IG Online's traditional coverage of Irish gymnastics on St. Patrick''s Day continues with this interview with Irish gymnast Luke Carson.
IG Online's traditional coverage of Irish gymnastics on St. Patrick's Day continues with this interview with Irish gymnast Luke Carson, who optimistically aims for 2014's major international competitions less than a year after he suffered a career-threatening leg injury.
The 24-year-old Carson, who hails from Lisburn, Northern Ireland, represents Ireland in FIG competitions and Northern Ireland at events such as the Commonwealth Games. Since January 2010 he has been training under coach Paul Hall at Huntingdon Gymnastics Club in England, where his teammates include three-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith and 2009 World all-around silver medalist Dan Keatings.
Carson's younger sister, Bethany, is a swimmer who has competed at the World University Games, Commonwealth Games and European championships.
After fracturing his left tibia in September 2011, Carson returned to top form by April 2013, when he finished a respectable 34th place all-around in qualifications at the Europeans in Moscow. Last September he again fractured his left tibia, this time on a vaulting take-off.
Doctors advised he might not return to gymnastics, but the defiant Carson is determined to not only prove them wrong but also prove himself anew at the international level. His goals for 2014 include the Europeans in May in May, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in summer and the world championships in Nanning in October.
In this IG Online interview, Carson reveals the challenges he faces as he resumes his international career.
IG: Where exactly are you in terms of competition readiness, and on which apparatuses?
: I am 100 percent ready to rock! I am able to do only pommel horse and parallel bars because of my injury. I also hope to do rings again for the European championships. I have gone from doing all six apparatuses to doing only two, so my goal was to increase difficulty and make those two better than ever before!
IG: What is your realistic target for the upcoming major competitions of 2014, specifically Europeans, Commonwealth Games and worlds?
: For me, making the team for Europeans and worlds will be my first goal. I need to be top scorer on my two pieces to make the team, and also hopefully do rings, too. This is an important Euros for Ireland as it will be a qualifier for the European Games (in Baku) next year. It is also a great opportunity for Team Ireland to have a great run through in a team event in preparation for the world championships, as we need to build on our strategies as a team.
I would also like to use Europeans as my last major international before Commonwealth Games. As for Commonwealth Games, just getting there in itself will be huge for me, considering that only four months ago I was told I wouldn't be able to compete ever again. So I will be very proud of that fact. Furthermore, I believe that, with my upgraded routines being hit, I have a good, realistic shot for finals. And once you're in a final, it is any man's game.
IG: What are your prospects for competing on the "leg" events, floor and vault, in the future?
: With my injury and the metal work I now have in my leg, it is very unlikely I will return to doing all-around again. I don't know what the future holds for me and my all-around prospects, but at the moment I am really focusing on bringing my pommels and p-bars to the next level.
IG: How are you managing your training, financially?
: Paul Lancaster LTD is my only financial sponsor. They are a Scottish electrical company and they have really saved me, as after my injury I had all of my funding cut, and so I had no income at all. I am also product-sponsored by Reflex Nutrition, Machine Fitness, Biltong Man UK and Lucy Bee coconut oil. I am desperately looking for any other sponsors, as I am really struggling to keep in training full-time without proper income, so any help at all would be hugely appreciated.
IG: What factors do you feel have given you the physical and psychological strength to return to competition after a career-threatening leg injury?
: I have a good, positive team around me here in Huntingdon, with my teammates Louis Smith, Dan Keatings and Cameron MacKenzie. They have helped me a lot to stay positive.
It was an extremely hard time for me with my tibia injury and surgery, but if you want something badly enough, very little can stop a man fulfilling his dreams. In terms of psychological factors, I am a fighter, and I will fight until it is physically not possible to do what I want to do in life.
International Gymnast Magazine's coverage of Irish gymnasts includes: "Beyond Brave" – Kieran Behan profile (August/September 2011) "Room to Grow" – IG's visit to Salto Gymnastics Club, Northern Ireland (March 2009) "Shooting Star: Sarah Beck" – profile (January/February 2009) "International Gymnast" – Rohan Sebastian profile (April 2008) "Rising Irishman" - Matthew Cosgrave profile (December 2007) "Pride of Ireland" – Katie Slader profile (March 2005) "Pressing Her Luck" – Holly Murdock profile (August/September 2001)
As Azerbaijan continues to recruit more gymnasts - the latest being European parallel bars champion Oleg Stepko of Ukraine - IG interviewed Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation about its expanding program. Pictured: Oleg Stepko has been released from the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation and now will represent Azerbaijan, the FIG announced Monday.
As Azerbaijan continues to recruit more gymnasts - the latest being European parallel bars champion Oleg Stepko of Ukraine - IG interviewed Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijano Gymnastics Federation about its expanding program.
Altay Hasanov, vice president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) made the official announcement today that 15 athletes from other nations would be joining the Azerbaijani national team. Stepko, a 2012 Olympian for Ukraine and 2010 Youth Olympic champion, headlines the list of athletes switching nationalities. Leaving Russia for Azerbaijan will be three artistic gymnasts — Ruslan Namazov, Anastasia Bolshova and Maria Smirnova — one rhythmic gymnast, one trampolinist, and four athletes in sports aerobics and two in sports acrobatics. Azeribaijan also recruited another trampolinist from Belarus.
Late last year, Azerbaijan officially recruited Russians Anna Pavlova, Konstantin Pluzhnikov and Yulia Inshina to join its squad from Russia.
The most famous Azerbaijani gymnast to date is world and Olympic champion Valeri Belenki, who is now one of the most prominent coaches in Germany. As a gymnast, Belenki won gold medals with the Soviet team at the 1991 Worlds. He also won three gold and three bronze medals at the world championships, including the pommel horse titles in 1991 and in 1997 (the latter representing Germany). He represented the Unified Team at the 1992 Olympic Games, helping winning the the team gold and completing a sweep of the all-around medals behind teammates Vitaly Scherbo (Belarus) and Grigory Misyutin (Ukraine). He competed "unattached" at the 1993 World Championships, as the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation had not yet joined the FIG.
Baku native Valeri Belenki, world and Olympic champion
Now a coach in Stuttgart, Belenky's pupils include German star Marcel Nguyen, the 2012 Olympic all-around and parallel bars silver medalist.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan, has served as the president of the Azerbaijani Gymnastics Federation since 2002. Expanding gymnastics in Azerbaijan is an absolute priority, she has said.
In the past decade, Azebaijan has experienced tremendous success by inviting Russian rhythmic gymnasts to join its team. The team won bronze at the world championships in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Alina Garayeva won five individual world medals between 2007 and 2011, including the all-around bronze in 2011, and five European championship medals from 2007 to 2012 (including the gold on rope in 2007). A two-time Olympian, Garayeva finished sixth in 2008 in Beijing and fourth in 2012 in London before retiring.
In addition, the national capital of Baku has played host to multiple rhythmic gymnastics events — including World Cup, world championships and European championships — and will be the site of the inaugural European Games in 2015.
A new National Gymnastic Arena in Baku is nearly complete and will be the site of this year's European championships in rhythmic gymnastics. Its construction may also would give Baku a chance to bid for artistic gymnastics events such as the world championships and World Cups.
IG spoke in-depth with Hasanov, the federation's vice president, about the history of gymnastics in Azerbaijan, its success so far, and further plans for expanding the sport in the nation in terms of both popularity and achievement.
Two-time Azerbaijani Olympian Aliya Garayeva, an eight-time world medalist
IG: Of course everybody knows about the great Valeri Belenki, but please tell us more about the history of gymnastics in Azerbaijan.
AH: It is pleasant that you made mention of Valeri Belenki, the champion of the Olympic Games in artistic gymnastics within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) national team. Belenki also won the bronze medal in the individual all-around in Barcelona in 1992.
These Olympic Games have a special place in history of the Azerbaijani sports. There had already been no Soviet Union by the time of start of the Olympiad, but the process of formation of the national Olympic organizational structure in the republics of the former USSR was still going on. As the new independent states were not able to send their own national teams to the Games in Barcelona - athletes from the CIS countries performed within the joint CIS national team. The first pages of sports history of independent Azerbaijan were being written namely there, in Barcelona. The name Valeri Belenki is, symbolically speaking, the living thread between the Soviet time history of Azerbaijani sport and its development after the restoration of independence.
Many sports disciplines in our country began to develop even in the years when Azerbaijan was a part of the USSR. And it concerns gymnastics — artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and acrobatic gymnastics — in its full extent. Let us recollect: gymnastics exercises were a part of athletes' training for the performances at the Olympic Games even in ancient Greece, but development of artistic gymnastics in its contemporary interpretation fell on the late 19th century. Rhythmic gymnastics, which is more developed in our country today, dates back to the 1940s. The history of origin of non-Olympic sports - acrobatics comprised of trampoline and tumbling began in the 1920-30s. Azerbaijan was a part of the Russian Empire at that time, and, then formed a part of the USSR. And our gymnastics school was developing as a part of the Soviet school which was considered as one of the best schools in the world.
As far back in 1961, Azerbaijani sportswomen performed within the USSR national team at rhythmic gymnastics international competitions. Our acrobats achieved appreciable results at all-USSR and international events in 1960-1990s. But, despite all this, both rhythmic and artistic gymnastics practically were not developed in Azerbaijan itself. There were no good coaches, no equipped sports facilities, no developed network of sports sections in regions. We had nothing to do but create all this, practically, from point zero.
Today, gymnastics in Azerbaijan is one of the favorite sports disciplines with an up-to-date and well-developed infrastructure. Achievements of Azerbaijan gymnastics school are acknowledged by the world sports community. And all this has been possible due to heading of Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation by our country's First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva.
IG: How did Mrs. Aliyeva becoming president of the federation have such an impact on gymnastics in Azerbaijan?
AH: With the election of Mrs. Aliyeva as the president of Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation in 2002, a new phase of development of this sports discipline began in our country. At that time, we undertook the very complicated task. We needed to do a lot for the development of gymnastics. Coaches, choreographers, doctors, managers, as well as sports facilities and training bases were required. All this demanded a tremendous organizational work and creative thinking. But, most importantly, it was necessary to have sophisticated taste and a sense of beauty as gymnastics, especially, rhythmic, is not only a perfected sports technical skill but also involves music and choreography. This is a very spectacular, beautiful and really aesthetic sports discipline.
Namely, thanks to Mrs. Aliyeva, gymnastics has greatly been developed and become popular in our country. Already in 2003, Baku hosted the first World Cup series in rhythmic gymnastics. Baku organized the world championships in this gymnastics discipline in 2005, which became the first Olympic sports world championships ever to take place in the history of independent Azerbaijan. Our country hosted two rhythmic gymnastics European championships in 2007 and 2009. In 2014, the next continental championships will be held at our new National Gymnastics Arena in Baku.
2004 Olympian Dinara Gimatova
Great successes have been achieved by our sportswomen as well. An Azerbaijani gymnast Dinara Gimatova qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens, for the first time since the country's independence. In 2007, Aliya Garayeva won the European champion's title in rhythmic gymnastics with rope and our girls ranked the third in a team competition at the world championships. In the years to come, the girls would have represented the country with dignity even at the Olympic Games, become the prize-winners both in a team competition and individual all-around at the world and European championships.
But the crowning accomplishment is considered to be an establishment of its own rhythmic gymnastics school in Azerbaijan. Our young and talented girls have already been training in Baku under the leadership of our national team's head coach, a Bulgarian specialist Mariana Vasileva, for several years. Today, a new generation of young coaches is rising — they are former gymnasts who represented Azerbaijan at international sports events recently. They maintain the level in a worthy manner the present day. Our junior gymnasts alone have steadily been taking the prize-winning places at the European championships for the last five years. This is striking proof that we have created a succession system of sports achievements in Azerbaijan. And this is a principal essential condition for future successes.
Other gymnastics disciplines are being developed in Azerbaijan as well. Thus, our country was represented by Shakir Shikhaliyev at artistic gymnastics competitions during the Olympic Games in London. Though he did not manage to repeat the achievement of Valeri Belenki, but, as the saying was, the most distant road would start from the first step, and, this step had already been taken by our artistic gymnastics school. Names of our sports acro pair Ayla Ahmadova and Dilara Sultanova went down in modern gymnastics history as well - this women's pair won the gold at the European championships in acrobatic gymnastics in 2009. Ayla Ahmadova, who continues her activity performing within the women's trio of the popular Cirque Du Soleil, has been elected acrobats representative in the Athletes Commission of FIG in 2013. Our country is represented in the Disciplinary Commission and Council, and, the Federation's Secretary General has been elected as the Vice-President of the European Union of Gymnastics (UEG) recently. This acknowledgement in sports world is really valuable. Such are today's results of the work of our Federation headed by Mrs. Aliyeva.
IG: I have read that Azerbaijan is working very hard, and investing a lot, to become more successful in different international sports. Mrs. Aliyeva stated that "the immediate objective is the Olympic Games, the World and European Championships." Will you continue to "adopt" more talents from other countries to help accomplish this immediate objective?
AH: Azerbaijani President Mr. Ilham Aliyev is the head of the National Olympic Committee. He regularly receives athletes and the federations' directors and inquires about their problems. Great attention is devoted to sports development in our country. New sports complexes meeting high world standards are being constructed both in Baku and regions of Azerbaijan. Sports infrastructure development is going at such a pace in our country that Azerbaijan will already host the 1st European Games in 2015. We've also held the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 2011, the FIFA U17 Women's World Cup in 2012. But the main thing is that we succeeded in changing of an attitude of the society toward sports.
Today, it is prestigious to be a sportsman in Azerbaijan. First of all, it is noticeable in rhythmic gymnastics. If, yesterday, Azerbaijani coaches and athletes preferred to seek an employment beyond the country's borders, both sportsmen and their coaches from foreign countries had been coming to work in Azerbaijan today. We live in the 21st Century, the age of globalization, and involvement of foreign athletes in national sports teams has become an everyday occurrence for a long time. At present, no one is surprised by the facts, for example, that head coach of the Russian football team is Fabio Capello, and, that the gold medal was won for Russia at the 2010 European Figure Skating Championships by a pair consisting of Russian Alexander Smirnov and Yuko Kavaguti of Japan.
Two-time Russian Olympian Anna Pavlova is slated to compete for Azerbaijan, with her mother, Natalia Pavlova, as head coach of the women's team.
Involvement of distinguished foreign athletes enables not only to achieve significant results at prestigious events, i.e. "to demonstrate the national banner." First of all, it is an opportunity to exchange sports technologies, both individual and team experience. Training in the same hall with masters in the literal and figurative sense of the word, young sportsmen learn a lot from them, adopt their practices. But, together with involvement of foreign specialists, our Federation carried out, and, would continue the great work in other directions. New sports facilities are under construction, sections in gymnastics are opened in regions, seminars, training camp and courses are conducted... And, today, gymnasts from other countries are coming to take part in the training camp in Azerbaijan.
IG: You have had some excellent success in rhythmic gymnastics, mostly with Russian-born gymnasts who became Azerbaijani citizens. Now the Azeri team is a big power, taking world team medals in rhythmic. But it seems most continued to train in Russia. And it seems Shikhaliyev trains with Anatoly Yarmovsky, but in Germany. Where will these gymnasts with new Azerbaijani citizenship train?
AH: The Azerbaijani gymnastics school was being developed as a part of the Russian school as far back as during the Soviet years, and, following the restoration of our countries' independence, we continued our close cooperation with Russian specialists. In the first years, our top sports "stars" - Aliya Garayeva, Dinara Gimatova and Anna Gurbanova, indeed, they were training in Moscow under the leadership of Irina Viner most of the time. This cooperation is still going on today, first of all, in artistic gymnastics.
So, we have recently got a European Champion of 2011 Konstantin Pluzhnikov involved in the men's artistic gymnastics national team. But, on the whole, Azerbaijani gymnastics school has passed the period when its development entirely depended on foreign athletes joined the national teams. Most sportswomen of our national team in rhythmic gymnastics are representatives of local clubs. Too young "little stars" are growing up and are even taking prize-winning places in their age groups in international tournaments. Finally, it is already a long time since the members of the rhythmic Gymnastics national team are training in Baku and they are mainly local athletes.
Yes, it is true that Marina Durunda started to engage in gymnastics in Ukraine and Alexandra Platonova in Russia, but they never represented either Ukraine or Russia at the competitions. And they "established themselves" as athletes of international level in Baku. A gymnast Siyana Vasileva has already been training in Baku for five years, from the moment of her mother, (Bulgarian) Mariana Vasileva's appointment as our head coach. And all the other girls are from our local clubs, like gymnasts to take their place in the future. There is the same picture in artistic gymnastics as well - Shakir Shikhaliyev is training in Baku after the Olympic Games-2012. Yes, that is true that they will continue to train in Russia. But, firstly, this is rather an exception than a rule today. Secondly, it is necessary to take into account that gymnastics is sports discipline to deal much with personality. Psychological contact between a coach and a sportsman is very important here. And, I do no think that it would be reasonable to "break" "destroy" well-established relations, ruining accustomed environment which enables the athletes to fully reveal their potentials.
IG: Many western countries (such as the USA, Canada, Brazil, Great Britain, Australia, etc), have experienced vastly improved results only after bringing in coaching experts from the big powers (Russia, Ukraine, China, Romania, Japan, Bulgaria, etc) not only to coach, but to train all the local coaches with the proper methods by establishing a national training program, from 5 years old to the Olympic level. Have you also considered doing the same - hiring a very successful coach (for example, former Merited Master of Sport or Honored Coach of the USSR) as a national team coordinator for long-term success?
AH: Actually, today, our federation is actively cooperating with many coaches representing major world schools in rhythmic, artistic and acrobatic gymnastics. As I have already mentioned, the Azerbaijani Rhythmic Gymnastics national team is headed by Mariana Vasileva, the Bulgarian specialist. The head coach of the women's artistic gymnastics national team is Natalia Pavlova (coach and mother of Anna). A Ukrainian specialist Yevgen Moskvin, who previously worked in Belgium, Qatar, Ukraine, is the head coach of the men's artistic gymnastics national team. And our young coaches work in the same hall side by side with them. Our federation holds local coaches' courses in different gymnastics disciplines several times in a year. Baku hosted the FIG Academy Level 1 for rhythmic gymnastics coaches with a participation of 17 local coaches early in 2013. Finally, gymnastics department's specialists of P.F. Lesgaft National State University of Physical Education, Sports and Health of Saint Petersburg, the oldest physical-education organization of the world, will conduct a workshop on very various gymnastics topics in the coming year.
IG: Right now Azerbaijan only has two FIG-level judges for artistic gymnastics, and both are in men's gymnastics. Does Azerbaijan have any female judges being educated to take the FIG test so they can be present in international competition?
AH: The fact of existence of recognized judges in gymnastics in Azerbaijan is another evidence of successful development of our gymnastics school. This is a significant recognition that our compatriots, Natalia Bulanova acted as a judge at rhythmic gymnastics events of the 1st Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and Rza Aliyev judged the artistic gymnasts' performances at the Olympic Games in London according to the FIG's invitation. Of course, we will not stop at what has been accomplished. Our federation held international judges' courses in women's artistic gymnastics and trampoline gymnastics in January, and, by its results, we will have judges in this gymnastics discipline as well.
IG: In the Soviet days, children were picked around 5 and 6 to go into special sports schools. Does Azerbaijan still have a similar selection program, or has it become more like westernized countries with a private club system?
AH: Both "western" and "Soviet" systems have their own advantages and disadvantages. Sports clubs, which we inherited from the USSR, are still functioning in Azerbaijan. These clubs founded under different institutions are still being funded by them. Private clubs established for the last years has entered into ever more visible competition with the old ones. But they are all operating according to the old system, which, today, certainly needs to be reformed based on international experience. This work is already in progress in our country. In particular, we intend to increase the efficiency of selection process of children into gymnastics disciplines. We plan to create general gymnastics groups for 5 and 6-year-old children and to distribute them into gymnastics disciplines sections according to their abilities after two years of training.
IG: In many of the former Soviet republics (and places like Romania and Bulgaria), many clubs have very old equipment and not enough coaches, even if they had more gymnasts to fill the halls. Is the situation the same in Azerbaijan?
AH: Actually, one of the most acute problems faced by our federation was a lack of sports halls and necessary apparatus in the first years. But the situation is completely different today. On the initiative of Mrs. Aliyeva, many sports halls, located both in Baku and regions of Azerbaijan, have been built, overhauled and provided with equipment meeting the highest world standards. For certain reasons, supply of sportsmen with necessary apparatus is a problem that cannot be solved once and for all. Constant attention is required here. But, today, lack of apparatus does not impede the development of national sports. And, this fact makes us happy.
The National Gymnastics Arena in Baku (pictured in February) is nearly complete. Inset: Mockups of the final design
IG: Baku has hosted many championships in rhythmic gymnastics, and now the European Games in 2015. Is Baku ready to bid for any major international events in artistic gymnastics, such as a World Cup, European Championships or even world championships?
AH: Our country has hosted large-scale events several times. Azerbaijan has a necessary infrastructure and economic potential. Therefore, international sports federations regularly select Baku as a venue for major competitions. It concerns gymnastics in its full extent. As it was already mentioned, we expect to receive participants and guests of the European championships in Baku in 2014, as well as the rhythmic gymnastics world championships in 2019. At the beginning of next year, we plan to bid for hosting the FIG Challenge Cup in Men's and Women's artistic gymnastics in February in 2015. And above all, the competitions to be held within the framework of the 1st European Games 2015. I am sure hospitable Baku will receive athletes and fans from various countries of the world over and over again.
IG: Right now the most famous active Azeri gymnast is... Russian Olympian Emin Garibov from Moscow! Do you think there is a chance he will compete for Azerbaijan one day?
AH: Of course, people closely follow Emin Garibov's successes within the Russian national team where he is also a captain. We cannot remain indifferent to his successes. We are happy for him and sincerely support him. But we have no right to demand from Emin, and, especially, from the Russian team his performance for Azerbaijan. This decision — whether to perform for the country where he was born, grew up, established himself as a sportsman, or to perform for Azerbaijan where his ancestors lived in — should be made first by Emin himself. Only after that the mechanism called "transfer," which has its own rules and procedures, can be launched. But I will repeat once again that we are cordially happy with Emin's successes in Azerbaijan, where we regard him as our compatriot first of all.
IG: Of course football and wrestling are very popular in Azerbaijan, but how popular is artistic gymnastics in Azerbaijan?
AH: Once, during the competitions in artistic gymnastics, T-shirts were being sold with the following popular inscription on them: "If gymnastics were easy, it would be called football." Of course, it is just a joke: I am sure there cannot be any "easy" discipline in big-time sports. Yes, people really like football in our country as in many corners of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. People are fond of wrestling here as well. Popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling and different kinds of various eastern single combat like taekwondo, judo or karate are based on deep historical foundation. Azerbaijan has its own national wrestling tradition. Its roots go deep into ancient times and the traditions are protectively passed on from one generation to another. And when our wrestlers win medals at prestigious international events, it surely has an impact on popularity of this sports discipline. Fortunately, one does not have to be fond of only one sports discipline. Now, we can state that rhythmic gymnastics has really become favorite in Azerbaijan.
Yes, it is true that we do not have outstanding names such as Olga Korbut, Alexei Nemov or Belenki for the time being. But people in Baku, Ganja, Sumgayit and other cities know well the names of our sportswomen, watch their performances, cordially become happy with their achievements. I am confident that major successes of our national team are yet to come. We have potential for it and we always feel support of the country's sports community behind us.
Written by Amanda Turner Wednesday, 26 February 2014 17:14
Fresh off her gig as an NBC correspondent at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin is back in the U.S. and already promoting gymnastics. Pictured: Liukin leapt from summer Olympic star to winter Olympic correspondent in Sochi
Fresh off her gig as an NBC correspondent at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin is back in the U.S. and already promoting gymnastics. She was in Texas this morning to help announce that next year's American Cup/FIG World All-Around Cup will be held at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
In Sochi, Liukin used her Russian skills and cultural perspective for her "All-Around Sochi" segments, which featured sights and activities not seen in the competitive venues, as well as lessons in figure skating, snowboarding and skiing. "All-Around Sochi" also included interviews with media and sport stars like Matt Lauer, Scott Hamilton and Maria Sharapova.
Liukin getting ready to be on camera in Sochi to get skiing and snowboarding lessons from Jonny Moseley and Todd Harris
Born in Moscow on Oct. 30, 1989, Liukin emigrated to the United States as a toddler with her gymnastics champion parents. Her father, the legendary world and Olympic champion Valeri Liukin, and her mother, world rhythmic champion Anna Kochneva Liukin, began coaching in New Orleans before setting up their own gymnastics club in Plano, Texas.
Liukin grew up in the gym because her parents could not afford a babysitter, and from there her story is well known. She went on to win back-to-back U.S. junior (2003 and 2004) and senior (2005 and 2006) all-around titles, nine world championships medals (four gold) and two American Cup titles (2006 and 2008). At the 2008 Olympic Games, she realized her ultimate dream when she won the all-around gold medal, plus four other medals. Her five medals in one Olympics tied Shannon Miller (1992) and Mary Lou Retton (1984) for the U.S. record in gymnastics.
Established in 1994, the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) just celebrated its 20th anniversary of opening its doors. The club's female stars to date include Olympic all-around champions Liukin and Carly Patterson (2004), plus world medalists Rebecca Bross, Ivana Hong and Hollie Vise. The club also has sent numerous male and female gymnasts on to college scholarships in the NCAA, and former WOGA gymnast Steven Legendre has two world medals to his credit.
In 2012, Liukin became the first reigning Olympic all-around champion to even attempt to make the next Olympic Games since Nadia Comaneci competed in back-to-back Olympics (1976 and 1980). A torn rotator cuff in her shoulder limited her training, but she fought to compete in bars and beam at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Today, Liukin keeps busy as a sophomore at New York University (NYU) majoring in sports management, but also has a keen eye on fashion design, with her own line of leotards from GK. She stays fit for exhibitions, such as the annual Progressive Figure Skating & Gymnastics Spectacular, and recently began doing gymnastics commentary for NBC. She also hosts the annual Nastia Liukin Cup series, which gives pre-elite (Level 10) gymnasts a chance to compete in a big event on the same podium as the American Cup.
IG recently caught up with Liukin, who was busy preparing to commentate on this weekend's Nastia Liukin Cup and AT&T American Cup/FIG World Cup — and as well as writing a six-page paper for NYU — to chat about her Sochi experience, balancing a busy life while attending school and her future plans.
Liukin poses with the Olympic rings in Sochi
IG: Usually we don't see many summer Olympians on camera at the Winter Olympics. How did you get the opportunity to be a correspondent for the Olympics in Sochi?
NL: I was so excited when I was approached by NBC about going to Sochi as a correspondent. I was in London doing a little work for NBC, but I didn't really expect to have the opportunity to go to Sochi, because it was a Winter Olympics. It was an amazing experience meeting and working with some of the best of the best in the TV world.
IG: Did you have to take this semester off from NYU to go to Sochi?
NL: Oh gosh, that's my next challenge! I did not take the semester off. I spoke to my adviser and the dean before I left to figure out the best option for me, since I would be missing the first month of classes. I've always wanted to have a real and normal college experience, so I was planning to take the semester off, because I didn't want to ask for any kind of "special treatment" or paper extensions. But, everyone at NYU has been so helpful, and I have been in contact with my professors while I was in Russia. I tried to do as much reading and studying while in Sochi, but as you can imagine, I didn't have much downtime while I was there.
I went to my first day of classes this week so now I'm playing the catch-up game, which is a little stressful.
IG: How were your Russian skills in Sochi?
NL: It was so helpful being able to speak fluent Russian while in Sochi. A few restaurants only had menus in Russian so I had to order dinners for our whole group sometimes, which was fun trying to explain what all the items were! I did pretend at times I didn't understand Russian (like when a policeman started yelling at me to get off the grass by a stadium where I was trying to take a picture). But other than that little incident my Russian was very helpful.
IG: When you were in Sochi you shared a photo about how much the Olympic rings mean to so many. Can you expand on that?
NL: There's something so incredibly special about those five rings. They were special to me before Beijing because of my dad's achievements, but after Beijing they took on a whole new meaning to me. Every time I see them it reminds me that any dream is attainable, no matter what anyone tells you or the obstacles you have to overcome to achieve that dream. I'm so honored to have been able to be at the Winter Olympic Games and I hope to continue to do so in the future.
Liukin after winning the all-around gold at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing
IG: You did some fun segments and interviews. Which one was your favorite of the segments?
NL: Thank you! I had so much fun brainstorming ideas with my producer. Some were more challenging than others logistically, but we made it all work. I think one of my favorites was when I got to ski and snowboard (click here for link). I grew up skiing but had never tried to snowboard so it was pretty comical at times... We showed the good stuff on TV ;)
IG: The fifth Nastia Cup will be this weekend and it keeps gaining momentum and importance for the girls. What does this competition mean to you?
NL: I honestly cannot believe this is the fifth year of the Nastia Cup. I'm actually in Dallas today to announce that next year's event will be at Cowboys Stadium.... (Is this real life?!) I remember competing at Madison Square Garden in 2008 and winning the American Cup title there, but I can only imagine how amazing it will be next year at the Stadium. It's especially meaningful to me because it's my hometown.
As for the actual competition itself, I can't believe what a little idea has now turned into. Mary Lou Retton's daughter qualified this year... How cool is that?! I love being able to meet all the girls, give them their leotards that I design with GK, and spend as much time as I can with them sharing my experiences and answering their questions. It really is a fun weekend.
IG: Will you be doing the live commentary again for the Nastia Cup and/or the American Cup? Do you get a little nervous with the live announcing?
NL: I will be doing commentating for both events! In 2012 as I finished my competitive career, getting into commentating seemed like such a natural transition for me to stay involved in gymnastics. But on the other side of things, I definitely get a little nervous with live announcing because I still don't have that much experience. I'm so fortunate to work with such an amazing team of producers and talent that are all so willing to share their knowledge with me. I also spend a lot of time watching different competitions on YouTube from different years, because I'm constantly trying to learn more.
IG: You served as the athlete's representative for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) for several years. When you are finished with college, how do you plan to stay involved in gymnastics? Do you think you'll stay involved in USA Gymnastics or maybe go on to an official role with the FIG?
NL: I will absolutely stay involved with USA Gymnastics forever. The organization as a whole has given me so many wonderful opportunities that I could never truly thank them all enough for. Gymnastics has been a part of my life since the day I was born, and although it's not a part of my daily life anymore, I know it will be somehow part of my life forever.
Written by John Crumlish Thursday, 20 February 2014 11:49
Natalia Karamushka: From Soviet Team to Center Stage
Three decades after earning international success as part of the mighty Soviet gymnastics team, Natalia Karamushka is sharing her passion for artistry and creativity as a choreographer for dancers.
Karamushka, Yelena Naimushina (tied for second) next to champion Yelena Davydova at the 1978 Chunichi Cup
Three decades after earning international success as part of the mighty Soviet gymnastics team, Natalia Karamushka is sharing her passion for artistry and creativity as a choreographer for dancers.
Karamushka, a native of Kharkov, Ukraine, achieved her best international results in 1978, competing at both the junior and senior levels. She finished second all-around, first on balance beam and first on floor exercise in that spring's junior European championships; and tied teammate Yelena Naimushina for second place all-around in that fall's Chunichi Cup in Japan. (Soviet Yelena Davydova, who went on to win the 1980 Olympic all-around title, placed first.) Also in 1978 Karamushka placed second all-around, behind Marcia Frederick of the U.S., at the Golden Sands International in Bulgaria; and third all-around at the Kosice International in Czechoslovakia. She placed 10th all-around at the 1980 USSR Championships.
After Karamushka retired from competition, she studied dance. She has been working as a choreographer for studio, stage and television performances in Belgium and her home country. She is currently based in her hometown.
Karamushka admits that the mandates of contemporary gymnastics require an emphasis on risk, but she is adamant that today's competitors and coaches can still learn from the aesthetic mastery that she and her Soviet teammates demonstrated so many years ago. IG recently spoke with Karamushka about the importance of choreography in her life, and its relevance to current gymnastics.
Karamushka today as a dance instructor in her native Ukraine
IG: You did not become a gymnastics coach, as do many former gymnasts, but instead chose to become a choreographer. What led you from sports to choreography?
NK: I tied up my sports career in 1980. I left elite gymnastics because of my back injury. I fell from the uneven bars during one of the trainings prior the USSR Championship that took place in Minsk, prior the Olympic Games in Moscow. Having missed the Olympic Games, I was alone for a long time, and could not find myself, as I was really uptight. I think this feeling is familiar to each athlete, when your cherished dream and efforts fall to the ground in a few moments! For five years, I simply lived an ordinary life, without sports.
One day, listening to music, I suddenly felt something inside, and my memories came alive. I remembered everything - our trainings, our choreography, my girlfriends on the USSR national team, our wonderful coaches and choreographers who were with us, and my favorite thing, gymnastics. I understood that I would return, and this was my goal – that my life would be dedicated to sports and dance. I was far away from sports for five years. Big changes started in our country, and they concerned not only economic and political spheres, but also elite sports. No one needed our knowledge and achievements. There were no conditions for trainings, there were no gyms... Many coaches started emigrating, and I happened to be alone. I also lost contact with my coach, Valentin Valentinovich Shumovsky.
But, in my time on the USSR national team, I had the opportunity to observe and train with outstanding coaches and choreographers. I had the pleasure of seeing these wonderful realizations of floor exercise routines, and these wonderful images and storylines which were created by these talented and outstanding choreographers for us Soviet gymnasts. It was always pleasant to me. I loved music and dance very much, so therefore I decided to start working as a choreographer. I received an offer to work with dancers in ballroom-dance sport, and I understood this was my role, to work in the field of sports dance. I started making compositions, including gymnastics elements and acrobatics, and working with classical choreography, demi-classic, sports aerobics and modern jazz. I can tell you certainly that I am an expert in these kinds of dance.
Natalia Karamushka as a gymnast for the Soviet team
IG: Gymnastics today is more difficult than when you competed, but many people think gymnastics of the past was more beautiful than gymnastics of today. How do you think the former beauty can be restored, considering the demands of current rules for difficulty?
NK: Yes, I see now that gymnastics has changed very much, and certainly the rules, too. Gymnastics became full of difficult elements that do not always correspond with the beauty and grace of this beautiful sport. My opinion is that I would keep the performance of difficult elements on two apparatuses – vault and bars. I would make more graceful exercises and acrobatic elements on the beam. As for floor exercise, each gymnast has to have excellent choreography, musicality, self-actualization, femininity and identity. I would like to see beautiful gymnastics, and to enjoy this fine sport.
IG: In your opinion, what kind of dance training, and how much of it per week, is needed to perform best on beam and floor?
NK: I think that modern gymnasts need to practice different kinds of choreography to achieve good results. This is includes classic at the ballet barre, demi-classic and various dancing performances. They should pay much attention to artistry, flexibility and musicality. You can reach all this by practicing every day no less than two hours.
IG: What was it like choreographing in Belgium, and why did you return to Ukraine?
NK: Belgium is a wonderful country, and I liked being there very much. I went by invitation, to consider the working conditions. But I think I am more requested in Ukraine than in Belgium. Nevertheless, I am always looking for new opportunities for works with people. It is always interesting, and gives the chance to develop as a choreographer and person. This experience gives me much for development and self-improvement.
IG: Outside of choreographing, what are your goals as a dancer?
NK: I am in professional activity all my life, but before I never thought of dancing. Now I have a huge desire to "Come on and dance!" My dream is to get on a show or in a competition. Unfortunately, there are political changes in my country. I would like to perform very much, but I don't know where, and how to achieve the dream. If my dream came true, I would be immensely happy.
IG: How much contact do you have with your former teammates?
NK: Now we are on different sides of the world, but we continue to communicate by means of the Internet. Despite the years and distances, we continue to support each other. My closest friends are Masha Filatova, Natasha Shaposhnikova, Natasha Yurchenko, Tanya Arzhannikova, Lena Davydova, Valeria Zhidunova and many others.
IG: What moments in your gymnastics life were the most joyful?
NK: Music and gymnastics were my love since earliest childhood. All my first steps, success and failures, and the first correctly done elements are moments of my happiness. I remember my trainings and competitions. From the first march onto the gymnastics podium to the last performances, I have great feelings of pleasure and happiness. It was wonderful!
IG: What can today's coaches and gymnasts learn from the Soviet style of gymnastics?
NK: Soviet gymnastics was unique. The Soviet gymnasts were welcomed and loved all over the world. Their performances were notable for sensuality, musicality and emotionality. I wish this to the modern gymnasts.
Solo dance from former gymnast Natalia Karamushka in her studio
International Gymnast magazine's recent features on Soviet gymnastics include:
"Rebuilding Brazil" – Alexander Alexandrov interview (January/February 2013) Nikolai Andrianov tribute (May 2011) Leonid Arkayev interview (July/August 2011) Leonid Arkayev/International GymnasticsHall of Fame induction feature (June 2011) "Catching up with Irina Baraksanova (July/August 2010) Lyubov Burda Andrianova interview and IGHOF induction feature (June 2013) Albert Azaryan//Hall of Fame induction feature (June 2013) "True Original" – Yelena Davydova update (July/August 2010) "Catching up with Natalia Frolova" – feature (November 2011) "Good Karma" – Natalia Kalinina update (July/August 2013) "Forty Years Later" – Olga Korbut update Yuri Korolyov interview and IGHOF induction feature (June 2013) Larisa Latynina tribute (October 2012) "Athlete Retreat" – Vitaly Marinitch/US Olympic Training Center feature (October 2011) "The Artist" – Valentin Mogilny update (June 2012) "Pipe Dream" – Alexander Pogorelov update (September 2010) "Angular Precision" – Elvira Saadi update (April 2013) "Perfect Harmony" – Yelena Sazonenkova update (January/February 2013) Natalia Shaposhnikova/IGHOF induction feature (June 2012)
After helping make British gymnastics history at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Jennifer Pinches is taking on unplanned new challenges as a freshman gymnast at UCLA.
Pinches competing for UCLA
Pinches, a member of the British team that finished a historical-best sixth place at the London Games, returned to competition in January at the start of the NCAA season. She enrolled at UCLA last fall, after a year away from gymnastics training during which time she did volunteer work in Ecuador and developed a best-selling mobile game application.
Born May 25, 1994, in Turnbridge Wells, England, Pinches was a key member of the British team in the last Olympic cycle. Among other accomplishments as a junior, she placed second all-around at the 2007 Olympic Hopes meet in the Czech Republic, and 10th at the 2009 European Youth Olympic Festival in Finland.
Pinches competed at the 2010 World Championships in Rotterdam, where she finished 32nd all-around in qualifications and seventh with her team. She was 37th all-around and fifth with her team at the 2011 Worlds in Tokyo, and 21st all-around in qualifications at the 2011 European Championships in Berlin.
In British Championships competition, Pinches placed third all-around in 2011; and second all-around, first on balance beam and second on vault in 2012. She was second at the 2011 English Championships and first at the 2012 English Championships.
Pinches placed 21st in qualifications at the 2012 London Olympics, where her teammates included her City of Liverpool club training partners Beth Tweddle, Hannah Whelan and Rebecca Tunney. Imogen Cairns, the other member of the British team in London, was coached by Pinches’s first coach, Liz Kincaid.
IG spoke with Pinches following UCLA’s meet against Arizona State University in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, where she competed on vault and performed an exhibition floor exercise.
IG: What did you do between the time you finished competing in London and the time you decided to come to UCLA?
JP: I felt I was finished with my Elite career. I’d achieved everything I’d always hoped to achieve, so I was really happy with that. I couldn’t finish on a better high than at the London Olympics in my home country. I wanted to do some other things. My cousin and I went to Ecuador for two months, and we did loads of volunteer work for a company called Camps International. We built playgrounds for kids, worked in rescue aquariums and taught English. We also did activities I couldn’t do before because I might get injured. I went mountain-biking, climbed a mountain and went snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands. It was crazy. I did that and settled down for a little bit. I had a little time to relax (laughs), then went back to school and did my A-levels (exams for university acceptance).
IG: When did get the idea to return to gymnastics at UCLA?
JP: I was on holiday with my family, and Miss Val (UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field) sent me an email. I knew her through (British teammate and UCLA sophomore) Danusia (Francis), and thought, “Why not? I’ve had a good break, so why not come to college and see what it’s like?” It’s not something I thought about before, but after that break, which I felt I really needed, I was like, “OK, let’s go to L.A. Sounds like fun!”
IG: How long was it from the last time you set foot in a gym till you got the email?
JP: I hadn’t trained at all since the Olympics. Val contacted me last spring. It was actually quite last-minute for me, because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get my visa in time, and there was a lot of paperwork to be done. I came on my official (recruiting) visit a few weeks before I actually started. It was all kind of rushed, but coming here was something I couldn’t say no to. It’s obviously an amazing university and a group of inspirational people.
IG: It’s one thing to get back into shape, but another to get back into competitive shape. How challenging has that been for you?
JP: Clearly I had a lot of time off, and I wasn’t thinking about doing gymnastics again, so I wasn’t thinking about staying flexible or fit or anything. I started training properly again when I got here, in September. It took about two months to get some skills back that were reasonable. I’m still getting fit now. It didn’t help that I broke the fourth toe on my right foot just before Christmas. That was annoying. I had gotten nearly everything back, so I’m back at the stage where I almost have everything back and I’m just coming back to fitness. Hopefully in the next few meets I’ll b able to do more.
IG: What do you think of your progress on vault and floor so far, especially after the broken toe?
JP: Any little setback is annoying. I’m still trying to get back into the shape I was in. I know my vault can be better and my floor can be better, but gladly it’s still good enough where I can go out and compete for the team. I’ve competed twice (this season) on floor, both times as exhibition, but hopefully soon I will compete for a score that counts.
IG: How satisfied are you with your current tumbling passes (1-1/2 twist through to double twist; double tuck, punch stag jump; double pike)?
JP: At the Olympics I did a 1-1/2 twist through to a triple twist, so my tumbling is not quite back yet.
IG: Do you think you’ll get the triple twist back?
JP: You never know. I’m getting better all the time. Maybe I’ll do a 2-1/2 twist, and a full-in, which I also did at the Olympics. I’ve done the double tuck-stag jump for a long time. But I feel quite confident that I can bring some good routines to the team soon.
IG: How are things coming on bars and beam?
JP: My beam is also good. I broke my toe on the beam, on a dismount. It was one of those fluke, one-off things where my toe was just on the edge of the beam, and when I jumped on it, it fractured a bit. I just need to get my beam dismount back, and I’m ready to go on beam. On bars, it’s just getting my dismount. So I’m so close to where I want to be, but there’s still a bit more work to do.
IG: How are you getting yourself mentally back into competitive mode?
JP: I feel I haven’t really lost it. We do a lot of mental work, because obviously your mind needs to train as much as your body. They both need to be equally very strong to put out a good routine under pressure in competition. I just want to go out and enjoy it, and perform. I feel it’s been something I’ve been able to carry on doing.
IG: How has the adjustment to life in the U.S been, culturally?
JP: It’s definitely taken some getting used to. I had a lot to learn when I came here, including how stuff works here. Even some of little vocabulary issues, where I’ll say something and someone will go, “What did you say?” And I say, “Sorry, I didn’t realize that was an English expression.” Things are settling OK. It’s more different than I thought it would be, but I’m really enjoying it.
IG: What is your course load like this quarter?
JP: I’m taking psychology, sociology and Scandinavian literature. We wanted to make sure we had easier schedules during the season so we weren’t overly stressing about hard classes and competing.
IG: What is your major?
JP: I want to be a psychology major. I like the way it’s a mixture between science and almost like the art side of explaining things. I’m good at writing but I like the biological side of it, too, so I think it’s a really good combination.
IG: How did you develop the game app?
JP: I’m always up for new challenges. My boyfriend (in England) is a computer programmer, so we just thought, “Why not? Let’s make an app!” Everyone wants apps, and everyone has an iPhone these days, so we made an iOS (mobile operating system) called Laser Chambers. It’s a strategy game where you have to move things about to get to the next room. There are all these rooms, and there’s a story with it. It was just really fun to make and another little project to do. We got quite a lot of success out of it, as well. I think it was number one in 16 countries at one point. It’s 69 pence, or $.99 in the U.S. It took us a while to make.
IG: What thought are you giving to developing more of them?
JP: That would be cool. We learned a lot doing it, so if we made another one, there are definitely things we could do better. It was a lot of fun, but hey – if it made us some money and we can do it better next time, maybe we can make some more money (laughs).
IG: What did you get from your experience in London?
JP: It exceeded all of my expectations. Initially, when I was younger, I thought it would be bad (laughs) because it was in my home country, because I love traveling. But as I got older, I thought how amazing it would be in front of the home crowd. But going there and experiencing it was a whole new world, literally. There is nothing else like it, and it will stay with me forever. I’m really proud of how everyone on our team did, and I wouldn’t change it at all.
IG: What do you think of the current British team?
JP: I feel the juniors and new seniors are going to be so successful. They’re doing so well already. I’m so excited for them to get on the senior scene, and hopefully continue the legacy that we’ve built upon for Great Britain. I feel we’re improving all the time, and it’s really exciting for me to keep up with them at home and seeing how they’re continuing to improve.
IG: Danusia competed at last summer’s University Games in Kazan. What thought are you giving to future international competitions?
JP: I felt I was finished with my Elite career after the Olympic Games, so I feel that’s a chapter I’ve closed. I’m really enjoying competing in college, but I’m not sure if I’m committed enough to go back in and put myself back on the Elite scene again.
IG: You retired from international competition at 18, which is young, so it seems you could return to international gymnastics if you wanted…
JP: That’s why I was able to have however long off and still come back and do college gymnastics. Gymnasts like Oksana Chusovitina and Beth Tweddle are proving that you don’t have to be that young to be a good gymnast. I’m just happy competing for UCLA right now, and enjoying the experience. I’m really grateful to be given this opportunity, for Miss Val to have considered me to come here even though I’d had so much time off, and just being accepted and welcomed into this team. Every single person on the team has a champion quality to them, which hopefully we’re going to let shine for the national championship. I’m really grateful to be here, and to my old coaches back home. They set me off and gave me the past experience that meant I could then come to do things like this.
International Gymnast magazine's recent coverage of British gymnasts and coaches includes:
"Shooting Star" – Brinn Bevan profile (June 2013)
Imogen Cairns and British men's team on cover photo collage (March 2012)
"No Turning Back Now" – Imogen Cairns profile (January/February 2012)
"10 Questions with Coach Paul Hall" – interview (January/February 2010)
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