During the tears and traumas of last week’s Russian Championships, back-to-back Olympic bars champion and mother-to-be Aliya Mustafina was there by her teammates’ side the way she has always been, comforting, wiping away tears, and trying to make them smile.
The leader of the Russian team even back when she was just 16, Mustafina, now 22, has an aura of confidence and calm, making her the mother hen of the girls who look up to her as more than just a teammate. With this her very nature, it makes perfect sense that she’s taking some time away from the sport to focus on her family, though gymnastics is still a big part of her life and she hasn’t yet officially called it quits.
When she wasn’t helping out her younger teammates, being honored as a guest of the competition, or doing commentary for the event finals broadcast this weekend, Mustafina spoke with AiF Kazan about the changes in her life as well as what she thinks about the current state of gymnastics going into the new quad. We’ve been able to translate the interview for you, so check it out below and enjoy!
“I Just Do What I Want”: Aliya Mustafina About Gymnastics and a Break in Her Career, by Artur Mukhin
There have been significant changes in Aliya Mustafina’s life after the Olympics in Rio, where she won three medals (gold, silver, and bronze). Three months after the Games, the athlete married the bobsledder Alexei Zaitsev and is now expecting a child, due in July. In Kazan, Mustafina wore a loose tunic, hiding the shape of her figure, and talked to AiF Kazan about what she’s up to now and whether we’ll see her at the next Olympics.
Aliya, in an interview with AiF following the Olympics, you said Russia has no gymnasts to choose from anymore. Has your opinion changed?
No, it hasn’t. There aren’t many people capable performing at a high level. The problem is that there aren’t many younger children who do our sport, so there is no flow [to the higher ranks].
How can we promote gymnastics? Maybe launch a reality or game show on TV, like Ice Age [Russia’s version of Skating with Celebrities]?
Maybe. But I don’t think that’ll be enough.
What would be right?
People believe that gymnastics is a very dangerous sport. Yes, it is, but I think we need to make it clear to parents that it’s no different from other sports in this sense. Every sport is dangerous. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to send their children to do gymnastics.
We got the feeling that the gymnasts at the Russian Championships are not at full strength, even though this was the qualifying meet for European Championships. Why?
[Last year’s] leaders are still the leaders. But those who participated in the Olympics [Seda Tutkhalyan, Angelina Melnikova, Daria Spiridonova] had to take a break. There’s a whole cycle, and if you don’t take the time off to give your body and mind a chance to relax from all of this, it would be too hard. Not that they didn’t do anything, not exercising at all, no! They trained new elements, but didn’t focus on full routines, just on individual skills. So for them, this is the beginning — the push into the season before moving on.
You are very carefully watching the performances of the girls, and you’re constantly talking to them. About what?
I try to talk to them about all kinds of things. Support, tips, I answer any questions…just companionship. We rarely see each other now. They miss me, I miss them…
Recently, the president of the FIG, Morinari Watanabe, visited Round Lake and said that Russian gymnasts are an example for all. It is noteworthy that his first visit was to Russia…but what about the Americans?
It’s hard to answer for someone else. I guess his view of gymnastics is that it should be not only strong, but beautiful. That’s the result we’re trying to achieve.
Will the Russians be able to beat the Americans at the next Olympics? What do they need?
It’s hard to say. We need to make plans for the years ahead. We need to train, work, add more difficulty.
What’s the key to success — the training or the psychology?
I believe the key to success is still the training. The psychological side of gymnastics, it comes and goes. If gymnasts train, work, and compete, they can overcome [a mental break]. I don’t think gymnasts would [be at this level] without their own desires. If she is here, if she works hard, then she wants it. This is the most important thing.
What kind of relationship do you have with rivals from other teams?
We are only fighting on the podium. Otherwise, we are always friendly, we always congratulate each other. There is no animosity.
Who of the Russian gymnasts are your friends?
I talk to absolutely everyone, not just my teammates. I support everyone as much as possible. I help everyone, if I can. I’m very happy if everything I do has a good effect on the sport as a whole. I can’t say it’s super important for me to do this, but it’s really an integral part of my presence in this sport.
How did your life change after the Olympics?
Absolutely nothing has changed. I am glad there are a lot of people who have become concerned about me, who are interested in my life. But I personally haven’t changed.
Gymnastics comes with injuries. You dealt with them, but each time you returned with even more motivation.
There is always a motivation to return. I was very much helped by the fact that I was always expected to be on the team. I have worked and suffered for the team. But I also had a desire, and I realized it was important to me. If the desire is there, then anything is possible.
An injury introduced you to your husband. You really met in the hospital?
This is true. I actually often think about the fact that this was not just a coincidence, to be in the hospital at the same time. For some time, I had to decide where I would do my operation. Finally, I was told: “choose.” I chose, and perhaps this was the first link in the chain of events.
What sports do you watch or cheer for?
Now I’m mostly interested in following bobsledding. Given the fact that my husband participates in this sport [Alexei Zaitsev is a member of the Russian national team], I have no choice. Really, if you try to get interested in a sport, you begin to enjoy it. And I’ve always liked rhythmic gymnastics very much.
What’s Aliya Mustafina like in everyday life outside of training?
I’ve never really had a hobby. I like to read, I like to walk. It depends.
Is it difficult to make the decision when you need a break in your career?
Not at all. I just do what I want. That’s all.
What is your life like now?
Now I’m basically all about studying. I finish university this year: diploma, graduation exams. My focus is on this.
If you feel like it, will you be able to return to a high level?
I don’t want to think about it. We’ll see if it works out.
I mean, do you not feel the competitive urge?
I’ve always loved to perform and want to go back at least for the sake of doing it. I understand that if I go back, I have to force myself to do well, otherwise it makes no sense. If the mood strikes me, I’ll follow it.
Rodionenko said she expects to see you in training this fall. Is she rushing with her predictions?
Well…as soon as I’m ready, I’ll come back.
Aliya, do you speak the native Tatar language?
No, my family has always communicated in Russian. Since we were in Moscow, we didn’t have any need to learn it.
In our republic, you are loved and adored. Do you feel this connection with Tatarstan?
I really felt it here during a performance at the Universiade in 2013. I knew how much people wanted to see me compete here, and it’s because of this that I eventually decided to come, despite the fact that a week before it started, I was in the hospital. They love me, yes, I always feel that they love what I do. It’s always nice to come here. You have a very beautiful city. But more importantly, the people here create an excellent atmosphere for gymnastics competitions. It would be great if the Russian Championships were held here more often.
How did Kazan do with the competition?
Good, very good. Occasionally I will imagine myself as one of the girls competing and I realize that everything here is very close to the international standards. This is important, and helps with the attitude and motivation of the athletes.
Article by Artur Mukhin
Translation by Lauren Hopkins