Russian talk show host Ivan Urgant had the honor of welcoming 7 of the 9 individual Olympic champions in rhythmic gymnastics, on his late night show „Vecherniy Urgant“(„Evening Urgant“).
Lori Fung (Los Angeles, 1984), Alexandra Timoshenko (Barcelona, 1992), Ekaterina Serebryanskaya (Atlanta, 1996), Yuliya Barsukova (Sydney, 2000), Alina Kabaeva (Athens, 2004), Evgeniya Kanaeva (Beijing, 2008 and London, 2012) and Margarita Mamun (Rio, 2016) are gathered in Moscow on the occasion of the experimental international tournament „Divine grace“, organized by Kabaeva and the Russian RG federation.
Speaking to Urgant, they revealed who were some of their idols while growing up, who and what helped some of them reach their second Olympics and which rhythmic gymnastics rules they prefer.
Urgant: Allow me to ask you, as you’re all Olympic champions in different years. Who was whose idol, who did you all look up to?
Alexandra Timoshenko: Well, at first it was Irina Deriugina, my coach. I also really liked my competitor Marina Lobatch, by the way, she’s the only Olympic champion who’s not here right now.
Alina Kabaeva: But she sent us a video message.
Urgant: So was [Lobatch] already an Olympic champion at that point?
AT: Not yet, but she was my competitor in the USSR team.
Ekaterina Serebryanskaya: My idol was Sasha [Timoshenko], not only because of the way she trained – she was very calm and collected, but also–Sasha you probably don’t remember this–because of how she once ate a tomato. We were at some competition and I remember we were all very hungry, so we were all trying to find something more solid to eat. Sasha sat down gracefully, got a tomato, just as beautifully put salt on it and ate a simple tomato with so much pleasure. And I just thought to myself „Dear God, why exactly a tomato?! It’s neither that tasty, nor that nutritious…“. But that’s how she approached everything in life – with taste.
Margarita Mamun: Actually, the real reason I took up this wonderful sport is the Grand Prix in Moscow, in 2002, where Alina [Kabaeva] participated. That moment and the gymnastics performed by Alina and Irina Tchashina then is the reason I went up to my mom and asked „Please take me to rhythmic gymnastics!“. And after that, when I got into the Russian national team, in Novogorsk, Evgeniya Kanaeva was training there, who was already an Olympic champion at that point and was preparing for her second Olympics in London. So to me she was a role model, for a young gymnast to go to Novogorsk and see how an Olympic champion trains. So I have two idols here tonight.
Urgant: Lori, allow me to ask you: What it’s like–explain to us the feeling that no one else here has gone through – what it’s like getting an Olympic medal when it’s the first time the sport is at the Olympics – 1984 in Los Angeles.
LF: Well, it was amazing. It was a dream come true. When I was very young, the first gymnast I ever saw at the Olympics was Olga Korbut, in artistic gymnastics. And I always believed and dreamed, I wanted to go to the Olympics, but rhythmic gymnastics wasn’t in the Olympics. But I still wanted to go, and I believed that I would go, and when I got there it was a dream come true. I wasn’t supposed to win, I was a lower-ranked gymnast, but I worked so hard. And when it all finished and I saw that I was in first place, and I saw the Canadian flag, it was a moment that I’ll never forget.
Urgant: Zhenya, you’re the only two-time [individual] Olympic champion. Everyone else, every one of the other 6 people here, when they got an Olympic gold medal, they said ENOUGH! What made you go on?
Evgeniya Kanaeva: Well, the thing is, I had competed as a senior only for 2 years until my first Olympics, and I–well it’s not that I hadn’t had enough (editor’s note: wordplay on the russian verb „naestsya“ – eat just as much as you need, eat enough).
I just adore rhythmic gymnastics, and, let’s say, at that moment I felt that I still hadn’t showed everything [i’m capable of] and it was really interesting to me to go through the entire 4 years of an Olympic cycle as a #1 in the team, [see] whether it was possible at all, and I challenged myself in this way.
Urgant: We also have here Alina and Sasha, who practically went through the same thing at different competitions – at first only bronze, but at the next Olympics – gold. Sasha, let’s start with you – tell us what that’s like to overcome, to find the strenght within yourself after the bronze medal, to go ahead and win at the next Olympics.
AT: Just like Alina, I was preparing for gold at the Games in Seoul, but unfortunately there was a mistake – I dropped a club and it cost me the gold medal, just like with you Alina. Bronze is, of course, wonderful, it’s a prize, it’s a merit, but when you were expecting gold, it really feels like defeat. [After that], we were walking from the Olympic village to the hall and back, and my coach Albina Deriugina was very upset, and in that moment I told her: „Okay, I’ll do my best, I’ll win first place“. Maybe it was the faith I had in my coach and hers in me, probably that’s what helped me win and finish [my career] with a gold medal.
Urgant: Alina, for you it was the hoop, which when you dropped it rolled out of the carpet, and because of which [you won] bronze. But thanks to Yuliya [Barsukova], we still won gold, the country wasn’t left without gold. Yuliya, tell us about that moment [when you won the gold].
Yuliya Barsukova: Well, I wasn’t expecting it, of course. When I finished my last routine and sat down to wait for my score, they told me I was the Olympic champion, I told them „Have you lost your minds?!“. I didn’t believe it, because I didn’t know that Alina did something, I didn’t see no scores or anything, I knew by her reaction when she came back to the warm-up area that something had happened, but I didn’t know exactly what. But I had never imagined Alina could drop like that. Because [before that], she always won, it was impossible.
Urgant: Therefore, Alina, a question comes up: when you have [what happened with] that hoop, and 4 years later – hoop again. How do you prepare [mentally] to do a hoop routine at the next Olympics, and not remember what happened 4 years before.
AK: Yes, it was difficult. But I want to go back to the subject of the Olympics in Sydney, and thank Yulechka, because it’s great that the [gold] medal went to our country. That’s because the Olympic Committee calculates just about how many gold medals we can win from the Games. And therefore, to me it was a tragedy, first of all, in a personal way, I was already sure the [gold] medal was in my pocket, and when I reached in the pocket, the medal was nowhere to be found. But the fact that Yuliya won and brought the country that gold medal, I just want to thank her for it, and the whole country was very thankful to you back then.
And in Athens, I had already realized that my chances to go to a third Olympics were very slim, since rhythmic gymnastics as a whole is a sport for younger gymnasts, and it was my last chance to win. But I didn’t think about winning, I just told myself that I needed to do everything I know how to do, I checked my pockets again and saw there was no medal yet, and I needed to work [for it]. And of course, just like Sasha said, the faith the people closest to me had in me was very important, because no man is an island, so huge thanks to my coaches, to the masseurs, to the choreographers – it’s a huge team and so the gold is not only mine, but my entire team’s.
Urgant: Let’s talk about how the rules changed. Many years have passed since 1984, the rules change every 4 years. All of you – you’re history. So who wants to tell us about the rules that were current to the Olympics they performed at? What did you like and what – not?
LF: I loved the fact that routines were a whole, the score was a whole.
AT: What was different at the 1988 Olympics was that we could use not only a live pianist accompaniment, but for the first time 2 of the routines could be on a different instrument. For example, I had [a routine to] a saxophone. The rest of the time, there was a pianist playing, it was great, but we wanted a bit of a change. And it was also the first time they incorporated [the use of] the left hand, because girls were doing everything with the right one, and they introduced original elements. The following Olympic cycle was more difficult, it was difficult to readjust, because there were 3 Risks. But these two cycles we fought for gymnastics to be a bit shinier, be able to use sparkles. All that time, we weren’t allowed to, Mrs. [Egle] Abruzzini kept telling us „Gymnastics shouldn’t distract anyone“, we weren’t even allowed sparkles in our hairs. And already the following cycle…
EB: Yes, in the following cycle they allowed us to perform in overalls. On the one hand that’s good, but for me personnally, if during a ball routine I needed to catch the ball with my legs or feet, well, let’s say it’s easier to do it with naked legs. In our era, gymnastics was more of an art. We had the possibility to show beautiful elements, both with body and with the apparatus, and we could tell a story, so the routines were closer to art.
YB: During my time, the sparkles were already allowed, rhinestones, sequins… we had very beautiful leotards. And gymnastics was still more like an art form. I had a very popular routine to Saint-Saens’s „Dying Swan“ and it was closer to ballet, not gymnastics.
AK: And we added skirts. We proposed to the International Gymnastics Federation the idea that gymnasts can perform with skirts [on the leotards], they approved it and to this day it’s possible to perform with a skirt.
But [during the rules of our time] the body difficulties were very important.
Today the emphasis is on the apparatus, but back then it was on the body. In my opinion, that was much more difficult – to do a beautiful leap, a beautiful pivot–than the apparatus work.
EK: In the beginning, during my first Olympic cycle we had [to do] 18 [body difficulty] elements and it was very hard. We had to come up with many elements, combined difficulties. After that, they reduced the number of elements – we could do 12, the routines had more dance in them, there was more of a balance between the apparatus, the body and the dance steps. We could come up with difficult elements and they were scored accordingly, whereas now, there are elements which Alina and other gymnasts [came up with], and they’re not done anymore because they don’t bring you enough points. I came up with an element on my chest, and I scratched my entire neck while I was learning it, so that I could have something memorable, but no one’s gonna do it now, because it brings close to no points.
MM: In the rules I competed under, it was already allowed to use not only music, but a song with lyrics, it was something we were all very eager for. So one of my favorite routines was the first one with lyrics to the song „Eho lyubvi“ by Anna German. That’s what I liked [about the rules]. What I didn’t like was that during training, Irina Alexandrovna [Viner-Usmanova] wanted from me to do more turns, but Amina Zaripova and I kept telling her: „We can’t. There are difficulty sheets, we shouldn’t do it.“ I could do more turns, but it was forbidden. So the next step was removing those sheets, but that lead to what happened in Tokyo: there were no limitations and everyone started doing more and more apparatus work, so they could reach [our level].
Urgant: We’re not telling all this for no reason. There will be a unique tournament from the 16th to the 18th of December. Alina, this was your idea, tell us about the special rules that will be in place. Where does the experiment come in?
AK: The experimental part is that we want to show rhythmic gymnastics in it’s best and most attractive light.
It’s not without reason that people call the 2001-2005 era „The golden era“ of rhythmic gymnastics. Because the rules valued the body difficulty, the uniqueness [of gymnasts], the difficult elements brought a lot of points, so there were more of them. Back then, rhythmic gymnastics was truly spectacular, people came to watch, the whole world applauded us. But to do all these elements, you needed to possess unique physical capabilities.
And here’s what they did now – they oversimplified the rules, brought them to a base level, difficult elements bring less points, but many people can do the base and we lose the uniqueness of rhythmic gymnastics. So at our tournament, we removed all these limits and constraints, and gymnasts will be able to do what they want and what they can do best. The more they do, the higher scores they’ll receive. (…) So we’ll discuss this with FIG, we’ll give our suggestions and recommendations and work closely with them.