Nordwestschweiz spoke with Giulia Steingruber about the void left in her life after winning a medal at the Olympic Games, sexual abuse in gymnastics (not her own!), and her post-gymnastics plans.
It’s a cold windy morning in December, but this doesn’t affect Giulia Steingruber’s mood. The gymnast talks to us about the past year at Swiss Gymnastic’s offices in Aarau, where she’s soon due to attend meetings to discuss her 2018 plans.
Her mother, Fabiola Steingruber, is accompanying her, but first Giulia has to change her clothes. She can’t appear in the photo in the sweater she’s wearing; her sponsors won’t want that. She returns wearing her polo shirt, and we begin the interview.
Q: Giulia Steingruber, what moment most stands out for you from 2017?
GS: Winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in Montreal back in October. It was my first World Championship medal and it made all of the highs and lows of this year worth the struggle.
Q: The medal came as a surprise for you. Have you been asking yourself just a few months earlier whether things could be as good as they were before?
GS: I would never have imagined it. 2017 began with a surgery on my right foot. I had to lower my expectations. I was nowhere near the level I was at before and didn‘t even think I would make it to the vault final.
Q: And do you think that you are back to thinking that you can get even better than you were before?
GS: I really hope so. My foot still isn‘t 100% where it should be. At the moment I‘m adding more rehab back into my routine, which had to be cut back a little during the World Championships. I already know that 2018 is going to be an extremely rigorous year. Everything needs to come together – my health and my progress in training.
Q: Your older sister Désirée, who was born severely disabled, passed away in 2017. Have you been able to come to terms with this tragedy?
GS: I‘ve mourned in my own way. I still need time.
Q: You dedicated a floor routine to Désirée? Did you draw strength from that?
GS: Yes, very much. I have always said that I feel like I do gymnastics with enough power for the both of us.
Q: In sports, we often hear of athletes saying they feel like they‘re in a hamster wheel, what with the never-ending pressures and expectations. Do you find this to be the case?
GS: I do notice this sometimes. But that’s the price you pay for success. Olympic or World Championship medals don‘t come without commitment. I definitely feel this way at the end of the year. The term ‘hamster wheel’ describes it quite well. My parents experience this even more than I do. They bear the load where they can so that I can fully concentrate on my sport.
Q: After the Olympics, you took a three-month break, including six weeks in Australia. What did you gain from this time off?
GS: It was amazing. I could completely switch off, clear my head, and just live in the moment. Besides traveling from place to place when we wanted to, we never made any fixed plans. We just did whatever we wanted to do. No commitments. I really enjoyed that.
Q: Have you ever had that amount of free time before?
GS: It‘s been a very long time. I normally have plenty of office work to do during my time off. I did have to write some thank you cards now and then, but I enjoy doing that.
Q: Mrs. Steingruber, does the hamster wheel analogy ring true for you about your daughter?
Fabiola Steingruber: The expectations and pressure were so high at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Giulia was so focused that she could barely take anything in. After she ‘finally’, as she put it, won her medal, she got into a rut. She seemed to struggle to grasp the world outside of gymnastics, which is why some time off was the best thing for her. The flight to Australia was already booked, so all she could do was take some time for herself, which she so desperately needed. She would have gotten lost without it.
Q: Were you worried about her?
FS: Worried isn’t the right word. I’d describe it as uncertainty. We didn’t know if she really wanted to stay in gymnastics or if she felt an obligation to us, her sponsors, the Swiss Gymnastics Federation. In our family, Giulia having fun with her gymnastics has always been, and will always be the top priority. We want her to want to compete – not feel she has to compete.
Q: Giulia, have you ever felt like you had to keep being a gymnast?
Giulia Steingruber: Not exactly. After Rio, I thought long and hard about whether I’d peaked or not. Whether I should end my career on a high. But I just couldn’t warm to the idea of life without gymnastics. For me, that was the proof of my passion and love for gymnastics.
Q: Have you thought about retirement?
GS: Yes, I‘ve thought about it. I asked myself: what if I can‘t prove myself anymore? What if I can‘t meet expectations anymore? What if I end up having to end my career at a low point? But then I realized that I like being a gymnast – and not just because of my success.
Q: Would you, in all honesty, still recommend gymnastics to a seven-year-old girl?
GS: Yes. Every time.
Q: Is it just me, or did you hesitate slightly before saying yes?
GS: No. At first, I thought of Ariella Kaeslin’s book. But my experience has been different to from hers. I wholeheartedly recommend gymnastics.
Q: You mention the book. It’s entitled Leiden im Licht: Die wahre Geschichte einer Turnerin [Suffering in the spotlight. The true story of a gymnast]. Have you read it?
Q: In the book, she says that if she had had a button she could press to end her life, she would have pressed it. What went through your head when you read that?
GS: I’m not going to tell you that. I trained with Ariella for three years and was with her as she went through these experiences. The book describes her journey and her experiences. I have my own experience.
Q: The subject of abuse and harassment has once again become a talking point in gymnastics. Last fall, the horrific allegations against a former team USA doctor were brought to light. Do you have any experience of such situations?
GS: No, thankfully not. But I’m the type of person who would take a stand if I thought something was wrong.
Q: Can you imagine how some people may not find this so easy?
GS: What do you mean?
Q: That perhaps a young girl wouldn’t feel comfortable saying something. Or she may not know what is and isn’t acceptable.
GS: Yes, I can see how it could be harder for an 11 or 12-year-old to come forward compared to someone older. The abuse the US team has suffered is horrific.
Fabiola Steingruber: But the girls are primed for success in those gyms. It’s not as extreme here in Switzerland. Our family has always been in close contact with the coaches, and we have always told Giulia that if something doesn’t seem right, she should make her voice heard, and there’s a way to go about it. We also expect her coach to treat her with respect. It can be hard to define exactly what is and is not acceptable. What should a coach be allowed to do? We can’t just ban touching – it’s a part of the sport.
Giulia Steingruber: When we train a skill, coaches spot us. It’s all so fast that sometimes a coach touches you in an uncomfortable place when they’re spotting you. But it’s never intentional.
Fabiola Steingruber: It’s all a question of applying good judgment.
Giulia Steingruber: But in the case of the Americans, it was the doctor, not the coach.
Fabiola Steingruber: We have always accompanied Giulia to doctor’s appointments, at least until she was of age. I do think, however, that if the family is able to openly talk about sex, then girls, and boys too, will learn to speak up if something were to happen
Q: At the age of 23, you are one of the older gymnasts competing, compared to sports such as tennis or football. What do you make of this?
GS: On the National team I already feel very old (laughs). My teammate and I, both 23, are the oldest members of the team. There’s an eight-year difference between us and our youngest teammate. Our personal interests are very different. I think that the younger ones are still so full of energy. I have learned over time to give my body more recovery time. Interestingly, on the international scene, 23 is a middle-of-the-range age. There are several gymnasts who keep competing into their 30s. Things have changed.
Q: As an athlete, you’re often traveling. Your life is very different from most women your age. Do you have enough time for life outside of sport?
GS: I make the most of any free time. I normally spend the weekend with friends or I stay at home and do nothing. But it drives my mother crazy if I spend the whole day being lazy (laughs).
Q: Why is that?
GS: She thinks that a little fresh air never does any harm, and I shouldn’t spend the whole day doing nothing but lounging around.
Q: How do you distract yourself from the sport?
GS: With friends. It’s really important to me that they see me as Giulia, not as an Olympic medalist.
Q: How do you imagine yourself at 35?
GS: I hope to be working by then, and maybe have a family. But right now it’s hard to say, as I’m so focused on my ‘gymnastics life’. To be honest, I have no idea what my career will look like. But I’m interested to find out, and I hope that I’ll still have my feet firmly on the ground.
Q: What was your dream job when you were a little girl?
GS: I wanted to work in Coop! (Mother and daughter both laugh)
Q: Tell us more!
Fabiola Steingruber: Her grandfather worked at the cash register in the Coop supermarket, so we shopped there often. Giulia always used to tell me that she wanted to do that too.
Giulia Steingruber: I always thought it would be cool to work at the cash register.
Q: And now?
GS: I wanted to do a health-related job for a long time, but now I’m interested in psychology. If I could somehow combine this with the police, that would be my dream job. I need to complete my studies first, though.
Q: Do you want to go into the police force?
GS: I could see myself doing that. The work seems to be varied. You see and learn so much. And I think that, like gymnastics, you can learn a lot about life in the police force. But I would want psychology to be the focus.
Q: So, case analysis?
Fabiola Steingruber: Really, she just watches too much CSI (laughs).
Q: And have you given much thought to having a family?
GS: I love kids, but right now it’s too early to think about that. It would be nice in ten years.
Q: Is it possible to have a relationship in addition to being an elite athlete?
GS: Let’s just say that it’s not easy to be with a gymnast. You’d need to be very understanding.
Q: And finally, what is your wish for the new year?
GS: Quite simply to have fun and stay healthy. And to get back to being able to give 100 percent to my sport.
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