Maria Paseka gave an interview to VTBRussia.ru, talking about her experience at Worlds, how she met her fiancee, how she started gymnastics and what are her plans now. The interview was given before she flew to Germany. Currently, she’s in Munich with her mom, getting a checkup and deciding whether she will need a surgery to help with her back pain. She also low-key announced that Ksenia Afanasyeva contemplates a comeback (although we already had some glimpses of Ksenia back in her home gym).
Q: At Worlds in Montreal you managed to defend your title. Were you as excited as after the first victory?
A: When I was going to my first “victorious” Worlds, I had lots of doubts. Of course, when I won, I was full of excitement. But I couldn’t show it because there was a tragedy in our country, a national mourning [a Russian plane had crashed in Egypt on October 31, 2015]. I had to keep my joy inside. And it felt like I kept all this excitement in me till the next win. This time I went there to win – but I was no less scared than in Glasgow. I really didn’t want to dishonor my title. When I managed to win, it was a hurricane of emotions inside of me. Also, at these Worlds, for the first time, I guess, I cheered really hard for an athlete from another country and I was glad to see her by my side on the podium.
Q: Who were you cheering for?
A: Giulia Steingruber from Switzerland. I can’t say that we were close before that. I understand English but don’t speak it very well. But despite that I like Giulia, she’s a great athlete who’s always been missing something [to win]. And I really wanted her to succeed this time: I looked at her and saw myself. I understand that feeling really well when you’re sitting there and thinking: “Please, let me win at least the bronze!” And there, the Japanese gymnast falls… Giulia’s twitching because it’s kind of not nice to be glad that your competitor failed, but you realize that because of this you’ll definitely get a medal. When we were congratulating each other, we hugged so tight as if we were childhood friends. It was an amazing feeling.
Q: Did you get any treatment after these Worlds?
A: No, I’m only planning to.
Q: When was the last time you weren’t in any pain?
A: At the beginning of my gymnastics career. When I was 13, maybe.
Q: Do your athletic injuries really bother you in daily life as well?
A: My back hurts. That’s why I want to go [to Germany] for a surgery – to the surgeon who operated on the bobsledder Irina Skvortsova. Her case was very complicated and this doctor ended up being practically the only one who said he’d be able to put her back on her feet. I trust him. It’s just that the Russian doctors told me that I could become disabled, end up in a wheelchair.
Q: When was it?
A: After the Rio Olympics, in one of our hospitals. Then I went to Germany and they said: “What? What wheelchair?”
Q: So, how serious the issue is now?
A: I can train. But, honestly, I’m already tired of living with the pain all the time. And the thought of having to go to the gym again, putting all these heating balms on my back that I’m already allergic to… This thought isn’t very inspiring. And the doctors say that the changes are noticeable already – one vertebra moved towards my stomach. For now, the muscles are keeping it in place, but later, if, for example, I’ll want to have a baby – there will be serious problems. That’s why I gradually became afraid of landing as well. I guess I’m getting old [laughs].
Q: But you’re not thinking about retirement yet, right?
A: I don’t want to [retire]. I love my sport. And then, I’m very goal-driven. I remember how Vika Komova, still a kid, did exhibition routines at the Voronin Cup. I looked at her in amazement and dreamed of being like her. I could hardly imagine that one day we’ll be competing at the Olympics together and will become best friends. Of course, even back then I really wanted to go to the Olympics, but when I said it everyone was laughing at me.
A: I mostly trained for fun, studies were my main goal. But then my mom had a fight with my coach, I think, and I had to leave. That’s how I ended up with Dina Rashidovna [Kamalova], in the same group as Aliya Mustafina and her sister. I actually was afraid to train with her because she’s a strict coach. Outside the gym, Dina Rashidovna is a nice, kind woman, but at the gym… I only trained with her for a year but she really taught me how to do gymnastics. When I did a Tkachev for the first time, I had a spasm in my arm because I’ve never done elements like that before. Even my current coach, Marina Gennadyevna [Ulyankina], is thankful to Dina Rashidovna: “Thank you for teaching her how to work”. Aliya and I really worked extra hard with her. And she taught us to watch our weight.
Q: How old were you then?
A: Eleven. I used to think that it’s ridiculous – to forbid little kids from eating. But now I’m very grateful to both Dina Rashidovna and my mom for watching what I ate. This is the age when the body is being formed, that’s why you’re hungry all the time. If they let the situation out of control at some point, I’d become a soft teddy bear. As my mom calls it, “nightstand with legs”. I would definitely not able to achieve anything then.
Q: Why did Dina Kamalova move to the US?
A: Honestly? I don’t know, I left her before that happened – I switched to tumbling. But they gave me a training load that was too hard and I decided: “Let’s go back to gymnastics”.
Q: Is your current coach, Marina Ulyankina, also as strict in the gym as Dina Kamalova?
A: Yes. I was actually even more scared of her than of Dina Rashidovna. If she wants something from you, she’ll definitely get it. Maybe with the help of screaming, but there will be results. When my mom offered me to train with her, I refused at first: “Mom, what were you thinking? Am I crazy? I won’t go to her”.
Q: That’s what you said? Won’t Marina Gennadyevna get offended if she reads this?
A: No, she knows. Marina Gennadyevna admitted that she needs gymnasts to be afraid of her. That’s why she can yell at you in the gym. But she’s really kind outside the gym. She can even give you a gift without a reason. I always feel a bit uncomfortable in such situations, but I can’t really refuse. I know that she’s giving it sincerely.
Q: So, you don’t regret that you decided to risk it and train with her?
A: Of course not. If not for Marina Gennadyevna, I wouldn’t make the London Olympic team. Later, when I was preparing for my first victorious Worlds, another coach who I work with also played a big role – Artyom Igorevich [Voinov].
Q: I remember your story about preparing for the 2015 Worlds when Ulyankina was against you learning a new difficult vault [Cheng] but you and Artyom disobeyed her. You ended up winning gold.
A: Yes, Marina Gennadyevna was very afraid for me. But Artyom Igorevich saw that I could do this vault. I really like this about him that he’s always nudging me to move forward: “Come on, come on!” He really motivates me to work.
Q: Most of your teammates from London became moms. Only you and Vika Komova are left.
A: Yes, and Aliya not only gave birth but also came back to gymnastics. She’s restoring her routines now. And even Ksyusha [Afanasyeva] is thinking about trying it, too. We have a dream – to compete in Tokyo with the same team as in London… Although, you know, if I were them, I wouldn’t come back after giving birth. No matter how much I’d want it. But I never gave birth, so, I guess, I just can’t understand them.
Q: You recently announced your engagement. Are you thinking about kids?
A: After Tokyo. Generally, our engagement didn’t change anything, we continued living together just as we did before. Only there’s a ring on my finger now.
Q: Doesn’t your fiancee want kids?
A: He does. But he doesn’t insist on it, he understands everything, he used to be a boxer. Moreover, there should be a stable source of income in the family.
Q: How did you meet him?
A: He saw me on tv during the Rio Olympics and messaged me om Vkontakte. I looked at his page, saw lots of photos of cars and thought: “Ok, he likes cars – then we’ll definitely have something to talk about”. We started talking, then met in real life, I introduced him to my friends… I wasn’t training at that moment, so I was catching up on partying for all the years I’d missed.
Q: Surely, lots of guys wrote to you after the Olympics. Did you reply to everyone?
A: I heard that fame gets into the head of many athletes who become successful, but I’m not like that. If I see that the person is ok and wants to talk, I’ll reply. There are many people, though, who write ridiculous things! Once someone offered me to participate in a photoshoot. I looked at his page and it’s full of photos of naked women! Horrible. I quickly blocked this photographer, although I got a bit upset that I won’t have pretty pictures – I’d really like to participate in a photoshoot for some magazine!
Q: Did no one ever ask you to?
A: No. Sometimes, I’d really like to participate in some project that’s not just about sports. I’d love to be in an ad, for example. I know that Alexei Nemov used to be the face of one car brand… But, I guess, that’s not realistic in my case. Although, perhaps, someone will read this interview and…?
Q: How could it be that there were no advertisement contract offers in your whole career?
A: There were some, but it usually ended during negotiations. Although, right before Rio I was supposed to sign a contract with one famous sports brand, but because of the whole doping scandal our negotiations ended. That was a pity. Also, I think that in our country the Olympic gold medal is valued much more. Even if you have several silver medals and a World champion title, it’s not the same. I rarely get recognized outside the gym.
Q: But you’ll have a chance for the Olympic gold in Tokio, right?
A: I heard that Simone Biles is coming back… If she comes back, it would be hard. How can I give her a hint: “Simone, could you stay at home for now, don’t go to Tokyo, Masha Paseka will compete now and then you can come back to the sport”. Well, if we’re talking seriously, then it will be hard to compete with Simone. But I’ll try.
Q: Are you afraid of leaving the sport?
A: I am. I once even started crying when someone hinted at me about it. I’ve been on the national team for more than ten years. I’m doing practically the same thing over and over every day, all this time. Through tears, through pain, through breakdowns and fights with my coach. I used to think that there’s so much time left, but now I realize: it’s one Olympics – and that’s it. And you’re a regular person again.
Q: How did you spend your first week after Rio?
A: For about a week I was just lying in bed and not getting up. “To drink some coffee? No, thanks, I’d rather stay in bed a bit longer”. Some people say: it’s easier for you because you’re only competing on one apparatus and not four. But it’s actually harder to train one apparatus. Because every goddamn day you’re doing the same thing for eight hours in a row. If I had other apparatuses, there would be something different, at least.
Q: How hard it is to go back to training after a long break?
A: Really hard. I remember how this spring I went to Euros in Romania and realized that I was completely out of the habit of competing. I stood there before the start and I felt like I didn’t sleep that night but was unloading some wagons instead. I was standing there and thinking: “Great… Now I’ll vault”. But, despite that, breaks are needed sometimes, of course.
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