This weekend, we interviewed Nora Feher, a 17-year-old senior elite from Hungary who represented the country at world championships last year and had a brilliant future in the sport.
Nora missed this weekend’s national championships in Budapest, and spoke with us to tell us why. She tells her story about why she also won’t be in the mix to help the Hungarian team attempt to qualify for Tokyo at world championships this year, following the federation’s decision to fire her from the national team, which caused her home city of Győr to pull her scholarship and funding, effectively putting her career at a standstill.
Gymnastics in Hungary has grown tremendously in the past few years, going from a program known mainly for Krisztian Berki’s pommel horse victory in 2012 to one that is becoming a true international medal threat after outstanding performances at European Championships in 2017 and 2018. Watching the program rise with this recent success has been so incredible, so it’s especially disappointing to hear about the women’s head coach making unreasonable — and unchallenged — decisions that are destroying the career of this young and promising gymnast, all of which could potentially be harmful to the future of the program.
Nora, I remember your first international success at the Gym Festival Trnava in 2016, where you medaled on all events, and then your career took off from there. Can you talk a little about your fast rise at the junior level?
Well, Trnava was a great experience and I have good memories in my heart! Since then I competed internationally and achieved good results in 2016 at the Olympic Hopes Cup in Liberec, sharing the bars podium with Ana Padurariu, I got medals the following year in Liberec on bars and floor, and I finished eighth all-around at EYOF in 2017. Here we also finished fourth with the team, which was a historic result for Hungary. In my junior years I also won all-around national titles in Hungary, and a lot of medals, including multiple golds. By the way, speaking about memories, I still have your first book on my bookshelf, signed with the very nice and encouraging words by you!
Oh, really? That’s awesome! So you became a senior last year, and it was a busy year for you with many international competitions. Can you tell us a bit about 2018?
I will never forget my first big international meet as a senior in 2018, finishing fifth on beam at the world cup in Doha, competing head to head with stars like Mélanie De Jesus Dos Santos and Nina Derwael! I had some final spots at other world cups in Guimaraes and Paris the same year, and some nice experience at the Gymnasiade in Morocco, where I was second all-around, again sharing podium with Anastasiia Bachynska, who won the gold. I also started collecting gold medals at the national championships in Hungary, but the absolute most amazing highlight was European Championships in Glasgow, where we qualified for the team final in fifth place. This is one of the highlights of my career! Also seeing Bogi [Boglarka Devai] winning a historic gold on vault, it was unforgettable, and I remember how much I cried tears of joy!
How are you today? Why didn’t you compete at nationals in Hungary this year?
This is a very sad story, and I really feel hurt…I am currently undergoing medical investigations and trying to figure out what is the best treatment for my knees, but sadly all without the support of the Hungarian gymnastics federation.
Why isn’t the federation supporting you through this injury?
I have been struggling with shoulder dislocations multiple times, but still managed to compete and fix it and making progress step by step, and then approximately one year ago my knees started to hurt. The team doctor identified that I have a symptom called jumper’s knees, which as I know in the meantime, it’s caused by the intense workload, i.e. due to my beam mount. Unfortunately it didn’t become better, and I was never really aware what to do with it.
Did the doctor and your coach not discuss potential treatment or surgery in order to help you overcome this and focus on your long-term career?
Not really, it was said I need to apply some medical creams mostly for reducing pain, and that I should reduce my workload, and just train until it hurts. So I did, and competed at the world championships last year, as well as other national and international meets. I have also managed to compete on all four events, despite my struggles with my shoulder, which caused some issues performing vault. My latest international successes are my all-around finals spot at European Championships in Szczecin, and my world cup silver medal on bars in Osijek.
Seeing you qualifying 14th in the all-around at Euros was so fantastic, I was very happy for you! I also remember your routine from Osijek and thinking you might get gold…it was a really outstanding performance.
Thank you, that’s very nice! This means a lot to me.
So back to your knee issues…what problems did they cause in terms of training or just anything related to your gymnastics? And after all of your achievements, why wouldn’t the federation support you to make sure you’d be healthy enough to compete on future teams?
I need to explain my training situation, as it is mostly related to this. My home club is in Győr, but our family moved to Budapest two years ago. I joined the national training center, and the head coach became my full time trainer, and I also had a female trainer for beam. This means that my trainer, being the head coach as well, had to split his responsibilities and his attention between multiple gymnasts he was also the full-time trainer for, as well as his job as head coach. For me this means that I wasn’t getting 100% attention and support, like the other gymnasts who have their trainers fully dedicated to them. When we add my issues with my knees and the pain it causes, we ended up with no one really taking care of me and my career. We had really good facilities and staff in the training center, but in case of really serious issues, like my knees that didn’t allow me to train at full potential, then nobody really helped, and my parents had to look for physio, special treatment, and so on.
It sounds like there have been issues for a while now. But I still don’t understand why the federation isn’t taking care of you throughout all of this, as you’re a top member of the national team. Shouldn’t they be making sure you’re okay?
It’s a long story. There were many cases of conflict situations where my trainer would get frustrated with me, like when I downgraded a routine in training, or we would argue about how long I can train with pain, and so on. One day, there was an issue where my trainer wouldn’t tolerate this anymore, and he kicked me out. It was at a training camp, and I had to present bars and beam. I did bars with my upgraded routine, and on beam I needed to downgrade one element due to knee pain, which the head coach didn’t like. He became very upset and sent me off from the training hall, to my room. He also said I needed to pack my stuff and tell my parents to come and bring me home. My parents couldn’t come, so the next day another trainer brought me to the train station and I traveled back to Budapest to my family. I was told I was fired from the team. At that moment, I didn’t really know what this meant, and what consequences this would have, but it felt really bad knowing I was fired in such a way.
Nevertheless, my knee was hurting, so my parents started to look for a doctor and I went to physio the next week, which my parents paid for. The week after that, my parents received an e-mail from the head coach, saying I was officially fired from the national team, and wasn’t allowed to return to the national training center (which was the only place I could potentially train in, as my trainer is the head coach). They said the reason I was fired was for “behavior” and “attitude,” which I felt wasn’t really appropriate, as my behavior and attitude isn’t worse than anyone else on the team. The letter also said that I am no longer eligible to receive support (including financial and medical support) from the federation.
Even worse is that I was not given the chance to defend myself, and the head coach and the federation officially notified the mayor of Győr, the city of my home club, that they fired me, and they said that the city should stop my scholarship, which I was awarded in a big ceremony the previous summer along with nine more young athletes who can potentially represent the city of Győr at the Olympics in 2020. Unfortunately, the mayor also didn’t talk to me or my parents or anyone who could represent my interests and standpoint. They just listened to the federation, which just listened to the head coach. Nobody wanted to investigate whether the decision and the justification was right. Nobody was interested.
In just one day, everything I worked for since I started gymnastics at age three-and-a-half was swiped away. My scholarship was revoked by the city of Győr, and I am no longer eligible to receive it. These people may think I’m a bad person who doesn’t deserve it, and I feel this is not fair! I don’t know why nobody in the federation or in Győr won’t talk to me or my parents to get the full story. Officially, it’s said that this is the responsibility and decision of the head coach, and nobody needs to question it. The only problem is that they caused so much more damage than simply kicking me out of the national team, as I now can’t train anywhere else, and with taking my scholarship as well, you can imagine the impact on my motivation and mental well-being.
That sounds bad…
It is very bad.
Is there anything you think you could have done differently?
Look, I was maybe too honest and demanding, because I said what was on my mind about how the head coach is supporting me and my career. I was also speaking up a lot about how he controls the weight of the girls on the team, and openly talking about upgrades, training plans, and so on. I think it should be a partnership between the coach and his gymnasts. I’m not 12 years old anymore, so why can’t I talk about what I need? Why can’t I say something when I am not satisfied, like when I’m frustrated in situations when another gymnast can’t focus on her own training and takes away too much time from my coach? I wanted to develop my skills, but I didn’t feel motivated to do so without attention from my coach. I couldn’t teach myself, and I couldn’t make a training plan for myself, so I was frustrated and said so. If it’s a mistake to speak up, then I guess I did something wrong…but we are not just robots, and our trainers shouldn’t be our commanders. I trained in the U.S. twice and have talked to many others I know internationally, and it works so differently there, but in Hungary we can be fired simply for speaking up.
It doesn’t sound good that one person — the head coach — should be the only one with any say in the entire system. Coming back to the doctors and your treatment for a second…why hasn’t there been a solution after a full year?
I think last year, they agreed behind my back that I shouldn’t take a break because they needed me to compete at Euros and worlds this year. They needed me for the team to get strong results internationally. I was the second all-around gymnast after Zsofi Kovacs, and they really needed me to contribute to the team score, especially with my bars and beam.
It was obvious that you were contributing a lot. Your parents couldn’t help in this situation?
They couldn’t really, despite the fact that whenever I had some pains, the federation told them to please go and do something about it. This means they had to search for therapy, for treatments, to go to a doctor, etc. Also, the team doctor didn’t tell them that there is a surgery that exists for the pain in my knees. They also didn’t tell me what I learned on my own later on, that the doctor thought even a surgery might not be a solution. It might not end up being a solution, but either way, I was not told this, so I just suffered from pain, struggled with training, and had lots of conflicts, because none of my trainers believed me when I said how much it hurts.
This must have been so hard to deal with.
It was, and I really was demotivated very often, but I always stood up, with great help of my parents, who helped to facilitate the conflicts, and who helped me to motivate myself again and again. I am very thankful for their support! In this hard situation I have upgraded my bars, and worked on the consistency of my beam. I think both of them were fairly good on an international level, and I was really working to support my team with my scores at the worlds, where Hungary is hoping to qualify a full team to the Olympics. But since they fired me, they showed me that they are not interested in investing in me.
What will you do next?
Now I don’t know what the future will bring. But the way my trainer dropped me, and the way the federation didn’t fight for me, makes me very sad, and I feel really bad. Sometimes I think I am guilty, but my parents support me very much, and this helps me overcome some bad feelings. Also, my home club in Győr Is supporting me a lot, which I am also very thankful for, but they also understand that I can’t move back to Győr, as my high school is in Budapest and my family now lives here. In fact, we moved from Győr back to Budapest so I could train with this coach and have a chance to go to the Olympics.
I guess I want to focus on fixing my knees so I can have a healthy life. Fortunately, with great help from my home club — especially Samu Röck, the legendary trainer from Győr — I have a fantastic doctor, Péter Balogh, who really wants to fix my knees. Currently I’m having medical treatments to help them for the next few months, and only after that can I start thinking about a comeback in sports. But whether it will be in elite gymnastics or not, I can’t yet say.
Article by Lauren Hopkins