This interview with Oksana Chusovitina was done in April 2016, after the test event, but it was not translated to English before. However, you know you always want some more Oksana in your life and the interview was pretty great, so here’s the translation:
Q: Your gymnastics career looks, from the outside, as if it doesn’t require much effort from you.
A: In a sense, that’s exactly how it is. Training and competing isn’t a burden for me. It’s a bit harder to compete in the all-around like I had to now. Usually, I only prepare two apparatuses for competitions – vault and beam. But this time I had to compete in the all-around, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to qualify. But all-around means bars which I haven’t been on friendly terms with for a long time.
A: I don’t even know. They’re hard for me. I’m afraid of this apparatus.
Q: It’s strange to hear this. Because two of your named elements are on bars and you won bronze on bars twice at World Cups. And at the Barcelona Olympics, I remember, you managed quite well on bars.
A: Look what you remembered! That was such a long time ago… I can’t really tell you why. For some reason, I’m always very nervous on bars. And as a result, I make mistakes. I guess that’s what scares me. In Rio, I even admitted to Sveta Boginskaya before going up on bars, that I’m so nervous as if it were my first competition. It was really hard. I started competing on bars and my hand slipped on the very first element. I don’t even know how I managed to hold on, but I got pretty nervous. Fortunately, the rest of the apparatuses were “mine”, so it got easier right away.
Q: What did you think of your chances before the start of the competition?
A: My main goal was not to get an injury that wouldn’t allow me to compete all-around. The qualification itself didn’t seem that difficult to me.
Q: Why did you decide to prepare for the Olympics with Svetlana Boginskaya?
A: Sveta’s really good at feeling all the nuances of my psychological state. She knows when she needs to say something and when she needs to stay silent and let me focus by myself. She doesn’t even ask me anything in such cases, she just steps aside.
Q: I think she had these qualities in Barcelona in 1992 as well, where Sveta was the captain of your Olympics team and took care of all of you like a mother hen.
A: I agree. It’s truly a rare ability – to be in such a sync with an athlete. Before moving to Germany I trained with Svetlana Kuznetsova, then for 10 years – with Zhanna Polyakova. Since January, I’m mostly assisted by Nikolai Pak. I asked the Uzbekistan federation management to assign a coach to me who’d be able to work with me in the gym all the time. Regarding Boginskaya, she’s mostly working as my manager, not a coach. If she can, she comes to competitions like she did now, to Rio.
Q: I’ve always thought that your home is in Germany. Did something change when you switched to the Uzbekistan flag?
A: My son, Alisher, lives in Germany – he’s finishing high school now. That’s why I’m mostly in Germany, too. Basically, I live in two countries. Right now I’m going to Tashkent for a week – to get an approval for my preparation plan for the Olympics games.
Q: Why did you have to change your citizenship again, considering that, as far as I know, Germany was ready to continue financing your preparation?
A: I’ve had a dream for many years now – to win an Olympic medal for the country where I was born and grew up. And I actually want to finish my career at home.
Q: But you competed for Uzbekistan for 12 years, from 1993, and won 5 vault medals at five Worlds.
A: Yes, but I didn’t have any Olympics medals during that period. That’s why I’m going to seriously focus on vault – so that I’d be able to compete for a medal in Rio. If not for the story with Alisher’s illness that required a treatment in Germany, I’d never move anywhere. As soon as I was told that Alisher was completely healthy and there wouldn’t be any hospital stays or tests related to the illness, the first thing I thought of was that I could finally go back to Uzbekistan. And with that, I started thinking about getting back the athletic citizenship. It’s actually strange – I don’t have anyone left in Uzbekistan besides my husband. All my relatives moved to Russia long time ago. But every time I come to Tashkent I feel that it’s mine. My land, my city.
Q: Did the German federation oppose your move?
A: No. After the Beijing games where I won silver on vault, I had two very difficult seasons: I had to have surgeries on both shoulders and then torn my Achilles and when I recovered and made the team again, the Germans didn’t take my personal coach either to the Tokyo Worlds or to the London games. Partially, my unsuccessful performances were because of that. In addition, I started feeling that the German head coach started having stricter requirements for me. At the end, I asked them to release me. They had a special meeting of the federation because of that and I can sincerely say that I’m very grateful to the federation management for not putting any road blocks for me.
Q: During the ten years you were competing for Germany, you were followed by the story that explained the reason for continuing your career – paying for your son’s treatment. What makes you continue training now?
A: It wasn’t exactly like that. Germany never had a condition of competing for them. They said right away that they’ll help me whether I want to continue my gymnastics career or not. And I didn’t go to the gym and trained because I wanted to achieve some results. It was just easier for me this way to distract myself from thinking about Alisher’s ilness, about what he has to go through. If I sat in the hospital day and night instead of training, I think I wouldn’t be able to deal with this stress, I’d break down either physically or mentally. The gym gave me some positive emotions which I then brought to my son to the hospital. And when he started getting better I suddenly realized that I feel the energy in me not just to continue training but to achieve something on the podium.
Q: Did this feeling become a starting point for you?
A: Yes, actually, I really hate the situations when you later realize that you had a chance but didn’t use it. I talked to my husband, we’ve been together for 18 years already, and he said: “If you want it – go for it.” Bakh has always understood and supported me – he’s a former athlete, too, he was 5th in Sydney and he’s the head of four wrestling schools in Tashlent. He said back then that it’s never too late to retire. And that I can do it any time I feel that the training stops bringing me joy.
Q: And the Rio Olympics won’t be your last Games?
A: Sure, why not? I think many stopped discussing already whether I’m crazy – they just got used to me still competing. And what’s the problem? I don’t come to competitions to take last places there. I even win medals sometimes. And I really like it.
Q: Do you like to compete or to prepare for competitions?
A: I like to try things I haven’t done before. For example, I’m preparing a new vault now that was never done in women’s gymnastics. It doesn’t even have an assigned difficulty yet.
Q: What do you need to do to get an element named after you?
A: To show the vault at some competition or the send a video to FIG. There will be a World Cup in Turkey in July, I want to try it there. Although, generally, I can try it right at the Olympic Games. By my calculations, this vault should have a difficulty of 6.6 – 6.7. Only the double front now has the maximum difficulty of 7.0 but it’s impossible to get a good score with it. So that’s why I tried this element and decided not to do it.
Q: What’s the problem with it?
A: The landing. When women do it, it ends up being too low, so in order not to fall, you have to spread your knees really far and land in a deep squat. And that’s not pretty, so the judges deduct from the score.
Q: How is it even possible to master a unique element at 41 years old?
A: That’s what I like the most. Anyone thinks I’m a grandma? Well, what’s the problem then, try to catch up with me! Actually, lots of people support me. I think I mostly annoy the people I used to compete with. I guess, it’s understandable: despite the fact that I have an adult son, I’m still slender, didn’t get fat, my body’s fine. What not to get annoyed at?
Q: There’s this popular opinion that people who hold on to the sport the most are the ones who don’t see themselves in any other life and are afraid of retiring.
A: That’s not my case at all. I know well what I’m going to do when I’ll retire and I’m not afraid of it even a little bit.
Q: And what are you going to do?
A: I’m already coaching, particularly, I’m going to gymnastics camps that Sveta Bogniskaya organizes in the US. I’m often invited to master classes, there are many requests for private lessons. It’s hard to change your profession when you’re afraid of trying new things. But I like it.
Q: Do you like coaching in general?
A: Not all of it. I can’t work with little kids at all. It requires a great deal of patience and I’m not sure I have it. In addition, I don’t have enough knowledge. I’m more familiar with work on the elite level.
Q: What’s the difference between being an elite athlete at 20 and doing the same at 40?
A: The reason is in the mind. You start thinking differently when you get older. If only I had my current brain when I was 20 years old, oh… There wouldn’t be anyone equal to me.
Q: Could you elaborate a bit – what do you understand about the sport now that you didn’t before?
A: My life is much more organized now: I know for sure what training load I need, how to build a practice to make it the most effective, and what happens is that after training for two hours in the morning, I have a full day to myself. I can take care of my kid, do errands. So the sport doesn’t interfere with normal life at all. At 20, I felt like if I’ll do all the work in the gym fast, the coaches will make me do something else. And this thought that you’re already tired but you’ll need to work more was bothering me a lot. I used to spend much more time warming up. But now I need only 15-20 minutes to prepare my body for the apparatus work.
Q: Do you often participate in gymnastics shows?
A: I’m often invited, especially to Japan and USA, but I only agree if it doesn’t interfere with the training process. Long flights really break the work rhythm.
Q: Are you preparing only one apparatus for the Olympic Games?
A: No, I’m doing two, as usual: vault and beam. It’s too hard mentally to work on just one apparatus. Although I do all four events in practices so that all my muscles would stay in the right condition as long as possible. For example, for the vault it’s useful to tumble on floor.
Q: How difficult is your floor tumbling?
A: It’s the same I did at the Barcelona Olympics.
Q: Including your full-twisting double pike?
A: Yes. The leaps and turns that came into artistic gymnastics from the rhythmic and are required by the rules now are much harder for me. I guess I’m not a good enough dancer for that. We weren’t trained for that even though we had lots of ballet classes.
Q: Do you plan on coming to Rio in advance?
A: There’s no need to. I don’t really like coming to competitions in advance. First, in that case, you have to train according to a strict schedule. Second, you have to land all the elements onto hard surfaces where you can easily destroy your legs. Third, everyone, including the judges, is watching you and you can’t slack off in your routines, you have to give your all every time which immediately raises the risk of getting injured or burned out before the competition starts.
Q: Do you follow the careers of the other “long-living” atheltes like you? Ole Einar Bjørndalen who became a World champion in biathlone for the 20th time at age 42? Or Dara Torres who competed in Beijing at age 41 and won 3 silvers there?
A: I don’t specifically follow them but I like all sports. I was actually motivated by something else. In 2008, I torn my Achilles and was getting a treatment in a Swiss clinic and thinking how miserable I was. In the middle of those thoughts I turned the tv one and saw a show about how paralympians train. I even started crying when I saw how people without arms or legs keep training fiercely, overcoming the obstacles and not thinking of themselves as deprived of something. So I said to myself: “So, you, Chusovitina, are complaining that your leg hurts? Shut up and be grateful that you have this leg!” When a person has arms and legs, they shouldn’t be afraid of anything, they’re always be able to earn a living even if they have to mop floors. My mom, for example, worked as a cook all her life. And when I was asked how rich my family was, I always answered: very rich, there are four children. Until this day, when I call my mom in the morning, she says: “You’re so pretty, my dear daughter, you’re doing such a great job!” Although, she then always adds: “But you’re so dumb, can’t stop jumping despite being 40 years old”.
Q: You see, even your mom…
A: Well, she never wanted me to become a gymnast. I’m the youngest in the family and mom has always dreamed of me becoming a piano player. They even bought a piano for me when I was 6 years old. My older sister ended up having to take piano lessons because of that. And she always played the Moonlight Sonata for my mom in the evenings.
Q: Do you plan on learning to play the piano when you retire?
A: No. But I really want to learn how to ride horces well. I can do it poorly – sometimes I go to a riding club in Germany. It’s just horrible – legs hurt, arms hurt, you have to sit straight…
Q: And that’s coming from an Olympics champion in gymnastics?
A: I also thought that I’d sit on a horse and will ride well. Like the musketeers in a movie. Yeah, right…
Q: By the way, athletes can compete in the equestrian sports till a very old age.
A: I was actually thinking about that as well.
Q: And what were you thinking, if it’s not a secret?
A: That if I will compete, I have to ride a pony so that I wouldn’t be afraid to fall.
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