Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Going Places......

Some gymnastics talents have come from a long way away to get where they are going....

This week's African Gymnastics Champion got me to thinking about how international gymnastics has been effected more and more by immigration, politics and the increasingly globalised world we live in. These days, while countries might be competing against each other like they always have, one's birthplace or one's place of residence does not always seem to determine who it is that one competes for. These days there are other factors such as politics, family, education, economics and loyalty that determine these thing too. So today's list is devoted to athletes have found themselves working for or in other countries and the reasons why they ended up there.

So this is how I got thinking about it.  Apparently last week the African Gymnastics Championships held in Cairo were dominated entirely by the Egyptian girls.  But particularly by one young gymnast, Sherine El Zeiny.  She not only took out the gold in the all-around, but also the floor, vault and bars and then, for good measure, grabbed a bronze on beam.  
I looked her up, curious to know a little more about this gymnast whose name I had heard plenty, but who I had not really heard much about

 I was surprised then, when it turned out that Sherine's (rather small) website was written in Dutch and not Arabic as I expected.
El Zeiny's roots, it turns out, are both Dutch and Egyptian.  She was born in Holland but has dual citizenship with Egypt. She lived and trained in Nijmegen for the Pro Patira Zoetermeer club and competed on the Netherlands Junior European Team, placing 73rd in the all-around qualifications.
She most often competes for Egypt though, representing them at both World Cup and World Championship competitions.  El Zeiny's biggest moment came when she competed for Egypt in the Beijing Games last year. She was, in fact, the only female gymnast to represent Africa at all at the games.  El Zeiny was one of the lucky gymnasts to take part in Beijing because of the wildcard rule. This, however, was earned due to her fabulous performance at the World Championships in Stuttgart where she placed a surprising 91st out of 215 female competitors.

"Being the only one from Africa is exciting" she told reporters, "It motivates me as I would like to make people from Egypt and Africa proud."

El Zeiny is only one of many, though, who have represented more than one country in the sport of gymnastics.

There are few people in the gym world who don't aren't aware of Oksana Chusovitina's story.  And if others didn't before the Olympics, I don't know how they couldn't know about her after the small media storm in Beijing over her story.  
I was just waiting each morning, during the the morning Olympic News show, Yum Cha that aired in Australia for one of the presenters to bring it up during the first week, and sure enough, they did!  She became one of the many 'touching stories' those Olympics presenters love to find.  
Oksana has ran the gamut of team leotards during her early competitive career, first representing the U.S.S.R, then the Unified team, then eventually Uzbekistan.  These shifts were all, of course, due to the political turbulence that drastically changed what we know as Russia through the last half of the last century. 
Oksana had also trained with a german team in Cologne every year since 1997, but it wasn't until after her son,  Alisher fell sick with a form of leukemia and some generous friends in Germany offered to help financially with his treatment that Oksana moved them there (her husband stayed in Uzbekistan coaching gymnasts).  

On being told that if she had German citizenship that after three years, treatment for Alisher would be free, Chusovitina did not hesitate to make the change to compete fore Germany.  Her husband, however, does not qualify for German citizenship and remains in Tashkent to train the athletes at their gym.  While Oksana claims that it doesn't matter what country she competes for- that she competes for herself and her family, she remains unswervingly grateful to Germany for its help with her son's illness.

"Germany has done great things for him.  We never thought that another country or another people would help like this.  I now know that the world has more good people than bad people.  When we came to Germany, in one week he was already in the hospital and receiving treament.  Germany gave life to my son."

Many ex-gymnasts have moved from their native countries to other places to take up coaching positions.  For many Eastern Europeans gymnasts, coaching jobs in the USA, Australia, Western Europe and other destinations were far more lucrative than staying in their homelands, no mater how homesick it may have made them.
Maria Olaru spent some time in Klugenfort in Austria after being given a three months contract by the club president.  

Missing Romania was almost too much for Olaru who eventually returned home early.

"I was really homesick.  The city was almost dead.  You hardly ever see people walking around the streets, and the ones who do go out, take their car.  I missed home so much when I first got here, I didn't eat anything but a sandwich and a salad the first five days."

For Shawn Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, taking the US women's team to Beijing was a chance to show China just how far he has come since leaving China as a retired gymnast.

"I feel great about the accomplishment of the athletes and for me.  It's been fourteen years I haven't been here.  It's definitely a great honour to come back as the head coach of the US women's team.  I'm really excited."

Some left the USA to coach, but found the desire to compete hadn't entirely left them.  A huge twelve years after winning THAT  AA gold medal for The Soviet Union, Tatiana Gutsu announced she was making a comeback- for team U.S.A! 

While coaching at a club in Detroit, Gutsu also, under advice from another coach, began training again.  At this point, Gutsu had by then been awarded her U.S citizenship so she could not, even if she wanted to, attempt to train for the Ukraine, the team she had been placed on after the Olympics when the Soviet states broke up.  She did not, as she told International Gymnast Magazine, have good memories of this period in her training.   Once Gutsu found herself competing for the Ukrainian team under a different coach, things seemed to come apart, a factor she claims contributed to her initial reitirement. 
"The family broke down.  It's not even close enough to just rip up a photo and see the parts left; it's more than that.  The dreams were broken.  I don't call myself a victim, but for me and other athletes, it was about the breakup of mother Russia."

But in 2002, Gutsu decided to train again on three events, omitting only bars in preparation for theUS  Nationals hoping to qualify for the 2003 World Team for Anaheim.  She claimed training was thrilling, but it felt as though her body was waking from a coma.  Gutsu was looking forward to competing for her new country, though.  

"I already competed for USSR so it will be a big step to compete for America.  i have so many medals and achievements for the USSR that it will be the fun part to get a medal in America!"

Gutsu did not make it onto the National team, however.

Shavahn Church, a dual Great Britain/ American citizen,  began her gymnastics career in the USA, working up to competing as an elite gymnast through her teen years. Her first great result was her first placing on the uneven bars and fourth placing in the AA in the 2003 American Classic.  She went on to have good results at the National Championships that same year (Apparently there was a little controversy due to some new, original skills of Shavahn's not being awarded points as well affected her scores though).  Unfortunately, the next year a broken hand forced her out of the 2004 Nationals after only one day of competition.  

Once her hand had healed, Shavahn announced her decision to compete instead for the British National Team.  She remained residing in the US but went over to Britain for training camps and competitions.  She said that as well as having a greater chance at making the British National team, that she was looking forward to spending more time in Britain

"My Mum and Dad are both British, and my sisters Carly and Jade were both born in the UK.  We have tons of family over there and both my Grandmothers live in England, so I'll get to see them more often.  Also, dueto my injury, there was not much chance of my making the World's team for the USA, as we thought  would only be ready on bars."

  This was definitely a terrific decision for Shavahn as she qualified to the 2005 World Champs in Melbourne and ended up in twentieth place in the all-around competition.  She also came 5th in the AA at the Commonwealth Games in melbourne and won a silver on bars before another injury convinced her to go BACK to America to compete in NCAA for UCLA. 

In fact, college Gymnastics has long been a landing point for gymnasts after elite careers, and many colleges have looked beyond the shores of the U.S.A to recruit talent for their teams.  

Gabriella Onodi who is, as it always has to be stated NO RELATION to the Hungarian superstar Henrietta Onodi, was a member of the Hungarian National Team for eight years.  She won the Hungarian Masters AA competition three times in that period.  She competed in both World and European Championships for Hungary,  with a 6th place in the floor finals at the 1998 Europeans. She then went on to compete for the Utah Utes as an AA competitor. 

Many, many Canadian gymnasts have turned to NCAA to top off their gymnastics careers.  Both Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs and Aisha Gerber of Canada both took advantage of scholarships to compete for the UCLA Bruins this year.  Elyse, who took out Canada's first Worlds medal came off her final elite competition- in Beijing- and the departure of her coach Carol Angela Orchard to go straight into college.  Elyse has been signed to UCLA for years, but according to Orchard had been dreading the change until recently.  Elyse has matured lately, according to a CBC interview, and is now looking forward to to the change.

Carol Angela Orchard insists that she wants Elyse her to think only of herself now, not her country.

"I don't want her to go there thinking "Oh, this is bad for Canada" and "Oh, that's bad for Canada"  She's a young woman.  She's given a lot.  I want her to go and enjoy herself.  She's earned it. I mean, UCLA!  What a great adventure! ...Elyse has meant so much for Canadian gymnastics.  I know that's a small consolation to her right now (after a disappointing performance at Beijing). But she's the most successful female gymnast we've ever had."

Australian gymnasts Chloe Sims, winner of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games AA, and Olivia Vivian Beijing competitor and Australian National Team scribe/clown have also committed to college careers.  Vivian greets her new, American life at OSU competing for the Beavers with the same infectious humor she seems to greet everything.  In her WAIS blog, she told readers;

"One great thing about classes is everyone is entranced with my Aussie accent. I did an oral presentation today and I swear no one was listening to what I was saying, they were more interested in how i was saying it!  I didn't mind, though, I thought an 'A' was a fair trade off for having people just sitting there smiling at me!"

Here are a few more examples of gymnasts who have had their fingers in more than one national pie! 

Rumours last year had Jana Bieger defecting from the U.S gymnastics team to the German team at their urging.  This did, however, seem to be exactly that- rumours.

It is widely known, of course, that two of this last quads most popular gymnasts were born in Russia.  Daria Joura was born in Siberia, and Nastia Liukin near Moscow.  Both came to their respective countries with parent utilising their coaching skills to start lives in more fortunate countries.

Erica Lynn Danko, who competed for Japan at the Junior Pacific Rims and took silver on vault with a DTY  last year apparently has dual Japanese/US citizenship.  (I am unable to find out where she resides, though.  Can anyone help with that one?)

Mexican/ U.S citizen Mandi Rodriguez surprised everyone, including herself when she took a short break from her college gymnastics career with the OSU Beavers (hitting 48 of 48 routines last year) to compete in the Mexican National Championships and placed sixth in the all-around.

The Couch Gymnast has posted before about two young US gymnasts who compete for their home countries.  

Jessica Pouchet of Trinidad and Tobago spent her teen years alternating between training in the states and heading back to T&T to train with the national team.  She competed in both the Commonwealth and Carribean Games for Trinidad and Tobago.  She then went on to a college gymnastics career with Brown University.  She told an interviewer once that she thought helping T&T improve in gymnastics was far more important that any personal or individual gain.

Gigja Hermannson battled mononucelosis to compete for Iceland at the 2003 worlds in Anaheim, despite living permanenetly in San Jose's Almaden Valley.  Though not yet an elite gymnast at the time an article was written about her in The Almaden Valley Times, Gigja was ranked 124th in the world and had trained a summer in Iceland and competed for them both at the Worlds and at the Scandinavian Games, filling a gap in a team still lacking depth despite an overall improvement in the nations gymnastics.

Both Viktoria Karpenko and Yevgenia Kuznetsova emigrated from Ukraine to Bulgaria to compete for the Bulgarian National team in 2002. Neither have had particular success since then. Unfortunately, both Karpenko's comeback attempts were thwarted by injury.


  1. That was very detailed. Rhythmic Gymnastics is well known for exports and people switching countries. A lot of rhythmic gymnasts are exported from Russia to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan gets a lot of them; their best gymnasts are and have been Russians.

    Mary Sanders was born and raised in Canada, but had dual citizenship with Canada and the United States. She originally competed with Canada, but switched to the US in 2003 and without her, the US would not have qualified anybody to the 2004 Olympics.

  2. Erika Lynn Danko was born in and resides in Japan. Her father is American and her mother is Japanese.