Nellie Kim on judging, favorite gymnasts and differences between Russia and U.S.

Nellie Kim gave a long interview to Bolshoi Sport in which she talked about the differences between the training systems in U.S. and Russia, her take on judging in gymnastics, on Beloamericans and more.

Just today a new interview with Elena Zamolodchikova was published by Bolshoi Sport in which she addressed some of the points Kim made with which she disagrees. The translation of Zamolodchikova’s interview is coming later this week, so stay tuned!


Q: You live in the U.S. but you are the vice-president of the Belorussian gymnastics association…

A: I didn’t immigrate there in the full sense of this word. I spend most of my life in the U.S. because it’s more convenient to live there for my job at the FIG – fewer distractions, more technologies. But I have enough work in Minsk, too. I regularly communicate with my colleagues from the association where I’m in charge of the international relations.

Q: Which system of gymnastics training is closer to you – American or the one used in the FSU countries?

A: It might sound funny but the U.S. system is basically our former Soviet system. They took the best parts of our system, filtered and formatted it to fit the local conditions. They figured out the perfect version including the fact that the best kids who graduate high school get college scholarships. There are tournaments between the colleges so there’s a lot of competition to get the best athletes. Not everyone can become a world champion but parents invest in their children’s training knowing that their kid will later be able to get a degree for free and get a scholarship. It’s an amazing investment in their future.

Q: Does it really pay off? To invest for 12 years for 4-6 years of free education?

A: All this money eventually return. Of course, doing gymnastics is expensive. But there definitely won’t be a financial loss. In addition, the person gets a profession and, the most important thing, doesn’t spend time “on the street”.

Q: The young gymnasts who are striving to make Russian teams for international assignements are living at the Round Lake for months. How are the training camps for the US athletes organized?

A: Do you want me to ask about the Karoly Ranch in Texas where the USAG created the national training center? I haven’t been there; they don’t let me. They probably don’t want me to see the training sessions. Motivation can do amazing things. Kids come there for three days, a week tops. Marta was always observing what was happening with the kids (currently, Valery Liukin has replaced the Karolys). If a kid was improving, then everything’s ok, they continue working like that. But as soon as a young gymnast misses at one or two verifications, they will lose their place among the team candidates for a long time.

Every country has a different situation. I believe that Americans can only dream of the kind of support that the government give to the young Russian gymnasts. On the other hand, such support can be harmful, because people not always value things they get for free. Spending your own money on something is a completely different matter. In some countries, I just don’t see gymnasts striving, giving their everything. You can see that people are just doing a job, their eyes don’t light up.

Q: Do you think that the main reason for this is the system and not individual personalities?

A: First of all it’s the system. In US, young gymnasts have a normal life, they live with their parents, see their relatives, participate in the community’s life. Same as my life was when I competed: we had 6 to 8 training camps per year, ranging from a week to two weeks on length. We came with our personal coaches. I remember that if the head coach made a comment or gave you a look, we took it as a reason to seriously reconsider our behavior. The head coach had the unquestionable authority, we were even afraid to upset her. Dancers from the Bolshoi Theater came to our camps, talked to us, gave us lessons. We met many interesting and famous people from different fields. And what’s happening in Russia now? Gymnasts live at the training center almost all year round. Every day is the same schedule, same people around you.

Q: When you were still competing, were there always the same gymnasts coming to the training camps?

A: The first 8-10 gymnasts were the same, maybe 2-3 gymnasts changed. The reserve bench was super long, they could form 3-4 teams and each of those could potentially win the team final.

Q: What was the team clime? It’s rare to see friendship between athletes in the sports where judges post the scores.

A: All the girls were friends with each other except for the two stars of the team – Liudmila Tourishcheva and Olga Korbut. Korbut has a pretty unique personality which hasn’t changed with age. I’ve never fought with anyone, never had any arguments. I was always ready to give my all for the team, I was more nervous in the team competitions than in the individual ones. And I usually competed better in the individual finals because I wasn’t so stressed. That’s the kind of team spirit that I see in the US team now. Sometimes I watch them during the podium training or warm-up and they’re practically falling apart, barely moving. But the competition starts and they’re entirely different people. I’m still trying to figure out what motivates them. I believe that besides the personal motivation, they’re also patriotic.

Q: In Russia, the Olympic medalists get life-long stipends in addition to prize cars and one-time payments. What’s happening with the financial awards for the gymnasts in the US?

A: I’m sure that in the US the prize money from the government for the Olympic medals is less than in the FSU countries. But then these athletes get personal sponsors and their earnings from sponsorships are very significant. For instance, Simone Biles is representing United Airlines, I see her photos in every airport. That’s also part of the motivation, and the amounts of money they get through the advertisement contracts are much higher than the Olympic stipends for the Russian champions. Top-level athletes will be able to earn money anyway, whether from government of not. But, I want to repeat, team spirit is important. I think that a few years ago FIG made a right decision starting to award Olympic medals to the team alternates. Before this rule, Americans always made their own medal for the alternate when they came home.

Q: We often hear that a low socioeconomic status is one of the most important motivations to achieve success in sports. Which SES levels are represented in the current US team?

A: Generally, middle class and higher, because it’s an expensive sport. But the main motivation is never money. It’s to build character, to learn how to persevere. Personally, I strived to overcome my own fears. If something didn’t work out, I stayed in the gym until I could finally do it. I only managed to land the vault for which I got the first perfect 10 in the Olympic games history on my 46th try. I had a diary in which I documented all the tries. My coach – Vladimir Baydin – was a Teacher. He knew that his athletes’ life doesn’t end with the end of their gymnastics career, he let us go to the movies, meet with our friends. I could disagree or argue with him. I remember how I said I’d quit gymnastics and do ballet instead. He replied: “If you can become a ballerina, I can become a pilot”. But later I decided to return to gymnastics.

Q: Were you seriously thinking about ballet?

A: Of course. Although my coach made a fair comment that my physique was not suitable for ballet. I also thought about trying track and field – I was good at short-distance running.

Q: Do you keep in touch with your former colleagues from the USSR team?

A: Yes, almost with everyone. We look up each other on social networks, call each other. I’m in touch with more than a half of my Olympic teammates. I lost the contact information of the others. This year I started using Facebook, this network helps finding people. No people are closer to me than gymnasts, there’s a gymnastics brotherhood.

Q: Do the former Soviet gymnasts who live in US see each other as competitors now?

A: Now they’re even closer than when they were gymnasts, they all have a common goal – earning money. Most of them are coaching and they like to meet during the competitions, talk about the past. I’m talking about the middle and lower level coaches. The elite coaches – Valery Liukin, Evgeny Marchenko, Artur Akopyan – compete with each other, but they still go to hunt and fish together. I joined them a few times when I was the head of the WAG technical committee, and they kept criticizing the code, saying what needs to be changed. These people love their job.

Q: Can a child that just begins gymnastics start training with Liukin, or this kind of coaches only take elite gymnasts?

A: Valery has a whole factory, three gyms. One is for elite gymnasts, one if for health groups, and one has all sorts – acrobatics, aerobics… They’re doing lots of work to earn money. When so many people pass through your program it’s not very hard to find future stars. Especially since Liukin has a lot of coaches, people flock towards a famous name. Valery gives “licenses”: a coach who can say “I worked in Liukin’s gym” is very in demand. I’ll say it again: everything new is well overlooked old. It makes sense to choose the good parts from the old system, modify them and use them in the current system. If I was a national team head coach, that’s what I would do.

Q: Would you be willing to become a head coach? Compared to the “Vice-President of FIG” title this would look like a step backwards.

A: The head coach is not actually coaching in the gym. The main thing is to build a system, but first of all – to conduct analysis, to learn what’s going on, to figure out what’s causing problems. Russia traditionally has strong junior teams, but not all of these gymnasts are able to transition to the senior level, by far. They need to find the reason for this. I know that they have amazing conditions. There were strong coaches working with the team, who are internationally known and raised gymnastics stars in Russia and in other countries. Such as Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Leonid Arkayev, Oleg Ostapenko, Andrey Rodionenko. But not everything goes well. Perhaps the problem is the gymnasts’ motivation, it’s a crucial factor. It’s important that the kid wants to train and not being forced to do it. I recently watched a video: a [female] gymnast talked about her life at the Round Lake. It left a not really good impression, something’s wrong there.

Q: At the Olympic Games in Rio Belarus was represented by Kylie Dickson from U.S. Did you initiate inviting her?

A: No, it wasn’t me. I was approached by the parents of the American girls with this request. I just told them about the FIG’s procedures. I want to point your attention to the fact that the FIG executive committee members from U.S. unanimously voted for it. We know several examples when competitive national teams were created by inviting athletes from other countries. How other countries can compete with that? By doing the same. A few years ago the German MAG team had 5 gymnasts from the former USSR – Sergey Kharkov, Valery Belenkiy… They won medals, their team almost placed higher than Russia. I want to support the traditions of my country which has to be represented at major competitions. We learned that Dickson’s great grandfather was from Belarus, so why not? The FIG rules allow transfers between countries, especially since Kylie was never on the U.S. national team. Both she and Alaina Kwain want to continue their career and compete for Belarus. The problem is that one girl got injured, the other one also has health issues. I hope they’ll recover and show what they’ve got.

Q: Does the FIG have a goal of raising the number of competitive national teams? Or, in general, there are enough of those already?

A: Of course, it’s our goal. The law of quantity turning into quality is still working. The more strong teams, the more interesting the competitions are. I see lots of potential for development in Asia. Right now, basically, only three countries are developing gymnastics on a high level there – China, Japan, and, with a stretch, South Korea. India has big potential. They built many gyms there, the interest is growing. At the Olympic Games in Rio, Dipa Karmakar became fourth in the vault final, she planned to win a medal. I wish you’ve seen how she was met in India! She’s a real hero.

Q: What do you think of the current judging system in gymnastics?

A: Because of the situation with Alexey Nemov in Athens, FIG had to change the rules in 2006. The difficulty (D) and execution (E) scores appeared and we also started using video replays. If judges were not sure about something, they watched a “movie” before giving a D score. In 2012, the video replay procedure was changed with the reasoning that objectivity gets lost, but the rules stayed the same. And the judges, in case of doubt, often started giving the benefit of the doubt to the athlete. Human eye can’t catch some things. Particularly, it’s hard to understand the legs angle of a gymnast – was it 10° or 11°? But judges aren’t allowed to watch the replays now. I believe that the rules need more work – since it’s not allowed to watch replays, the rules should be modified. The former FIG president, Bruno Grandi, was a gymnast himself, a coach and a teacher and he paid a lot of attention to the technical part. Under his management the executive committee gave “orders” to the technical committees like for a product at the factory – they told directly which standards should be implemented. For teaching gymnasts, for the demonstration, for how to execute the routines perfectly, these were good rules. But the scores took a long time to calculate because of the need to watch replays. I’ve been working with both the old and the new rules and I’ve formed a very specific view on how the rules should look in the current quad. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to persuade the new head of the technical committee, Donatella Sacchi, and some of the committee members, to changed the current rules.

Q: When can we expect a judging revolution in gymnastics?

A: New rules will be published in 2019, they will be applied from 2021. We have a lot of unresolved issues. The main issue is that the current judging system is supposed to rely on the video replays but we don’t have them.

Q: Perhaps the future is in computer technologies, automatic score calculation?

A: The FIG president, Morinari Watanabe, is taking care of this in collaboration with a company from his native Japan. Let’s hope that the software will be able to produce perfect results. But I see potential problems already. Back in the day, we tried to create a system of elements based on science only. What happened is that the element often didn’t fit into the difficulty group into which the specialist put it. For instance, everyone thought it should be an F, but according to science it should’ve been only a D. For example, triple salto on the floor and double twisted double layout should’ve been the same. Or the first of those should’ve gotten a higher difficulty because now almost no one does it. But if we go by science, the second element is way more difficult. That means that the system doesn’t take something important into account. Then we started adding new parameters to the scientific ones – “fear”, “risk” and other components related to the gymnast’s psychology. I think that with time new factors will be added to the automatic scoring system and, ideally, we will get something optimal. At the same time, I believe that the new system will be too expensive.

Q: Can it happen that this system will be used at Worlds but not at national competitions? And the athlete who received high scores at nationals will be penalized for the same routine at an international competition?

A: That’s a very good question. I think we’ll be able to afford using these technologies only at Worlds and Olympic games. We have to break even financially when using them and this will be impossible at smaller competitions. I hope that in the future there will be an opportunity to use this innovation at the continental championships and the Worlds cups. When the competitors are very close to each other, they’re fighting for the smallest details. And the machine has to take all these details into account.

Q: I got an impression that the current leaders are somewhat inferior to their predecessors in terms of the ability to execute the most difficult elements. Is this true?

A: There was time when the gymnasts chased difficulty, performed the elements they didn’t finish preparing, which led to a lot of injuries. Bruno Grandi urged us to give priority to execution over difficulty. And, I think, we achieved that. Now we’re asking not “Will the gymnast be able to perform this routine?” but “How cleanly they’ll be able to execute it?” This is a big achievement of the current code. Generally, difficult is growing, especially on bars and floor.

Q: Who do you consider a perfect female gymnast?

A: In terms of the beautiful lines – Olga Mostepanova. Unfortunately, in 1984 she wasn’t able to become an Olympic champion because of objective reasons. But I’d give her a 10 on every apparatus. At the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, Viktoria Komova was perfect in execution. Simone Biles is a unique talent, I’ve never met gymnasts comparable to her in her physical characteristics.

Q: And what about a male gymnast?

A: Chinese and Japanese gymnasts are the first that come to mind. If we’re taking the Soviet ones – Dmitry Bilozerchev, Vladimir Artemov, Aleksandr Tkachev. Artur Akopyan was a very elegant gymnast, and he’s the same as a coach. Personally, for me Nikolai Andrianov was one of the best gymnasts.



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