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Written by John Crumlish    Wednesday, 23 April 2014 10:48    PDF Print
IG Interview: Ava Verdeflor (Philippines)
(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Following her 12th-place all-around finish at this month's Junior Asian Championships in Tashkent, Ava Verdeflor of the Philippines is preparing to take some of the world's best young gymnasts at this summer's Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing. Pictured: Coach Wu Guonian, gymnast Tristan Lopez, Gymnastics Association of the Philippines President Cynthia Carrion, Verdeflor and her coach Natasha Boyarskaya.

Following her 12th-place all-around finish at this month's Junior Asian Championships in Tashkent, Ava Verdeflor of the Philippines is preparing to take some of the world's best young gymnasts at this summer's Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.

Ava Verdeflor (Philippines)

Verdeflor earned a berth to the Games through her performance at the Junior Asian Championships — held April 10-13 in Tashkent — where she placed 12th despite problems on uneven bars.

Tristan Lopez, another Philippine team member who trains in the United States, also competed in Tashkent in the men's competition. Lopez trains with Chinese legend Wu Guonian at New Hope Gymnastics in California.

Born Jan. 2, 1999, in Tarlac, Philippines, Verdeflor immigrated with her family to Singapore when she was two months old, and then moved to California in 2002. She began taking recreational gymnastics classes at age 6 at Pegasus Gymnastics in Milpitas. Pegasus closed a few months later, at which time she began training at Airborne Gymnastics in Santa Clara.

In 2006 Verdeflor and her family moved to Allen, Texas. There, upon the recommendation of her Airborne coaches, she successfully tried out for World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) in Plano.

Verdeflor's first coach at WOGA, Natasha Boyarskaya, remains her coach on balance beam and floor exercise. For the past four years Laurent Landi has been coaching her on vault and uneven bars. Nataliya Marakova has choreographed all of her floor exercise routines.

Verdeflor, who placed first all-around in the junior division at last year's Philippines National Games, began competing internationally for the Philippines this year. In this IG Online interview, Verdeflor describes her plans for performing well for her native country, starting with her performance in Tashkent and thinking ahead to the Youth Olympics.

Verdeflor in Taskhent with six-time Olympian Oksana Chusovitina

IG: Congratulations on not only your performances in Tashkent, but on qualifying for the Youth Olympic Games. What specifically pleased you about each of these accomplishments?

AV: Competing at the Junior Asian Championships was a learning experience for me. It was not as smooth as I wanted it to be. We were waiting for approval of TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) for my medicine for my back and ankles. We did not receive the approval until April 17, so I was not able to take my medication until after the competition. My back was hurting and my ankles were swollen the night before the competition.

My first event was vault, so we decided to just do one vault instead of two, because if I hurt my ankles further, I might not be able to do the other events. I pulled on my Jaeger and my Achilles' (tendon) got hooked on the bars, so I panicked, lost my rhythm and fell on my overshoot and dismount. But I am very thankful that I was able to recover and did well on my last two events, beam and floor, and still be able to qualify to the Youth Olympic Games despite the mistakes on bars.

IG: The Junior Asian Championships was your biggest test yet, but now you are preparing to take on the world's best young gymnasts in Nanjing this summer. What will your plan be for making your routines as difficult and consistent as they can be?

AV: I went back to my doctor when we got back from Tashkent. I will be doing physical therapy for my ankles, and continue my back exercises. As my back and ankles get better, my coaches will gradually put back the skills we removed from my program, and maybe add a few more. Our priority right now is to keep me healthy for the Youth Olympics.

IG: When and how did you come to the decision to start competing for the Philippines?

AV: My parents are both from the Philippines, and the idea of competing for the Philippines has always been there from the beginning. We first got in touch with GAP (Gymnastics Association of the Philippines) when I was 11 years old. I was still too young to be on the team, but we went to the gym in Manila just to meet with the GAP president and the national team coach. I met the girls team and trained with them for a few days. In May 2013, I participated in the Philippine National Games, which was also the national ranking. I was able to get gold in the all-around and secure my spot on the national team.

IG: How do you view yourself among your Philippines teammates, considering that you train far away from them?

Verdeflor on floor exercise in 2014

AV: I was able to bond with them when I trained with them in May 2013 during the Philippine National Games. We keep in touch through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I'm excited to see them again this May when I go back to the Philippines for this year's Philippine National Games. But I will not be competing at the Philippine National Games this year, because I need to rest my back and ankles. I will be there to cheer my team on.

IG: How are you and your WOGA coaches coordinating your training with the national team coaches in the Philippines?

AV: GAP lets my WOGA coaches decide whatever is best for my program. Whenever I go back to Manila to train with the Philippines team, my WOGA coaches send a plan for my training, and that plan is what we follow.

IG: When and how often will you be traveling to the Philippines to train?

AV: I go there once a year, for about a week, for the Philippine National Games.

IG: The Philippines has not been well known in gymnastics, but you are already giving the country a lot of hope for not only Nanjing, but the big competitions leading to the 2016 Olympics. What is your perspective on the part you are playing for the success of the Philippines gymnastics program?

AV: I am hoping to promote gymnastics in the Philippines. My dream is to be able to win medals for the Philippines and maybe inspire more girls to take on the sport. Right now, the Philippines are not well known for gymnastics, but with the help of my coaches and the support of GAP, I am hoping to change that in the near future.

International Gymnast magazine's recent coverage of Asian gymnasts includes:

Deng Linlin two-page center poster (April 2013)
He Kexin cover photo (January/February 2010)
Huang Huidan two-page center poster (March 2014)
"Unbelievable" – Li Ning feature (June 2011)
Liu Yang two-page center poster (December 2013)
Tan Sixin cover photo, 14-page photo feature on IG's visit to Chinese national training center (June 2011)
Yao Jinnan on cover photo collage (July/August 2012)

Hong Kong
"Ready to Rock" – Wai Hung Shek profile (July/August 2012)
"Hope for Hong Kong" – Angel Wong profile (January/February 2011)

"Routine Maestro" – profile on Code of Points illustrator Koichi Endo (March 2010)
Yuya Kamoto cover photo, 2010 Youth Olympic Games coverage (October 2010)
Natsumi Sasada on cover photo collage (July/August 2010)
"Twist of Fate" – Kenzo Shirai interview (January/February 2014)
"10 Questions with Naoya Tsukahara" – interview (September 2013)
Koko Tsurumi two-page center poster (October 2010)
"Virtuoso!" - Kohei Uchimura profile (April 2010)
Kohei Uchimura cover photo and center poster, 2011 World Championships special issue (December 2011)
"10 Questions with Kohei Uchimura" – interview (April 2012)
"10 Questions with Shuko Uchimura (Kohei's mother)" interview (July/August 2012)
Kohei Uchimura cover photo, 2013 World Championships special issue (November 2013)

"The Next Step" – Yang Hak Seon interview (October 2013)

"Tracie Ang Takes Aim at 2011" – profile (March 2011)

"Desert Oasis" – feature on IG's visit to Qatar national training center (January/February 2012)

"True to Form" – Lim Heem Wei profile (June 2012)

"Catching up with Irina Baraksanova" – profile and small cover photo (July/August 2010)
"Swing Shift" – Anton Fokin profile (January/February 2012)
"Angular Precision" – Elvira Saadi feature (April 2013)

Phan Thi Ha Thanh cover photo and profile, feature on IG's visit to Vietnamese national training center (January/February 2014)

To order back issues, or subscribe to the print and/or digital edition of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

Written by John Crumlish    Thursday, 17 April 2014 20:20    PDF Print
IG Interview: Cameron MacKenzie (South Africa)
(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Previously a junior hope for Great Britain, South African-born Cameron MacKenzie is eager to represent his home country.

A team gold medalist for Great Britain at the 2010 European Junior Championships, Cameron MacKenzie is eagerly adjusting to the new role, opportunities and challenges he is taking on to represent South Africa, the country of his birth.

MacKenzie was born Nov. 18, 1992, in Humansdorp (close to Jeffreys Bay), but moved to England with his family when he was 9.

MacKenzie helped the British team win gold at the 2010 European Junior Championships in Birmingham, where he finished 10th all-around in qualifications. In British senior all-around competition, MacKenzie placed 12th in 2011, 11th in 2012 and sixth in 2013.

While living in England, MacKenzie trained under coach Paul Hall at Huntingdon Olympic Gymnastics Club, where his training partners included three-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith, 2009 world all-around silver medalist Daniel Keatings and 2012 Olympic team bronze medalist Sam Oldham.

MacKenzie, who was hampered by a wrist injury at last month's African Championships, aims to be at peak form for this summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and this fall's world championships in Nanning.

In this IG Online interview, MacKenzie details his expectations as a potential leader of South African gymnastics.

IG: 2014 is going to be a big year for you, representing your "new" country at the Commonwealth Games and hopefully Worlds. Although you have competed in big events such as the 2010 Junior Europeans, how are you preparing to not only compete well for yourself, but also take on the expectations that South Africa has for you?

MacKenzie at the African championships

CM: 2014 will definitely be a big year for me as far as establishing myself as a South African gymnast, both continentally and globally. Commonwealth Games qualification is by no means a given, but it would be fantastic to compete in the Games, as well as the 2014 World Championships. I think many people are expecting great things from me. I can certainly feel the pressure to perform and produce results. Although I had my fair share of experience as a junior, a three-year break from international events has left me a little nervy and unpracticed. I plan on building my competition experience this year to reach a consistent and stable level of performance, where I can set about achieving my goals as well as those of South Africa's.

IG: When and why did you come to the decision to start representing South Africa?

CM: In 2010 I competed in a junior international in South Africa. It was the first time I had been back to my country of birth since emigrating when I was 9 years old. I ended up winning the competition and remember feeling uneasy as the British anthem played for me – it felt wrong to be flying a different flag in my own country.

Since then the idea that I should be competing for South Africa took root, but it wasn't until early 2013 that I began communications. The benefits were obvious in that I would have a much better chance to compete in international events for South Africa than I would for Great Britain. Everyone I spoke to agreed that it was a good decision, including my coaches and parents, although it was certainly not something which I rushed into.

IG: How have you physically transitioned from training in England to living and training in South Africa?

CM: I'm currently living near Pretoria and training at Centurion Gymnastics Club. I made the decision to move back to South Africa to be fully part of the set-up and team. I'm serious about progressing in my gymnastics career, and believe that moving back to South Africa is an important gesture in order for people to get behind me and to achieve the necessary support. The move means I've had to leave behind one of the best clubs and coaches in the world at Huntingdon, as well as my parents and sister. For now I have no set plans for travelling back and forth for training, but I'm sure I will still be spending time in Huntingdon over the coming years.

IG: How much will Paul Hall be involved in coaching you going forward?

MacKenzie with a young South African gymnast

CM: Paul will continue to help with training programs and advice. My coach here in South Africa is Gerhard Ferreira, and we send videos of my training to Paul, who can then comment and help out. Obviously it's been difficult adapting to new circumstances, but I've been overwhelmed by the help and support I've received so far. And not only here in South Africa but also in England, where two great companies (Paul Lancaster Ltd and QAV-ltd) have taken it upon themselves to support me, and have made a tremendous impact on my career.

IG: What do you think you can bring to the South African team, in terms of not only scoring potential but your leadership skills and your international experience?

CM: I don't consider myself a very experienced gymnast, especially on a senior level. A lot of the South African team have already competed in world championships and are older than I, so my experience is not something which I think will make a big difference to the team. I would primarily look at contributing scores on each apparatus, and being the consistent all-arounder who can help hold the team together during competition through my performance. I'm also looking at ways to bring the team together regularly for training, as we are split among four clubs.

IG: What you can take away from your performance at the African Championships in terms of preparing for the bigger competitions to come in 2014?

CM: Unfortunately I injured my right wrist in the build-up to Africans. X-rays showed that an old fracture became inflamed, which resulted in taking a lot of difficulty out of my routines. I managed to fight through the competition and finished fourth all-around, which was quite a disappointing result when I consider the winning score was certainly within my grasp if I had been fit. However, I was pleased that I was able to contribute towards the team result, and have now participated in an African Championships. If anything, the competition has further motivated me to make sure I'm properly prepared for upcoming events in 2014.

Written by John Crumlish    Sunday, 30 March 2014 21:59    PDF Print
IG Online Interview: Olivia Vivian (Australia)
(8 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

2008 Australian Olympian Olivia Vivian shared her thoughts on her recent international comeback in Doha, and the challenges she faces in the newest stage of her long career. Pictured: The Australian women's squad in Doha - Lauren Mitchell, Vivian, Alexandra Eade and Mary-Anne Monckton

Vivian at the 2013 Australian Championships

2008 Australian Olympian Olivia Vivian's fourth-place finish on uneven bars at the Doha World Challenger Cup on Friday marked her return to international competition, and represented the latest step in her quest to fulfill her gymnastics potential.

Vivian competed at the World Championships for the first time at the 2005 Worlds in Melbourne, where she placed 13th on uneven bars. She was a member of Australia's sixth-place team at the 2006 World Championships and 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and then enrolled at Oregon State University in the U.S.

After competing for Oregon State in the 2009-2012 seasons, Vivian returned to Australia, and placed first on uneven bars at the 2012 and 2013 Australian Championships.

Vivian's fourth-place finish in Doha last weekend reflected what she deemed a "freak mistake," but she still finished 0.05 only shy of the bronze medal. Her score of 12.725 included her Difficulty (D) score of 4.9, which was significantly lower than her D-score of 5.7 in qualifications, where she scored 12.95 to qualify second.

Coached by Martine George and Josh Fabian at the Western Australian Institute of Sport in her hometown of Perth, the 24-year-old Vivian is now aiming for important competitions later this year, including this summer's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and this fall's world championships in Nanning.

Vivian shared her thoughts on Doha, and the challenges she faces in the newest stage of her long career, in this IG Online interview.

IG: What caused the problem you had in the Doha final, and overall, what did your results in Doha show you in terms on your recent progress?

OV: My qualification routine wasn't in any way perfect or to the level I was training at prior the competition, but my D score helped land me a place in finals. In finals I missed my toe-half which lead to me skipping a special requirement. It was a freak mistake that will most likely haunt me for a while! These kinds of mistakes aren't common for me so, it could mean that I might just need a little bit more competition experience, as it's been a while since I've been on the scene. Hopefully I've shaken those rookie nerves and will return to being a solid performer! I can guarantee I won't be missing that same skill in competition again! I might be having nightmares about it for quiet some time!

IG: What led you to return to international competition?

OV: My time at Oregon State University was the best four years of my life, and the coaches and teammates I shared my time with there are the reason I still do it today. They showed me how to love and appreciate this sport for all it is. They taught me to treat competitions like a celebration of all the hard work you put into the gym as an athlete. They are the reason I fell back in love with this sport. I miss them every day and will try to replicate what they taught me in my gymnastics today.

IG: What is your motivation now, as opposed to younger gymnasts who are aiming to make it to their first Olympic Games?

Olivia Vivian

OV: When I was younger my only goal was to be an Olympian. I was naturally talented on the bars but, in all honesty, I wasn't willing to put in 100% in my training and I would just wing it in competition. After Beijing and my time in the States I developed an understanding of hard work and the rewards that come from it, so my goals and the way I approach my training has changed.

I draw my motivation from all areas now instead of one focus to be an Olympian. I do it because I love the uneven bars and I cherish every moment I get to fly, flip and swing like a monkey!

I do it as motivation to others who think there's an age or height limit on gymnastics like I was told. And I do it because it's a sport where you are constantly faced with fears, challenges and opportunities, and I get satisfaction out of overcoming and accomplishing achievements in these areas!

IG: How many hours per week are you training, as compared to while at Oregon State and before Oregon State?

OV: Before I was at OSU I was training 34 hours a week. Then I got to Oregon State and they had a rule of no more than 20 hours a week! I was like "WAHOOOOOO!" I'm now back to 32-34 hours a week but some of those training hours are dedicated to other sorts of training and recovery such as weights, yoga and rehab.

IG: How is gymnastics more challenging for you, and in what ways is it easier for you, in your 20s?

OV: It's easier for me now because I understand the technical side a bit better. I can also stop and appreciate what an amazing sport it really is and the truly incredible things we go through to aim for perfection. It's challenging in ways that I'm not a little skip in this sport anymore, and I have to dedicate more time and importance to recovery and taking care of my body.

IG: What are your specific goals for the rest of 2014, in terms of specific apparatuses and at which competitions?

OV: My passion is the uneven bars, but I would like to get solid, reliable routines on floor and beam for up-and-coming World Cups, Commonwealth Games (in summer) and world championships (in October). With my bars, I want to get an internationally competitive routine that still possesses beautiful quality. We all know that this current Code has forced gymnasts to add extreme difficulty for D scores, but I find it's compromised quality a bit, so I would like to be known for both.

IG: Unlike younger gymnasts you have the challenge of supporting yourself financially while you train. How are you getting by, financially?

OV: I can honestly say I have had extreme difficulty with financial issues in the past couple months, and life got much more complicated after the passing of my father last year. It's extremely stressful and takes focus away from training which then adds further stress, and it ends up being one nasty stress cycle! The Western Australian Institute of Sport and Gymnastics Australia have been working hard to find ways to make things easier, and I give many thanks and gratitude for their support. I work where I can in between training sessions and on the weekends to help support living expenses, but it is hard to get a full-time job because of the required training hours and travel times. I constantly ask myself why I didn't choose a sport like golf or tennis where you get paid to do it, but as all gymnasts know, we do this sport because we love it, and I will continue to try to do so until the day I stop loving it!

International Gymnast magazine's recent coverage of Australian gymnasts includes:
"10 Questions with Olivia Vivian" - interview (March 2011)
"Golden Surprise" - Lauren Mitchell cover story (January/February 2011)
Georgia Godwin cover photo (March 2014)
"Aussie Long Shot" - Daria Joura profile (July/August 2012)
Coach Peggy Liddick interview (January/February 2011)
"Late Bloomer" - Amelia McGrath profile (October 2010)
Lisa Skinner chat (September 2010)
"10 Questions with Naoya Tsukahara" - interview (September 2013)

To order back issues, or subscribe to the print and/or digital edition of International Gymnast magazine, click here.

Written by John Crumlish    Sunday, 16 March 2014 23:45    PDF Print
IG Online Interview: Luke Carson (Ireland)
(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

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)

To subscribe or order back issues, click here.

Written by Amanda Turner    Monday, 03 March 2014 07:42    PDF Print
IG Online Interview: Altay Hasanov (Azerbaijan)
(8 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

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.


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