Chusovitina: I am a stronger athlete now that I was in 1992

Oksana Chusovitina gave an interview to Championat mostly about the 1992 Olympic games. She is the only one from that team who is still competing (which probably could be said about the majority of the teams for which she competed). She then went on to talk about why she never retired (and currently has no plans to retire) and how age and experience made her a better athlete.

Q: Why [the team management] didn’t want to take you to the Olympics? Your coach, Svetlana Kuznetsova, had to fight for you at the coaching meetings.

A: Honestly? I don’t really know anything about it now and I didn’t know back then. We were basically kids. Our task was to train, the rest was decided by the coaches. But, I guess, there was a lot of fighting behind the scenes. Everyone realized that any person who’d get on the team would become an Olympic champion. So high was the level of this team. But there was never any fighting or nasty looks among the girls. We’re all still friends, we’re writing to each other, calling, visiting each other.

Q: So you really weren’t at all anxious about making the Barcelona team?

A: No, if you can imagine that. I didn’t even dream of becoming an Olympic champion until I was 14 or 15. I was training but I didn’t make some grand plans, I just really liked [to train]. You realize the importance of an event like that Olympics Games only afterward. Back then, I was a kid and didn’t think about bigger things at all.

Q: Were the preparations for the Games different compared to how it was before?

A: We didn’t feel any difference. We lived at the Round Lake. We trained, studied – there was a school there. Basically, we lived in a restricted zone. We were only allowed to go to the city on Sundays but no one went. The commute by public transportation was too long and the gymnasts didn’t have cars back then like they do now. So we entertained ourselves in our spare time as well as we could: we went to the pool, we skied in winter. The team was very close and stayed that way, everyone supported each other.

Q: Did you really have no special feelings when the final team was announced?

A: Nope. They announced it, said it, fine. Then they took us to Barcelona. And there we continued doing the same things as we did at the Round Lake. In the work mode.

Q: But what about the Olympic spirit? Did you feel it at your first Olympics?

A: Spirit?! Tanya Gutsu and I were really close friends back then and we were so happy that we were allowed to go to the game room. There were arcade games, computer games – we spent all our free time there. It was such an excitement, one of the most memorable moments of the Games. Mario brothers, racing… What do you want from 16-year old girls who never saw anything like that? My mom’s a cook, my dad’s in construction, we were never wealthy. No way we could afford a computer then.

Q: Just in terms of sports experience, what are your memories from Barcelona?

A: So many years have passed. It’s hard to name just one thing. But I remember how I fell from bars and was really afraid that I would fail the team. That was memorable, yes. Another one was how we cried after the team final.

Q: Because you won?

A: No. I cried because I just realized: this is the last time we’re competing together. When we stood on the podium, they played some weird music and raised some weird flag. Somehow I just suddenly felt that pain.

Q: The individual finals were ahead of you. Did you expect, before the Olympics had started, to fight for an individual medal in any final?

A: Yes, we were all preparing on each apparatus, so that if someone had a bad day, another one could replace them. That’s what happened.

Q: Your friend, Tatiana Gutsu, won gold at the all-around even though she did not qualify for the final. At the last moment, she replaced Roza Galieva, who, according to the official sources, got sick.

A: Perhaps, Roza really felt unwell then. But Gutsu was the strongest gymnast on the team at that moment. It would be very surprising if Galieva competed in the all-around. Back then the team management made all the decisions. The one who was told to compete – competed. And, as I already said, the team was very close – those who didn’t make the all-around went to cheer on the competing girls. We were happy for our friends, but there wasn’t anything like “wow!”.

Q: So, the Barcelona Olympics aren’t very prominent in your memories?

A: That’s absolutely true, even though that gold medal is still the only gold in my Olympic collection. But that’s ok, I still have time. I don’t even remember how much prize money I got and what I spent it on. Money wasn’t my priority at the time.

Q: After the Barcelona Olympics, did you have a choice – which country to compete for?

A: I wasn’t really thinking about it, because I just went home to Tashkent, to my home gym, my friends, my colleagues. But even if I were offered to compete for Russia, I would’ve declined. I’ve always wanted to compete for Uzbekistan. In my homeland, they sheltered me from all the problems of that difficult period. I had only one goal – to compete.

Q: Have you ever thought about retiring? For example, after the Atlanta Olympics which weren’t very successful for you?

A: I’ll confess, in 1998 I thought I would retire. I tore my Achilles and gave birth to my son. I had a break of almost two years. I wasn’t even thinking about gymnastics. But after Alisher’s birth, I came to the gym just to condition a bit, to get back into shape, because a week after giving birth my weight was 1 kg lower than during the competitive career. At that time they bought new equipment for the gym in Tashkent. I swear, I just wanted to hang from the bars, to stretch a bit, nothing more. But when I tried and I could do some elements, I realized I could still do a lot.

Q: That was before the Sydney Olympics. Did you just tell to the national coaches that you are going to return?

A: Yes. And I was offered to compete at the national championships in order to qualify. I can’t say it was just a formality because at the time we had a very decent team, better than average. Because of the competition I got back in shape fast and earned the Olympic berth. I wasn’t able to medal, but that was the moment when I understood what is gymnastics, what I am doing in gymnastics and why.

Q: So, you didn’t stay in gymnastics just to earn money to pay for your son’s medical expenses after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002?

A: Of course not. It just happened at the same time. Even more important, the gym helped me to avoid bad thoughts. I came to train and got distracted from Alisher’s horrible diagnosis. For a whole year, we paid for everything ourselves, borrowed money from friends and acquaintances.

Q: And then the Germans came to you?

A: Yes. They offered me to sign a contract in which I would promise to compete for Germany and they would pay all of my son’s medical expenses. The prize money in gymnastics isn’t big enough to earn $120,000 we needed for the treatment. If not for Alisher’s illness, I wouldn’t change countries.

Q: How did they treat you in Germany? Were they happy with your results or did they expect more than the Olympic silver from Beijing and the World and European medals?

A: They treated me very well, but I never felt like I belonged there and Germany never became my second home country. I am very grateful to them as a mother for doing what no one else did. They saved my son. Of course, I could stay in Uzbekistan, but there were no guarantees that Alisher would get the same treatment. As an athlete, I had to prove at every competition that I was better than German gymnasts. I felt like a foreigner on the team. But, at the same time, no one required me to win medals. Before I signed the contract, I asked them: What happens if I can’t win any medals, if I don’t show good results, if I can’t compete at all because of my son’s illness? They said that it would be ok. At the end, I gave everything I could to Germany. They never had any complaints, they were very happy with my results. Thank God, Alisher is fine now. He’s turning 18 soon, he plays basketball.

Q: When you returned home, you worked as a coach, right? Were you still not thinking about retiring?

A: Yes, I worked as the head coach of the Uzbekistan’s national team for four years and I was competing at the same time. Although, I had a 2-year break again because of injuries and surgeries. That was when I realized how hard coaching is. I bow to every coach for their patience and endurance. But that was also when I told myself that I’d rather compete [than coach] while I still can and while I’m enjoying it.

Q: Your only motivation to continue is your love for gymnastics?

A: No, not just love. I have a dream – to win an Olympic medal of any kind for Uzbekistan. I am moving towards that goal step by step.

Q: So, you’re going to compete till Tokyo for sure. What if you can’t realize your dream there?

A: We’ll see. I’m completely happy right now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I am sure that everything will come together. I am becoming a stronger athlete. If you compare me now to me in Barcelona, we’re completely different. I’m constantly adding difficulty on vault and changing the training system to accommodate my body. It’s not yet time to compete these vaults, but I’m working on them in training. I don’t feel my age at all.

Q: You should simply be awarded an Olympic medal for all your accomplishments.

A: I would not agree to that. I want to earn my medal and to prove I wasn’t staying in the sport for so long for nothing. You know, I’d really want to win an Olympic medal but I don’t want it to become a turning point after which I’d have to retire. Maybe, at 45 I’ll still want to continue. When I’ll feel that I’m tired [of gymnastics] or don’t want to do it anymore, I’ll close that door and leave.

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