Kozich: All of us were terrified of Ostapenko

Alina Kozich gave this interview to Sport Exress UA in the summer when both she and Oleg Ostapenko were both working in Belarus. Since then, Oleg Ostapenko moved to Ukraine to work as the WAG head coach there, and I am not sure whether Kozich stayed in Belarus or followed him to Ukraine.  Nevertheless, the interview is very interesting and Kozich tells not only her work in Belarus but also about her experiences as a gymnast in Ukraine and then as a coach in Japan and Hungary.

Q: Alina, last year you brought Hungarian gymnasts to an international competition in Kyiv and now you’re coaching the Belorussian gymnasts…

A: I’ve been working in Belarus for only a few months, since the New Year. The thing is that I wasn’t able to establish communication with the Hungarian head coach, mostly in work-related situations. I didn’t slam the door, we parted with the federation civilly. They said that they’ll be waiting for my return. But I doubt I’ll want to return… In addition, I wasn’t able to overcome the language barrier. In Japan, I quickly learned to communicate on the basic level. Hungarian, though, is one of the most difficult languages in the world and I wasn’t able to master it. All my efforts to learn it were in vain.

I was offered a job in Belarus even before I signed the contract in Hungary. The coaches from different countries stay in touch with each other. And sometimes in our talks there are phrases like “well, maybe you’ll come to work for us someday…” I heard this from Antonina Koshel, the vice-president of the Belorussian association at some competition. Later, at Euros, she reminded me of her offer. But it became tempting to me when I learned that our Oleg Ostapenko went to work in Belarus and then Nikolai Gryadovkin came back to the team, he coached gymnasts in Poland. That is, they assembled a star coaching staff – Belarus has a serious intent to raise gymnastics back to its previous heights. And the team desperately needed a choreographer…

When the conflict situation happened in Hungary, I started seriously thinking about Koshel’s offer. I called Oleg Ostapenko, asked him whether he would want to work with me. His positive answer tipped the scale towards Belorussian offer: to work on the same team with Oleg Ostapenko is a huge experience that you can’t buy with money. I’m attracted by a magnet of his personality. So, while packing my bags for Belarus, I wasn’t even looking at the current level of gymnastics in the country and what prospects it has.

Q: How did Oleg Ostapenko manage to impress you in such a short time?

A: With his professionalism. It’s manifested in everything, even small details. Oleg Vasilyevich eagerly shares his knowledge. He doesn’t have secrets from us. He’s incredibly positive and open. If I have a question or a problem, I can turn to him at any time. And I also like that he directly says when he doesn’t like something. Without holding a grudge, Ostapenko will make a remark and explain in detail how to work or how to act best in a given situation. In fact, he was the one who formed the backbone of the coaching team there. And he also selected talented children for the development program that is running in the same gym where the national team trains.

Q: And when do you think it’s possible to expect first results of this work?

A: This is not something that will happen tomorrow. The Belorussian gymnastics was experiencing a state of decline for too long. But the young gymnasts are promising. You just have to work with them. When Oleg Vasilyevich saw the level of the senior team, he was upset at first. He likes to build champions from regular girls. But he was given fresh babies. I, on the other hand, like it more – to teach practically from zero, to raise the girls higher and higher, going through all the stages with them. Belarus has gyms, the problem is with the coaches on the ground.

In Ukraine, I had little opportunity to observe how Ostapenko works. When he was training Viktoria Karpenko, I only started going to camps to Koncha-Zaspa. I was still little but even then I realized who was this person with deliberate seriousness on his face. All of us – older and younger ones – were terrified of him. Such was his image. Yes, he was terribly strict and demanding, the girls were crying at his practices. But, believe me, there’s no other way. The girls were afraid the most of not being able to bear the insane number of repetitions.

The whole practice was going at a very fast pace and he didn’t provide even a minute of rest. Only this kind of approach can develop special endurance. But when you’re half-conscious from exhaustion, tears and other girls’ tricks come into play. Ostapenko’s secret was that during the practice it was impossible to get mercy from him. He ignored our tears. I think he has a whole bucket of our tears under his bed. Or even three of them. [laughs]. He saw the goal before him and led his gymnasts to it. I’m still surprised: how one with such a strict approach can win not only trust and respect, but also loyalty and love from the girls.

Q: Have these tendencies changed somehow by now?

A: In truth, this merciless Oleg Vasilyevich is very humane, positive and gentle. These internal qualities of his don’t fit Ostapenko’s gymnastics persona. But that’s actually our job – to force gymnasts to work and show results day after day. Oleg Vasilyevich used to say that he’s already tired from being so strict. Perhaps, that’s why the intensity of his practices lowered a bit. Back in the USSR, there were a lot of gymnasts to choose from. The coaches chose the best 50 of them, for example. And the second and third ten in this rating weren’t really inferior to the top ten. So the coaches could twist the gymnasts in every way. Someone broke down? No problem. The strongest will survive.

Now everything’s different.  There aren’t that many children who love gymnastics. That’s why modern coaches are kinder to gymnasts. But anyway, without heavy training loads, without the ability to overcome your weaknesses, exhaustion and tears, there won’t be results. It was always like that.

Q: When in your career did you have to endure the most and to step over yourself?

A: After the surgery and recovery when I gained extra 5 kilos and at first practices I could not, figuratively speaking, lift my butt. When my arms were shaking in handstands unable to support my new weight. My coach, Sergei Butsula, also had to be stricter with me: he made me run, do additional conditioning, limit my food – to lose weight in every possible way. And this at the time when your friends are hanging out after school, go dancing, allow themselves to succumb to a variety of temptations. Gymnasts always face a choice. Whether a girl will make the right choice often depends on her parents. I’ve always had close relationship with my parents and sister Olya. My job in Belarus will allow me to be in touch with my family more often than when I was coaching in distant Japan.

However, I haven’t met the parents of my gymnasts yet. Our training center is in Minsk but most gymnasts come to us from other cities. But we’ll definitely meet soon. I’m a “good cop” on the team, the girls sincerely love me.  I’m a choreographer so I’m kinder with them. And I’m also a woman so that makes it easier for me to explain some things to them. But the girls know: when they work with me on beam or floor, it’s better to be obedient. [laughs] I don’t react to tears. But however the practices go, we’re very close outside the gym. We go to the sauna together or just sit and chat and I answer a myriad of questions. 12-year-old girls want to know absolutely everything! And when their parents aren’t around, they bombard the coach and the staff with questions. Besides me, they have close relationships with the woman who’s a masseuse. She also often serves as an encyclopaedia for them.  We have to teach the girls who to look pretty and neat, to do their hair right for the practice, to wear a comfortable leo and not to forget to wash their leggings.

Q: What’s the usual day for the Belorussian gymnasts?

A: The girls have enough time for studies and entertainment. On weekends, they go to the movies or the theater. Sometimes we invite them, because children need to have fun. Perhaps, with time I’ll start slipping interesting books to them. I was once amazed by “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I’ll bring it for them to read, on occasion. And then ask them to retell the plot. [laughs] The camps lasts two weeks, then the girls have two full practices a day.

The next week they’re going to school: they have a short first practice, they go to study and after school – to the evening practice. The national team employs a woman who checks their homework. She lives near them and controls the discipline and whether they tidy up their rooms.

I like Belarus. Minsk is calmer than Kyiv. In addition, for the first time in many years, there’s no language barrier between me and the gymnasts. I think I’ll stay in this country for a long time.

Q: How did your work in Japan and Hungary influence your understanding of gymnastics?

A: At the World Championships in Tokyo in 2011 the Japanese team that Sergei Butsula and I trained became fifth. it was a sensation! It wasn’t even an ascent to the top, but a rapid takeoff, skipping several steps in the middle. Japan didn’t have such results for many years. Women’s gymnastics wasn’t very popular. We created a team in just a few years from those who we found in the clubs – just average gymnasts. But since then, the gymnastics world began taking Japan into account. The Tsukahara Club and the national team of that country were my first workplace. There I learned how to be a coach and a choreographer practically from scratch.

Japan is a country of workaholics. So, when I moved to Hungary in five years I was mostly struck by its passivity. There, everyone’s sitting and waiting that everything will work out by itself. The national team head who has a lot of official positions didn’t even pay much attention to our work at first. Moreover, he even slowed us down, not letting the coaches to fulfill their vision of gymnastics. In Japan, the time is measured in seconds and nothing deviates from the schedule even for a bit. In Hungary, they have no clue what a sport system is. For example, the practice is scheduled for 9am. The coaches came 15 minutes late and the girls only started changing at that moment. The Japanese system taught me punctuality and reliability: I knew exactly what I had planned for not just tomorrow but also a month ahead. In Hungary, on the other hand, I had no idea what will happen in the gym the day after tomorrow.

No one cared much about anything there. The coaches in local clubs weren’t really eager to come to the capital for training camps. And the head coach would have liked me to rather sit on the bench and stare at the ceiling instead of doing all the things I was invited by the federation to do. But I’m a professional, I’m not ready to sit still even for a good salary. that’s why I didn’t feel comfortable there. Even thought I became attached to the girls. We parted with tears in our eyes.

Japanese gymnasts, on the other hand, doesn’t have disadvantages. The whole system is working for the results. The coaches don’t need to think about visas or documents. They don’t care about the issues of pharmacology or recovery after injuries or illnesses. There are specialists for that. I can’t even imagine how to organize the work even better. But by the end of the five years I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in that country forever. I wasn’t ready to make such a decision: the culture and the mentality are too different there. It’s wonderful country that never left any bitter aftertaste in all these years. But in order to live there, to create a family there, I’d have to break myself. So that’s why I decided to come back to Europe, closer to home.



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