Thursday, January 28, 2010


Quite often, on gymnastics teams these days there is an older gymnast.  One who has somehow cheated the youth-dominated sport of gymnastics and is as fit and strong, or simply just mature and uninjured enough to continue in the sport long past when others her age leave it behind.  In recent years we have seen many such gymnasts who have defied the norm of gymnastics being a 'little girl's' sport and continued through their late teens and into their twenties. 

Here, I am thinking of gymnasts like Isabelle Severino, Beth Tweddle, Cheng Fei, Svetlana Khorkina, Alica Sacramone, Mohini Bhardwaj and of course, the brave Yelena Zamolodchikova, who kept competing simply because her country needed her.  She told reporters she would stop when the struggling Russian system stopped needing her.  Others simply missed the sport, like Severino and Bhardwaj, who felt herself still longing to compete after an elite and a college career were done.  Some didn't stop experiencing success like Tweddle, Chusovitina and Khorkina.  Some felt a sense of duty to their team like Zamo, and, of course Cheng Fei.

It wasn't quite as common to see the older gymnasts in the old days, past 1976, when the Soviets and Romanians dominated the sports and seemed to have a never-ending trail of young talents to replace girls as they aged (as in turned 15!) and left the sport.  There was such depth that it was never necassary and quite rare to see a gymnast who could maintain a level of excellence to match those younger, lither and without the injuries that come with longevity in such a sport.

One of the first girls I can think of who flouted the age conventions was the indomitable Svetlana Boginskaya.  The 'Belorussian Swan' had a heck of a career, winning many world and Olympic medals over a lengthy period.  While she now lives and coaches in the United States, her future was not always so certain.

Boginskaya competed and earned medals in three Olympics and endured as the Soviet Union fell, and training was thrown into chaos as they formed the unified team.  According to Sveta, this did not affect her drive to win.

"Before the Seoul Olympics, we were told to protect the honour of the motherland, that you perform not for yourself, but you display the image of the Soviet Union and socialism.  Now they don't say things like this, but we know ourselves what we want."

And so she continued.  There are a few reasons why Boginskaya was so successful for so long.  Though as she aged, many gymnasts came along who were doing far more difficult things, it was hard to find someone who executed so consistently perfectly, who was so popular and famous (for the judges too), who was creative and exquisite in everything she did and who oozed pure, steely determination to win.

One thing I have wondered, is how tough it is to be the 'old lady' of a team.  Certainly there are gymnasts who seem to thrive in the team leader role, like Sacramone and Cheng Fei, but that can't always mean it is easy on them.  If you are older and more mature, yet a lot younger than your coaches, it must be difficult to find someone to relate your own difficulties too.

Sometimes the exchange can be rewarding too, as Isabelle Severino discovered when she returned after a long injury to train for Beijing to find most of the team has changed.  Though she had been accustomed to working for and with people older than her, she found she learned a lot from them.

Okasana Chusovitina claimed she was happy to join the far, far younger German gymnastics team because she was tired of 'fighting alone' as a competitior for Uzbekistan, who were yet to develop their own gymnastics talent at the time.

Alica Sacramone claimed one of her Beijing goals was not just to make the team, but to be team captain and lead them to medals.  This has always been an important part of her career.  (Also, does anyone remember seeing the Youtube video, with the cute little exchange between SJ and Asac where SJ was joking, and saying "come on, I vote for you in that 'little thing' (which I take to mean team captain vote) it was cute and funny and i have never found it again.)  Her famous talking-to, of the US girls at Worlds, is seen as inspirational by many.

Boginskaya, though she seemed to take on the leadership role (who can forget her comforting Gutsu, who thought she'd been left out of the AA finals?), she also seemed to struggle somewhat as the eldest gymnast.  She told journalists once that while she was friends with her female team mates that she couldn't "be frank with them".  It was easier for her to talk to the male gymnasts of the squad.  She also claimed to miss the older gymnasts who were once in her team, but who left after the Soviet Union fell, and are now focussed on marriage and children, who wrote her letters, telling her it was time to leave gymnastics.

And gymnastics became less fun too, as she stopped learning as many new tricks.  Training became about repetition, and trying to maintain consistency on elements that used to come so easily too her.  "Now it's more routine work for me" she told reporters, "it's repetition and repetition, which of course, is less interesting."

Of course, other factors must have affected her.  Particularly the looming decision of what she could do with her life when she left the sport, and the training center she claimed to have lived most of her life inside.  Khorkina, the girl who had been too shy to enter the Round Lake training center because her idol, Boginskaya was in there, knew when it was time to finish.  "I think it is high time I stopped" she told reporters.  "As any other woman does, I'd like to have a family.  I'd like to have kids.  "I'd like to be loved."

Boginskaya certainly didn't feel the same sense of self-assuredness as Khorkina, who'd already found a degree of financial success, and competed most of her career in a somewhat more stable political, economical and personal environment.
 "I just don't know what will happen," the Belorussian Swan said about her future.  "so far, I only know gymnastics."



  1. Thanks a lot for this. :) I grew up loving Boguinskaia and I remember having read most of those statements you mentioned on El País in 1992. Do you have that interview somewhere? Her story was inspirational, Chusovitina's too. I am 31 and I practising gymnastics again.

  2. Dominique Dawes (disappointing US team 4th place 2000 Olys) and Catalina Ponor (team bronze 2007 worlds, but wouldn't have placed had Russia's Kramarenko not 0.00'd vault) are two I can think of who were not natural "leaders" as they got older/were older than the rest of the team.
    Each was still talented up until her retirement, but seemed more reserved/individually focused.

  3. Calitoe, I will hunt up interview for you.

    MS I never paid that much attention to Dawes, but yr right about Ponor. Though from what i have seen of Rom Nats vids and so on, she had a nice relationship with the younger girls, but in competition- it was all steely individuality. perhaps that had something to do with her being brought in late and in a period where Deva was in chaos and there was no prevailing, existant team atmosphere. Maybehow it began was how it eneded for her.

  4. Domininque Dawes was never a leader. In 96 she was freaking out and only concerned about herself. It was Amanda Borden that calmed her down and in 2000 she followed Elise Ray around like a puppy.

  5. You have some amazing pictures and you did an excellent job writing.

  6. Very interesting read.

    I found it interesting that Bogi found it easier to talk to the male gymnasts as she got older because I remember seeing the same thing about Sacramone either right before or after Beijing. Obviously Sacramone did have some teammates that were closer in age to her (Memmel and Liukin) but other than them I can see how she would be closer to the guys both age wise and in life-experience, having been to college and living on her own, than the 15-16 year old set.

  7. Alicia is a flirt that is why she likes to talk to the men.No other reason