This interview was published in the December issue of the Dynamo magazine (Dynamo is the gymnastics club that hosts Voronin Cup). It was taken by Natalia Kalugina.
Kalugina first describes an incident that happened when Zamolodchikova was still competing. Her coach, Nadezhda Maslennikova, got a plate of oladyi (a type of small Russian pancakes) to bring it to Elena’s room, saying that her gymnast doesn’t need to be on a diet due to her naturally lean body. Nevertheless, Zamolodchikova refused to eat the oladyi saying: “Nadezhda Viktorovna, I have to train tomorrow! What if I gain weight?!”
Q: Lena, for me, your victories had started from you depriving yourself of little joys of life because of your work. How it all started for you?
A: From practices. Practices every day, lasting for many hours. I saw a gymnastics competition on tv, pointed my mom to it and said: “That’s where I want to go”. So, that’s how my mom brought me to a gym. And since we lived near the school #33 that was where she brought me. Now, this school belongs to the Sambo-77 club and is called Olympia, and I work there. I was training in that school from the very first day and competed for the Dynamo club.
Q: Was your group selected by Nadezhda Victorovna?
A: No, my first coach was Marina Valentinovna Vinogradova. But I didn’t train with her for long, she went on maternity leave soon. And then, fortunately, I got to train with Nadezhda Viktorovna and her husband, Sergei Nikolayevich Pivovarov.
Q: When did that moment happen when you couldn’t imagine your life without gymnastics?
A: I guess when I was little. I spent most of my life in the gym, at practices. All my friends are athletes. The girls who train with you at the same gym are even more than friends, they’re your big family. On weekends, we missed each other, wrote to each other, came over. And later, when I gave to gymnastics most of my life already and retired, I started missing practices and competitions. But life is life.
Q: I remember how Nadezhda Viktorovna brought a junior gymnast to Voronin Cup and spend a long time doing her hair and makeup. And then this junior went out and did a double layout – an element that not all seniors can do. Did you want to do such difficulty or the coach nudged you to do it?
A: First of all it was thanks to my coaches who taught me the correct technique. I wasn’t afraid to upgrade because I felt that I could, I had no fear of elements. Because I didn’t have a propensity for ballet, my only choice was to upgrade my difficulty in order to get high scores. I now understand that that was exactly the strategy that Nadezhda Viktorovna and Sergei Nikolayevich employed.
Q: Were you offended when people said that Zamolodchikova can’t dance but her tumbling will be enough and the national team has other beauties?
A: I don’t know, I never heard this. And that’s good. I was always protected from such talks. But I was taught by, I believe, the best choreographer in the world, Raisa Maksimovna Ganina. She choreographed great, awesome floor for me with which I competed at the Olympics. I had good floor routines since childhood. People were always working with me on that. Perhaps, I didn’t have the greatest foot arches but I was dancing on the floor.
Q: You were considered a power gymnast, that is, someone who’s best on vault and floor, right?
A: Yes, that’s how it was.
Q: You were a power gymnast in your results, but how did you see yourself deep inside?
A: Deep inside… As every kid, I liked the most what went best for me. You come to the practice and on that day beam is going great. And you think that beam is your favorite apparatus. Next week, bars are your favorite apparatus. I never had such a favorite apparatus what I would always enjoy training. But I guess the priority was the floor. It was both tumbling and dancing – some variety.
Q: Lena, you went through your whole career without serious injuries. It’s an extremely rare occurrence. How did you manage that?
A: It was thanks to huge efforts of a team of specialists: the doctors and the coaches who didn’t throw me onto rusty nails. I was always given extra mats so that I wouldn’t hit my legs on the beam too much, so that there would be more safety, that there wouldn’t be an unnecessary load on my hands on vault. It’s a professional team and I was lucky to work with them.
Q: When you were competing, it was the most difficult period in our gymnastics and we all wanted medals. Did you realize that you were guarding our borders and couldn’t have even a step back?
A: Absolutely, I understood that the times were difficult. But we had no point of comparison. I see now how the artistic gymnastics is developing and what our federation does for our athletes to train in good conditions. I don’t want to complain but back then the conditions were far from what is now. I’m saying that if we had conditions like that I would probably still be competing now. But it’s done and to each their own. But I can’t say that it was a time of failure in gymnastics when we were competing. When I made the national team and entered its gym for the first time, I saw warming up on the floor Olympic champions Svetlana Khorkina and Rosa Galiyeva, World champion Dina Kochetkova, multiple European champion Oksana Fabrichnova. Those were the stars of international gymnastics who I’ve always looked up to.
Q: Somehow I thought that you were competing with Khorkina as equals, that it was a stand-off between two leaders.
A: You were mistaken. First of all, when I only made the team, Sveta was already an Olympic champion. And for the girl who just qualified to the Master of Sports candidate level, an Olympic champion was a god and an idol. That’s why Sveta was always an example for me. I’ve always strived to become just like her and Nadezhda Viktorovna often set her as an example for me. We had a very close team. Everyone helped each other, everyone was sincerely happy for each other. I can say that sometimes one girl would distract the coaches so that someone else would be able to breathe a little. There was no competition between us. At least, I didn’t feel it.
Q: And what about Sydney where you became a two-time Olympic champion?
A: Sydney was a very difficult competition where everything went wrong from the start. We were hurt and upset – we lost the team gold, made tons of mistakes. We came there for the team gold, the silver became such a tragedy for us that it was very hard to compete afterward. We all went to our rooms, no one talked. It was very hard to get yourself together in such a depressed stated but we still had all-around and event finals. In all-around, there was also a stupid, childish mistake on a front salto. It’s the Olympics, what can you do? But then it started to get better by the event finals when Sveta won bars and I won vault and…
Q: And demonstrated amazing floor routine. You probably never performed such a great routine in your career before.
A: It’s called “I hit it”. I hit right into my best performance at the right time and at the right place. Olympic champion is a destiny. There were lots of great gymnasts who were so close, who were supposed to become Olympic champions but it didn’t happen for them – silver or bronze or they were even left without any medals. I believe that you’re either destined to become an Olympic gymnast or you’re not.
Q: And do you remember the qualifying pre-Olympic Worlds in Stuttgart in 2007? When Katya Kramarenko ran to the side missing the vault and from almost-guaranteed World champions you immediately fell to the eighth place? You were going last and even though all hope was lost, you wiped away your tears and did a perfect vault.
A: It’s a very unpleasant memory. I want to forget it but I can’t. It comes back sometimes especially since the kids I’m training sometimes come to me and say: “Elena Mikhaylovna, we saw how you vaulted after that girl got a zero”. The 21st century it the time of the progress where anyone can find and see anything. But it’s sad and it hurts. It was my first Worlds after an ankle surgery, the only injury when I had to have an urgent surgery. The bone was tiny but somehow it didn’t heal. I could wait three months but I wanted to come back faster, to make it to Worlds. The recovery was hard, we worked a lot. But I chose this consciously. And everything looked fine. And we had a decent team. Generally, we should have been in the top three at the very least. What can I say? I can’t say anything. I don’t even remember in what state I was then.
Q: Does it still hurt?
A: I won gold medals at Worlds before. I’m not deprived of medals. But it was upsetting that we gave away one more medal, a team medal, in such a stupid way. It was the last apparatus, we just needed to stay on our feet and not to fall.
Q: I was surprised by something else. After the failure, your vault didn’t matter at all but you did it perfectly. What for?
A: I’m used to giving my all if I saluted the judges or I won’t compete at all. Then I understood that we were already in eighth place and we didn’t have any chance. But it wasn’t the fault of my coach who worked with me on that vault. And I just wanted to smooth the impression from this whole situation, to show everyone that we’re not some wimps and can fight till the end.
Q: Was it hard to prepare for that vault? You were going out while crying…
A: Of course I was crying. It hurt! But I tried to separate myself from it even though it was hard. It was the first time such a thing happened to me. I was in shock. But I understood that I was on the podium, I had to get myself together and vault. It was a fleeting weakness. Then I just prepared and did my vault.
Q: You coach is more than a coach for you. When did her status change? I’m not even asking when she became your godmother, I’m asking when did you start seeing her differently, not just as a teacher?
A: Nadezhda Viktorovna has such rules as a teacher that everyone is made equal in the gym. Even her own daughters called her Nadezhda Viktorovna during practices. She never had favorites. She was stricter with her daughter than with us. When as a kid I became close with her family (I was friends with her daughters, Anya and Yulya), I felt like we had a different relationship, not just a coach-athlete one. But in the gym I always knew that there’s only Nadezhda Viktorovna, I was always aware of proper distance.
Q: And when she became your godmother, was it your decision, hers, or a mutual one?
A: First of all, it was definitely the decision of my parents and Nadezhda Viktorovna, since I was only about 7 years old then. But deep inside I wanted to be the coach’s goddaughter. But still, the decision was made by the adults.
Q: The gym on Gubkin street was sort of a home where Nadezhda Viktorovna cooked food, had guests come over and trained children. You now have a different gym where you coach, a big one, what can you transfer there from the small gym on Gubkin?
A: For us, it was sort of a little camp where we trained two times a day and had lunch, it was all family-like. Here it would be hard to recreate this but I still try to get kids to stay for two practices, I always talk to them. Fortunately, Nadezhda Viktorovna stayed with me, I ask her for advice and thanks to her my coaching career is starting to work out.
Q: Did the practices helped you to deal with your mom passing away?
A: I guess we should start with my dad. For me, it was a huge loss. Everyone always said that I’m a daddy’s girl and look just like him. He could go soft on me, unlike mom. Mom could scold me sometimes but dad always defended me. And when he passed away in 2000, a few months before the Olympics, it was extremely hard for me. Dad watched my every competition, cheered for me. I wanted… not even to fulfill their dreams for me because my parents never pushed me, never forced me to do anything, but I somehow wanted to show them… It seemed to me that he could see everything from above and if I try hard enough it’ll work out and dad will be happy for me. It’s hard, it’s difficult, I was only 17-18. And when my mom passed away, I think, it was good that I was in the sport and it could distract me. All my thoughts were about training. Whatever anyone says, you have to think with your head on the apparatuses. Of course, my close friends gave me a lot of support.
Q: Is gymnastics worth all the heroic deeds that you’ve done for it?
A: Of course it is!
A: I guess if you’re doing something seriously it’s worth everything you do for it.
Q: How did you start representing Dynamo?
A: First of all it was thanks to the Dynamo president, Andrei Georgiyevich Zudin. He always helped us. He played a big role in my athletic career, in the fact that it turned out well. The whole Dynamo team treated Nadezhda Viktorovna and me very well. They allowed us to train a bit longer. Thanks to their good relationship with my coach, I got an offer to represent Dynamo.
Q: Will you also send your pupils to Dynamo?
A: Only Dynamo! If God will allow and I’ll raise a little star, she’ll definitely compete for Dynamo. If, of course, Dynamo will deem it necessary.
Q: Was it hard for you to retire?
A: I was hanging on to the sport till the end. Nadezhda Viktorovna and I agreed in advance that we’ll prepare for the Universiade and then I retire. She said that it’s enough, that I have to think about starting a family. It was hard to leave. I thought that I still had energy left. But I guess she knew best.
Q: For you, one part of gymnastics ended and the other one started. Do you like this world on the other side of the podium.
A: I do. I’m working. I started judging… Although I didn’t want to be a judge, it was the idea of my coach and Valentina Aleksandrovna Rodionenko, the head coach of the national team. I guess they discussed it and when I came back from the Universiade they sent me to a judging course saying that I don’t have to take the exam. But how can I not take the exam if I’m already there? And then it started growing on me. It became interesting. It’s the same gymnastics world, you meet with your friends, talk to them. It’s awesome that I’m still in my favorite world.
Q: By the way, after that course, Liubov Viktorovna Burda-Andrianova who represents Russia in FIG, said that you were better than some experienced judges there. Was it hard for you?
A: No, it wasn’t. Because of one simple reason: I just finished competing when I went into judging. I already knew gymnastics, all the fine details, all the nuances, I knew all the element difficulty groups, all the deductions. I knew the practice. This wasn’t hard. The theory was harder for me. Never before I opened the code, it didn’t even occur to me that there are special signs that signify each element there. And of course, learning this in a short period of time was not easy.
Q: I think your first judging experience was at Voronin Cup, right?
A: Yes, it was Andrei Georgievich’s [President of Dynamo club] idea, he wanted me to become a deputy head coach right away. I didn’t have a judging experience but he still gave me this job. It was a lot of responsibility. I was very worried. When the foreign judges from many countries came I had to tell them the rules – to people who’ve been judging for several quads. I grew up immediately, it was a great push for me.
Q: Former gymnast who just retired became a deputy head coach and at such a competition as Voronin Cup…
A: It’s our only international competition in Moscow. That’s why it’s so important for us. It’s still a significant athletic even in my life. Everyone was helping me, telling me things, I didn’t hear any negative comments. Everything was friendly. Even if I did something wrong, they corrected me, but in a very polite way, they understood that it was hard for me.
Q: Do you like Voronin Cup?
A: Of course. I like it a lot. Soon the new great arena in Petrovskiy Park will be built where we’ll be hosting this competition in the future.
Q: You recently started working with doping issues.
A: Yes, I work as the head of the anti-doping department at the Russian Artistic Gymnastics Federation. Lately, I’ve been very busy. Valentina Aleksandrovna Nikanorova, the executive director of the Federation called for me and said: “Lena, there’s this job. Would you like to try it?” I first reacted to it like “What?” I graduated from a physical education institute, I’ve always wanted to be a coach and here’s this offer. I guess I was prejudiced towards myself. But Valentina Aleksandrovna insisted that I try, she said that there would be no stumbling blocks. And Nadezhda Viktorovna also said: “Lena, You have to!” My coach is an authority figure for me, it was her who motivated me to work in the Federation. And indeed the team accepted me warmly, they taught me to write official letters, they helped me in everything. I started working in that department in 2016. And I’ve been working in the Federation since 2010. Of course, it’s interesting, it’s a new chapter in my life.
Q: And do you have any time left for judging?
A: It’s a painful topic for me. In order to judge competitions, I have to leave my kids. Fortunately, there’s Nadezhda Viktorovna and I have friends working for me at the gym. They can always watch the kids, train them, they won’t abandon them. But it’s still hard to train other kids when you have your own pupils. For me, it’s hard to go and leave my kids. The longer you judge the more competitions you get to go. I understand that. And because I have with whom to leave the kids, I have time now.
Q: What’s you judging category now?
A: Second international category.
Q: And when will you start judging top competitions?
A: I’ve already judged at the European Championships. And I’m very proud of it. I guess that with the second category I can judge at Euros and Worlds. But I have to check it. Probably, I’ll be on the panel that is responsible for deductions. We have a very strong judging staff in Russian. We won’t be left without good judges.
Q: Let’s go back to the coaching job. What do you like about it?
A: I like the process. I’ve wanted to be a coach from a young age, I was watching my coaches work. I went to study coaching consciously in order to become a coach. I like kids. When I’m invited somewhere, I often reply: “I can’t come because of the kids”. They ask me: “Do you have kids?” Of course! They’re all my kids!
Q: Lena, and what if some of your pupils won’t be so loyal and dedicated to gymnastics like Elena Zamolodchikova was, will you forgive them?
A: No doubt! Everyone’s different. Everyone can’t be like Lena Zamolodchikova or Sveta Khorkina. Everyone has their own character, their own mood, their own destiny.
Photo: RIA Novosti
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