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Written by John Crumlish    Thursday, 20 February 2014 11:49    PDF Print
Natalia Karamushka: From Soviet Team to Center Stage
(13 votes, average 4.08 out of 5)



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)

To subscribe or order back issues, click here.

 
Written by John Crumlish    Tuesday, 11 February 2014 09:30    PDF Print
Jennifer Pinches: From British Olympian to UCLA Bruin
(6 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

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)

"European Brilliance" - Ruby Harrold interview (September 2013)

Sam Oldham on cover photo collage (July/August 2010)

Sam Oldham interview (June 2010)

"Nervous Purvis" – Daniel Purvis profile (November 2012)

"Pure Purvis" – Daniel Purvis interview (March 2012)

Daniel Purvis cover photo (November 2011)

"Bright for Britain" – Niamh Rippin profile (July/August 2010)

"Sibling Revelry" – Angel and Venus Romaeo profile (September 2010)

"Welsh Wisdom" - Raer Theaker profile (October 2013)

"Divide and Conquer" – Kristian Thomas interview (May 2012)

"The Good Shepherd" – Coach Ed van Hoof interview (April 2013)

"Lord Max" – Max Whitlock interview (June 2013)

"Lilleshall: Backstage in Britain" – cover story on British national program (November 2011)

To subscribe or order back issues, click here.

 
Written by dwight normile    Friday, 07 February 2014 10:17    PDF Print
Rebuilding Brazil: Alexandrov's Latest Challenge
(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

The current issue of International Gymnast includes an in-depth interview with Alexander Alexandrov, whose coaching genius has been well documented but often overlooked. But that could be due to his mild manner, which does not lend itself to self-promotion. The success of his gymnasts has always proved a more effective advertisement for his talent.

The photo-collage here comprises a handful of his champions: Dimitry Bilozerchev and Valentin Mogilny in 1983; the 1989 world champion Soviet women's team; 1994 U.S. junior champion Dominique Moceanu; and, of course, 2010 world all-around champion Aliya Mustafina, who won the most women's medals (4) at the 2012 Olympics, including the uneven bars gold.

Under Alexandrov, the 2012 Russian women's Olympic team won six medals in London, more than any other country. But somehow this led to Alexandrov's dismissal as head coach and eventual move to Brazil. Following are notes and excerpts from the interview with the 64-year-old Alexandrov, who candidly answered our questions while visiting his wife, Tatiana, and two children, Sergey and Anastacia (both married), all of whom live in Houston.

How did Alexandrov get involved in gymnastics?

The Central Soviet Army Club (CSKA), which had produced the famous Viktor Klimenko, was looking for potential gymnasts. Alexandrov (around 8 years old at the time) and some buddies, all of whom wanted to be like Klimenko, played hooky from school and went to the club to try out.

"From around five to six kids, the coaches picked me and another boy, so this is how I started gymnastics. I received a Master of Sport designation, and then went to Institute. After graduating, I decided to stay in the sport that I learned to love so much, and went to work as a coach in my club, CSKA, where I was a gymnast for so many years."

What went wrong with the plan to rebuild Russian gymnastics after the 2008 Beijing Olympics?

"One of the main problems Russia has today is the fact that there is practically no reserve. Andrei Rodionenko does not agree with this point of view and these measures, so there is very little retention to this day. I think that as long as the Rodionenkos (Andrei and wife Valentina) are in charge … rebuilding the Russian program will be very problematic."

Why was Alexandrov held accountable for the failures of other gymnasts on the 2012 Olympic team, such as Anastasia Grishina. Did they not have personal coaches?

"Those coaches who supported the Rodionenkos and their criticism toward me unfortunately did not always do their job thoroughly … For example, Sergey Zelikson, who was the personal coach of Grishina … was training by his own program and not necessarily at national training camps. Somehow he was able to convince the Rodionenkos that his way was correct and was promising to 'rip the competition apart' at the London Olympics.

"I think everyone saw what happened at the Olympic Games, but for some reason no one was criticizing Zelikson or the fact that a talented gymnast like Grishina did not compete well … Somehow I ended up the one to be blamed, while Zelikson had the audacity to criticize me at our staff meetings."

How was Alexandrov's relationship with Andrei Rodionenko in the 1980s?

Alexandrov always got along well with Rodionenko, but when Alexandrov was promoted to head women's coach after the 1988 Olympics, he essentially replaced Rodionenko.

"I was very sensitive to this transition between Andrei and I, and I think that I acted like a gentleman trying to ease things as much as possible … Things were fine between us at first, but after some time I started to notice that we stopped seeing eye to eye … Then he and his wife left for Australia, so this is how we parted."

Does the Russian gymnastics program receive the same financial support that it it did in the 1980s?

"There have been several new gyms opening throughout the country with brand new equipment, which is wonderful. The Round Lake training facility is truly one of the best in the world. So it actually feels like, today, Russian gymnastics may have more substantial financing than in the ’80s."

Did Alexandrov consider returning to the U.S. to coach, and what made him choose Brazil?

He says he had several offers from different countries, including the U.S. "My decision was mainly based on the offer that was most interesting to me, work-wise." Alexandrov says that Oleg Ostapenko, who returned to Brazil after initially joining the rebuilding effort in Russia, was one of the reasons he chose to go to Brazil himself. "Oleg and I worked together during USSR times and during Russian Federation times and always were able to have a good relationship and to find common ground … Oleg had already worked in Brazil for some time … Having a shoulder to lean on when everything around is new is great and very helpful."

Is Rebeca Andrade one of the hopefuls for Rio 2016?

Alexandrov says she "is a talented gymnast and has the potential to be very good" but prefers not to name names just yet.

How will Alexandrov improve the Brazilian team, which barely qualified for the 2012 Olympics?

"The main challenge is to raise the overall discipline and to unite the parties in charge of gymnastics and also the coaching staff." Alexandrov added that a new gym will open in Rio in the spring, and the women's national team will train there.

How does Alexandrov view women's gymnastics today, when most gymnasts are concerned only with raising their difficulty?

"Yes, there are problems today between difficulty and artistry." Alexandrov says he thinks the FIG Women's Technical Committee should meet with working coaches, choreographers, etc., to solicit their ideas on how to improve the Code of Points. "Surely, collectively, we can come up with agreeable solutions that will benefit both the artistry and difficulty."

What are Alexandrov's plans after Rio?

"To be honest, I really don't think about it yet."

To read the full interview in the January/February 2014 issue of IG, subscribe here.

 
Written by dwight normile    Wednesday, 29 January 2014 10:20    PDF Print
10 Things To Know About Kenzo Shirai
(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

To describe Kenzo Shiral's 2013 world title on floor exercise, you will need plenty of superlatives. At 17, he was the youngest men's champion in Antwerp. His 0.4 margin of victory was the largest of all the apparatus finals, men and women. And his 0.60 margin of D-score superiority over the next highest floor finalist (Steven Legendre, 6.8) was the greatest on any event, as well. His floor gold also included the most twists (22.25) and fewest double somersaults (zero).

The January/February issue of International Gymnast includes a candid interview, "Twist of Fate," with Shirai, but following are some interesting tidbits about Japan's talented young star.

1) Was he nervous in the Antwerp world final? Heck no. He said the last time he got nervous in a meet was in elementary school. Once he got to junior high, and competed in more meets, he was never nervous again.

2) How old was he when he learned his now famous quad twist? 14. "I am small and light, so my twisting skill is better than multiple salto skill."

3) How long did it take to learn? Two months. "At first, I didn't imagine a quad twist because my role model … never did one."

4) Who is his role model? Kohei Uchimura.

5) His D-score in Antwerp was 7.4. What is he working on to improve his floor? He says he's focusing on his E-score right now.

6) How did he get involved in gymnastics? He had no choice. His parents are gymnastics coaches and his two older brothers are gymnasts. "It is a gymnastics family," he said.

7) What's his favorite social media platform? Twitter (today, he has 4,450 followers).

8) What is his musical preference? "Turn Me On by David Guetta is my favorite."

9) How does he chill out? By eating chips. "They are cheap so I can eat many … I think the time I use to eat them is relaxing."

10) Can Japan win the team title at the 2014 Nanning World Championships? "I can't think about the result before I become a team member."

 
Written by John Crumlish    Tuesday, 21 January 2014 08:55    PDF Print
UCLA's Larson Faces Life After Gymnastics
(20 votes, average 4.75 out of 5)

Recently retired U.S. gymnast Mattie Larson told IG she is eager for new challenges outside the gym, but plans to stay involved in the sport that defined her for so many years.

During Larson's international career, she trained under coaches Galina Marinova and Artur Akopyan at All Olympia Gymnastics Center in her hometown of Los Angeles. Larson gained global popularity for the finesse and charisma of her performances. She placed first on floor exercise and second all-around at the 2010 Visa (U.S.) Championships, and was a member of the silver medal-winning U.S. team at the 2010 World Championships in Rotterdam. NBC News-owned site TheGrio.com named Larson among its list of "100 History Makers in the Making" during Black History Month in February 2011.

Larson left elite competition in 2011 and enrolled at UCLA, where she competed under coaches Valorie Kondos Field and Chris Waller. Last March she dislocated her left knee and suffered a partially broken patella. The injury, Larson says, was one factor which prompted her retirement, but not the only one. In this IG Online interview conducted at UCLA on Jan. 19, Larson details her decision, reflects on her accomplishments and outlines her upcoming agenda.


IG: Why exactly did you decide to retire?

ML: I think it was a whole process since I've been at UCLA. I've known Miss Val (Kondos Field) and Chris since I was about 7, and they've known that, yes, I've had a lot of success in gymnastics, but it's taken an emotional toll. It's not an easy sport. My process here at UCLA made me feel that I could finally have a voice and make decisions for myself. For a while, I think I was ready to move on, and they finally gave me the chance to do so. I couldn't imagine making this decision anywhere else or at any other time. I finally got clarity.


Mattie Larson, who recently retired from competitive gymnastics

IG: How much did last year's knee injury impact your decision to retire?

ML: I didn't plan on retiring at the point of my injury, but I think the injury gave me a very new perspective of the team, and I got to see it as a non-competitor, from someone who helps out and supports people rather than thinking about my gymnastics. That also might have impacted my decision of coming back next year as being a team manager. I love the team so much, but it was competing in gymnastics that I was ready to move on from, not the UCLA gymnastics program.

IG: How much of the decision was based on other factors?

ML: For so long I was the kind of gymnast who kind of had trouble getting "up" for practice and training, but loved performing. I tried to show that through my gymnastics. I think what got me to my point (of deciding to retire) was that, yes, training was the same, but I didn't have that same spark when I was performing and I just didn't look forward to it anymore. That's what brought me joy, and it wasn't (joy) anymore. I made the decision pretty recently - just before winter break, about a month ago.

IG: What is your plan for transitioning from being a gymnast this year?

ML: Miss Val has given me such a great opportunity to not define myself just as a gymnast anymore, because that's what I've been doing my whole life basically. I come and go in the gym all the time. I live with three other gymnasts and two girls on the diving team. I'm still really involved with my friendships but not the actual (doing gymnastics). I'm doing stuff with the team, but not managerial things this year. (Kondos Field) thought it was really important that, if I do retire, that I take this year to see what else is out there and what else I like.

IG: Now that you are thinking about life outside of doing gymnastics, what are you focusing on in terms of life beyond school?

ML: I just got into my major this year – psychology. I'd love to be a psychiatrist, but the whole graduate school thing is not easy (laughs). So I don't know what I want to do after I finish school, but I'm finally taking classes that are more involved with psychology. I love it. My childhood development class is my favorite class right now. I would love to get outside the realm of sports. I would always like to work with things like substance addiction. I'd love to be a psychiatrist. I don't know...there's a lot you can do with psychology.

IG: Have you had any regrets about your decision to retire?

ML: Right now it's very fresh, but definitely not. I still think I'm in the phase that "Wow, I'm actually done with gymnastics. I don't have to go in the gym and warm up..." It's all new right now. I didn't want to make the decision until I was 100 percent sure I wouldn't have regrets, and I think that's why it took me so long. I could have retired last year, or even before coming to UCLA, but there was no clarity. I was very, very sure I wouldn't have regrets, and I'm pretty positive I won't.


Larson on beam for UCLA

IG: How much of a relief is it for you, physically and emotionally?

ML: It's different, like not waking up at a certain time every morning and preparing for practice and meets. Gymnastics is so structured. It's weird not having that structure. I do like structure, so I'll probably find structure in some other way. It's nice. I feel that some weight is off my shoulders, especially because this decision has been weighing on my mind for so long. It feels nice. It feels like I can take a deep breath.

IG: Looking back, what are the most memorable moments of your career?

ML: I think the 2010 nationals (U.S. championships) was a great meet for me. I felt so much joy at that meet. That was the first time that, more on a national-scene level, people got to see that I had worked really hard to get to that level. I'm going to miss all of the silly things with all the girls on the national team. I made best friendships, and I'm going to miss that kind of thing.

IG: What are you taking with you from gymnastics?

ML: I definitely think that, if I hadn't done gymnastics, I wouldn't have become as strong a person. I think that it's shown me that, if I want something, I can work really hard and get it. It's taught me so much. I love that elite (international) gymnastics taught me discipline, and UCLA gymnastics taught me how much I love working with a community.

IG: What do you hope you've left to gymnastics?

ML: I really hope I've left a legacy where I loved to infuse the dance aspect of gymnastics. Every coach I've had, growing up, really enforced artistry. I think that's so important with gymnastics, because it's artistic gymnastics, and sometimes people lose sight of that. I hope people remember that I really liked to put a lot of thought into the little details, and I really cared about my performances.

Like I said, training wasn't where I shined. I loved to shine in performances. I really think it's because of the fans in the audience. If nobody was there, I don't think I would have enjoyed performing. I hope people remember me as a performer, and the fact that, if I didn't have people cheering for me, I don't think I would have enjoyed it for as long as I did.

IG Magazine Related Features:
"Rebound" – Larson interview (March 2011)
2010 World Championships special issue (January/February 2011)
2010 U.S. Championships coverage (September 2010)
"All for One" – All Olympia team feature (July/August 2009)
"Meet a Real Show-stopper" – Larson junior profile (November 2005)

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