilyevich’s return is a huge moment for the Ukrainian gymnastics. The person with such name – he simply stands in the gym and the work is going better already. Just his presence causes the girls to treat the practices completely differently. That’s why I’m sure there will be results.
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