Thirty, Flirty, and Thriving

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Badass mofo Oksana Chusovitina

I remember watching the 2008 Olympic Games and being absolutely shocked to see a 33-year-old woman win a silver medal on vault.

Known as the “Turn-Oma” (gymnastics grandma) to her German teammates, Oksana Chusovitina proved all of the “gymnasts peak at 16” haters wrong, and started a revolution in the sport. A decade after Chusovitina’s seemingly impossible feat, the average competitor age at major competitions like worlds and the Olympics seems to rise each year as gymnasts and coaches figure out how to train for longevity.

With the Legend herself now 43 and still a legitimate international threat, 33 doesn’t seem as impressive as it did in 2008. OH, BUT IT IS. Ten years later, there are currently seven other gymnasts competing internationally in the over 30 crowd alongside Chuso, and dozens more who continue competing at domestic meets just for the fun of it.

Here’s a look at the ladies keeping the dream alive and refusing to quit.

DANIELE HYPOLITO, BRAZIL

You know how sometimes people like to bring up the “if Simone Biles didn’t exist” hypothetical to figure out who would be the best in the world aside from the unbeatable legend? Well, in a Chuso-less world, Daniele Hypolito would be the one everyone was freaking out about, and for good reason.

A decade younger than Oksana, Daniele, who turns 34 this weekend, is two quads behind our favorite golden oldie, but she’s right on track with meeting all of the important milestones. Daniele today is basically Oksana circa 2008, and while she hasn’t had the same international medal success as our queen, what’s most impressive about Daniele is that she belongs to Brazil and only Brazil. Since she was 16, competing in her first Olympic Games in Sydney, Daniele has successfully managed to keep up with—and usually surpass—the young up-and-comers to keep herself relevant as a top contributor on Olympic team after Olympic team.

Now with five Olympic Games under her belt, Daniele was an especially integral member of the 2012 and 2016 teams, both in qualifying them to the Games and then also contributing at the Games, with her performance on beam at home in Rio one of the highlights of the meet. That could’ve been her swan song, but just three months after the Games, she was back and ready to prove herself, and this year she won the national all-around title, the 11th in her career.

 

METTE HULGAARD, DENMARK

At Denmark’s national championships this year, Mette won her 10th national all-around title, cementing herself as her country’s best of all time. Turning 30 later this month, Mette has been a member of dozens of international teams, but ill-timed injuries have kept her from qualifying a spot at the Olympic Games, which is the driving force behind her continued push in the sport.

This quad has been especially kind to Mette so far, with several international medals, including bronze on beam at Northern Euros last year and all-around bronze at this year’s Nordic Championships, held in Denmark. In addition to her own success, Mette acts as a mentor to the young gymnasts she trains and competes with at her gym, KG66, helping them become the best club in the country.

Mette wants to stay in the sport for as long as her body can handle it. “I take it one year at a time,” she said. “If I’m healthy, I don’t see a reason to stop. I always feel that I can keep learning more and more, not just in terms of skills, but also how to mentally compete.” Mette has put her heart and soul into her sport, and whether her Olympic dream ever comes true or not, she will always be remembered as a game-changer for the sport in Denmark.

 

MARCELA TORRES, SWEDEN

I love Marcela’s story so much. As a gymnast in Argentina, Marcela was always on the outskirts of making the national team, so she felt it was an easy decision for her to pack up and move to Sweden when she fell in love.

Marcela, who turns 30 in October, kept training after making her move, and it all paid off in 2015 when she won the national all-around and vault titles (as well as silver medals on beam and floor) at the age of 26. She repeated as the all-around champion in Sweden for the next two years, and this year, she won the silver medal behind another expat, first-year senior Jessica Castles, formerly of Great Britain.

A member of the 2015 worlds team, Marcela has also represented Sweden at European Championships, and she is both a Nordic and Northern European champion on vault. With her strongest work coming on vault and beam, Marcela–who actually retired after Euros in 2016 only to come back a year later–could be an integral part of the Swedish team at worlds this year, but she’s always working to add more strengths and just added a front tuck to double back on floor to make her more competitive there.

 

MARTINA CASTRO, CHILE

As the first Chilean gymnast to qualify a spot for the Olympic Games, Martina’s younger sister Simona is the more well known of the Castro sisters, but 32-year-old Martina is more than successful in her own right, competing as a member of multiple world championships teams (most recently in 2014) in addition to winning several national titles throughout her career.

Last year, Martina finished seventh all-around at both the Bolivarian Games in Colombia as well as at the South American Championships in December, where she also finished in the top six in all four apparatus finals. She was a member of the 2018 Pac Rims and South American Games teams, finishing fifth on vault and seventh on floor at the latter.

Having been in the sport for 30 years, Martina shows no signs of stopping, and she could once again be a big help to the Chilean team at worlds this year alongside her sister.

 

CARMEN HORVAT, SLOVENIA

At 31, Carmen has been a member of multiple worlds teams, most recently in 2015, and she also made the all-around final at the Summer Universiade that same year, placing 13th in a field that included some of the world’s most talented college-aged gymnasts.

Though she has kind of slowed her roll in recent years and is no longer a top contender in Slovenia now that the program has a bit of depth, she’s still up there as someone who can step up and get the job done, proving herself at the Zelena Jama Open this year where she won the silver on bars and bronze on floor.

Carmen is a PhD candidate at Loughborough University in England, where she continues to train as a gymnast, and she has quite the academic pedigree, having received her BA in Translation and Pedagogy at the University of Maribor in Slovenia before then getting her masters in Sport Management at Loughborough in 2014. Her research now focuses on the development of elite sports in her home country, investigating the effectiveness of the program with the goal of helping the post-independence Slovenia achieve success at the international level.

 

OKSANA CHUSOVITINA, UZBEKISTAN

This 43-year-old needs no introduction, partly because I literally talked about her in the introduction, but mostly because she is the reason this post exists, the reason why older gymnasts are inspired to keep training, and the reason why how we talk about gymnasts, peak ages, and longevity has changed so much compared to even just ten years ago.

Oksana, who has a son older than when most elite gymnasts retire, is a two-time Olympic medalist, an 11-time world medalist, and a four-time European medalist who has five skills named after her in the Code of Points and has represented four countries in her career, beginning with the Soviet Union at 16 followed by a quick stint on the Unified Team in 1992 and a six-year period in Germany, where she lived and trained while her son underwent treatment for leukemia before returning to her native Uzbekistan.

The seven-time Olympian currently trains in the United States with former teammate (and legend in her own right) Svetlana Boginskaya, and until her silver medal at the Asian Games last week, she was undefeated on vault since competing in the final in Montreal last year, picking up the titles at four world cups (Cottbus, Baku, Doha, and Osijek) in addition to also topping the podium at a Bundesliga meet in Germany, the Voronin Cup in Russia, and the Houston National Invitational in Texas.

Known for what she can do on vault, Oksana competed a Produnova—the most difficult vault in the Code—regularly in 2016, including in the Olympic final, but lately she’s been sticking to her more consistent tsuk and handspring layout vaults, and she hopes to be the first gymnast to land the handspring front layout double full in competition this quad.

 

MARTA PIHAN-KULESZA, POLAND

I think the world collectively sobbed when Marta announced her intention to retire after not earning her country’s Olympic spot in 2016, which would’ve been her third Olympic Games after representing Poland in Beijing and then in London.

A guest competitor at Italy’s Serie A meets for many years, her performance at the Turin meet in May of 2016 was met with appreciation and love from the Italian clubs and fans with a celebration of her career following the competition, showing that her reach spread far beyond her achievements for Poland.

During her time away from the sport, Marta and her husband Roman had a daughter, Jagna, but she never quite seemed content to be away from the gym. She began training shortly after her daughter’s birth in 2017, and this summer, she won her ninth national all-around title to earn a surprise spot on Poland’s European Championships team, helping them place 13th out of the 26 programs in Glasgow.

At 31, Marta has a total of 16 world cup medals to her name on every event but vault, and she made the Olympic all-around final in 2012, a major achievement for a gymnast competing as an individual at the Games. Going forward, with Poland struggling to transition juniors to the senior level, it’s looking like Marta could once again be a top contender for the Olympic Games.

 

VASILIKI MILLOUSI, GREECE

A veteran of three Olympic Games and a ten-time world cup medalist on balance beam, 34-year-old Vasiliki almost didn’t even make it past 18 in the sport.

In the year leading up to the Olympic Games hosted in Athens, Vasiliki was hoping to represent her country on a home stage after a strong performance in Sydney when she was just 16. But prior to the qualification process, the Greek federation sent her a letter telling her she was going to be released from the national team because she was “too old” to compete.

At 18, she fell into a deep depression, not sure where to go from there, but she slowly fought her way back to the top of the sport in her country, finally getting back on the Olympic stage in 2012 where she got a skill named for her on beam and was the 4th reserve into that final. With a super successful 2016 quad that saw her make a European Championships beam final as well as the all-around final at the 2013 World Championships, Vasiliki was once again the top choice for the Olympic Games, and despite some injury setbacks this quad, she recently made the beam final at Euros in Glasgow with a beautiful routine in qualifications.

Though she was once ostracized for being “old” at 18, now Vasiliki is proud to have proved everyone wrong and is happy to have fought through those initial struggles because she came out a winner on the other side. “I’ve earned the respect of the FIG and from everyone in the sport internationally because I’m one of the athletes upping the age limit for the sport.”

 

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL

I’ve talked about eight women who continue to push the age envelope internationally in gymnastics, but there are tons of women around the world who continue to train and compete well into their 30s, 40s, and beyond, like the dozens of Japanese women who compete at the Masters Championships every year (including Kohei Uchimura’s mom!), like 42-year-old Silvia Wentzell in Germany who competes at Bundesliga meets alongside the kids she trains, like 30-year-old Slovakian Olympian Maria Homolova who now coaches in Norway but returns home to compete when she can, like the several women in their early 30s who were part of the Top 12 circuit with their clubs in France this year…

Gymnastics is erroneously known as a “little girls’ sport” but at every level all over the globe, women are working hard to throw that convention out the window. With Simone Biles the first non-teenage U.S. national all-around champion in 47 years, with the average age of international finalists at major competitions like Euros and Worlds rising each year, and with a greater number of adults training and competing for fun decades longer than they were “expected” to, we’re grateful to every Turn Oma for shaking things up and paving the way for future old lady gymnasts to shut down anyone who wants to tell them no.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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18 thoughts on “Thirty, Flirty, and Thriving

  1. I really loved reading this blog post! I kinda missed jessica lopez here though, her performance at the rio olympics was nothing short of amazing.

    Like

    • I only included gymnasts who are currently competing in 2018 so several others are missing as well, including Makarena Pinto, Veronica Wagner, Angel Wong, Merlina Galera, Maria Homolova, Adriana Crisci, Xuan Liu, and of course, Catalina Ponor, who was 30 at world championships last year. As with Jessica, most of these women with the exception of Cata and Nica Wagner are planning on returning but are on hiatus right now, or they’re just competing at a lower level domestically.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. maybe that will motivate simone to continue after tokyo….lol…. i bet she can be a top seeder for a very long time…. i could definitely see simone still being AA champ even at 30+. I don’t see anyone stopping her

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this article! I hate how in Brazil, a lot of people come for Daniele Hypolito saying she should retire and ‘give the opportunity to younger artists’. But hey, she keeps proving hersef, and if she’s one of the best on the country, she should be on the team. I’m glad she is still competing, and even though she’s not a threat on Worlds or Olympics, she still competes at a high level.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sorry but can we take a million minutes to recognize Carmen Horvat is both an Elite Gymnast AND a PhD candidate while most of us still struggle to get our laundry out of the washer on time?!

    That’s some masterful levels of time management right there, like damn!

    Like

  5. These women are really inspiring, even for athletes of other sports. I personally started figure skating about a year ago at age 23 and find myself multiple times thinking “if Chuso can do gymnastics at elite level at age 43, then I guess I can do skating just for fun for the rest of my life”. It honestly gives me strength to continue even if I’m surrounded by people ten or more years younger than me.

    Like

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