2008 Olympic all-around finalist Nathan Gafuik of Canada told IG he has a fresh mindset for 2009, despite handling a rare autoimmune disease since childhood.
Gafuik at the 2007 Worlds in Stuttgart
"I have moved into a new stage in my career where I have the experience to be a top all-arounder at international competitions," he said.
Gafuik was the youngest member of the Canadian men's team at last summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, where he placed 17th all-around. He also finished 17th all-around at the 2006 World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, where he helped Canada finish a historical-best sixth place. The Canadian men's team placed ninth in Beijing.
Gafuik won the junior all-around title at the 2003 Canadian national championships, and served as the alternate to the 2004 Olympic team. He is a five-time senior national event champion: floor exercise (2008), vault (2005, 2006, 2008) and parallel bars (2006).
He was a triple medalist at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where he helped Canada win gold in the team competition and picked up silvers in the all-around and on vault.
Born June 12, 1985, in Calgary, Gafuik trains under coach Tony Smith at the University of Calgary Gymnastics Club. His emergence as an international all-around contender is all the more impressive considering that, since childhood, he has been coping with Addison's disease, a rare autoimmune disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol. The disease can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, headache and other symptoms.
In this IG Online interview, Gafuik confirms his intentions to continue competing among the world's best gymnasts, and details his motivations for 2009 and beyond.
IG: Your international career to date is interesting in that you were one of the world's best all-arounders in 2006 and 2008, but a supporting team player in 2007. For 2009, are you focusing on keeping your all-around status intact, or shifting to what the Canadian team might need from you?
NG: Gymnastics in Canada has a very strong team mentality, and I think that is important. Qualifying as a team to the Olympics is very special, so I will always do what I can to help the team perform its best. At the same time I think I have moved into a new stage in my career where I have the experience to be a top all-arounder at international competitions.
With my coach, Tony Smith, I have worked on a plan for the next four years focusing primarily on maximizing scores on my top events — floor, vault, parallel bars and high bar — so that they are in range with the event finalists, and improving my weak events so that they are in range with other top all-arounders. I think that, with this plan, I will improve my chances of being an event finalist as well as an all-around contender. This way, I believe I will be able to help out Canada on all six events and continue to compete as an all-arounder.
IG: Looking back on Beijing, how do you balance the positive moments - your own success - with the disappointing ones such as Brandon O'Neill's (ankle) injury?
NG: Our national coach, Edouard Iarov, prepared our team well for the Games, and going in we were very strong. Unfortunately, with the injury to Brandon, we could not achieve our goals as a team, but I was still very proud of how we pulled together. Brandon was amazing considering how injured he actually was, and the rest of the team was absolutely solid on every event. My personal performances in Beijing were good. I pretty much hit 11 of 12 routines between the team competition and all-around finals. Therefore, the Olympics were very positive, and with the experience gained, I am really looking forward to the next cycle.
IG: Which Canadian gymnasts do you view as your top competitors in the coming years?
NG: Our team is going to go through a bit of a transition with some new guys needed to step into the team over the next few years. We will still have an experienced base with me, Brandon and possibly Adam Wong sticking around from the Beijing team. But as for who will fill the other spots, time will tell. There is a good group of younger guys who have been working together for a few years now, and they are looking quite good. It is difficult to really tell whom I will be competing against over the next couple years, but by our national championships in June it will be clearer.
Actually, there is a 15-year-old from my club, Ian Galvan, who is looking like he will be really good. I have already seen him land a Tsuk double pike and handspring double front (vaults) onto the Resi-Pit at my gym, He is strong on floor, rings and p-bars, as well. He is young and of course still has a few years of work, but it looks like Canada is moving in the right direction.
Gafuik on his way to the bronze medal on floor exercise at the 2008 Cottbus Cup
IG: Among the international gymnasts who might still compete from 2009-2012, which ones inspire you, and which ones do you view as your top international competitors?
NG: I don't think it is entirely clear who will continue to the next Olympics. I think Worlds in 2009 (Oct. 13-18 in London) will be a big indicator of who will be strong contenders. Obviously, guys like Fabian Hambüchen (Germany) and Kohei Uchimura (Japan) are the current and future great all-arounders, and I will be looking forward to meeting them in competition. I also draw inspiration from guys like Fabian obviously, but also Epke Zonderland (the Netherlands) and Yann Cucherat (France) for their technical ability on high bar, where I hope to excel in the future.
IG: What will it take for Canada to challenge and pass the USA, as you did in 2006 at the World Championships?
NG: I think it really comes down to our Start Values. We have always had very clean routines but generally lack in Start Values. Looking around at most of the top teams, that is what it is coming down to. We are going to have to start putting together some more difficult routines in order to challenge teams like the USA in the future.
IG: Besides Worlds, what are you key competitions for 2009?
NG: I am not planning on competing a whole lot before Worlds, but I am really looking forward to the World Cup that is being held in Montreal this year (March). I think the last time a World Cup was held in Canada was back in 1998 (Sagit Cup, Vancouver). I remember being so excited to be able to watch some of my heroes of the time, like (Russia's) Alexei Nemov, compete. It will be great to be able to compete in a high-level competition like a World Cup in my home country.
IG: Has your Addison's condition affected your training in recent times, or is it more or less under control?
NG: Addison's is a complicated condition for someone training at my level. It's a relatively rare auto-immune disorder, and my endocrinologist says that there is no documented experience on treating high-performance athletes with this condition. I am stable at the moment, but I have to stay on top of things to keep it that way. I take steroids twice a day to replace the hormones that the adrenals are not making, but I have learned, particularly in the last year, that that isn't always sufficient. Cortisol is normally produced by the adrenal glands and, according to the specialist, it affects almost every organ and tissue in the body. Its most important job is to help the body respond to stress, but it also helps maintain blood pressure and cardiovascular function; helps slow the immune system's inflammatory response; helps balance the effects of insulin in breaking down sugar for energy; and helps regulate the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Unfortunately, the replacement just isn't as good as the real thing. When I run into trouble, it's more difficult for me to recover. So, there isn't really any set monitoring or maintenance plan. I make adjustments daily and try to remain diligent with respect to diet, sleep, recovery from training, competition and other daily stresses.
IG: What aspects of your gymnastics are you aiming to improve in 2009 - difficulty, execution, a specific event or events?
NG: I am really aiming to improve difficulty on all my events in 2009. I have worked hard since the Olympics to learn new skills and sequences, and have just started to put routines together. Obviously not every skill will be ready for this year, but I have already improved a lot since Beijing and am getting anxious to start competing again, which I have not done since the Olympics.