In a new podcast called Far From Being Done With Gymnastics [in German: Ausgeturnt – Noch Lange Nicht!] two-time Olympic medalist Dagmar Kersten talks about her time as a top athlete in the GDR, or East Germany. With stories from her childhood and her time at a sports school, through to becoming a candidate for the 1988 Olympic team, she not only traces her own career as a contemporary witness, but also provides insight into the life of a top athlete in a socialist system. Look forward to exciting stories from childhood dreams, injuries, state doping and Stasi files, to Olympic medals.
A big thank you to Dagmar Kersten for giving us permission to translate her words into English, and to Kristina for providing the translation. You can listen to the podcast in its original German on Spotify.
Episode 1 – I Went to Boarding School at Age Nine
Hello everyone, welcome to my very first podcast. I’m happy that I’m finally getting into the implementation, because I’ve been wanting to do the podcast for two years and I’ve always found excuses for myself. Once it was the technique or somehow I thought I sounded weird, but now I really want to do it.
I worked on a podcast about two years ago, which I really enjoyed, and that’s why I want to fulfill my dream now. I would like to share stories from my life as a high-performance athlete, but first I would like to introduce myself.
I’m Dagmar, 51 years old, and I’ve actually been connected to sport my whole life. My parents alone made a lot possible for us. My father was a certified sports coach and he always took us to the gym when we were kids. We could move around in the equipment room, romped around, we went climbing and skiing. It was really great that our parents made so many things possible for us. Nowadays I made my own big dream come true by founding my own martial arts school 10 years ago. It’s really a real passion of mine. I can teach children there, I can create my own projects, everything that I couldn’t implement in [any other] club I can now implement really well as a fully independent trainer and entrepreneur. I stand on the mat from morning to night and I’m really excited about it. That’s a really great job that I found and realized for myself.
But karate is actually not the topic at all, because I would like to talk about artistic gymnastics, because I also experienced an intense history as a high-performance athlete in the GDR. I’ve always been a pretty bright kid. My parents even installed a swing and a trapeze in the hall because they couldn’t control my urge to move. Like any other child, I went to kindergarten as normal and then I was enrolled in the first class in Cottbus. It wasn’t called elementary school in the GDR back then. During this time, a talent scout came to the school and looked at the children and decided who would be predestined for which sport and who would then be allowed to train regularly in the training center.
As you can probably imagine, I wasn’t spotted for basketball, but I came to gymnastics with my 1.56 meters [meaning she is 5’1″]. With this sighting there was a possibility that I could train every day in a training center. It happened in such a way that we got homework supervision after school so that we didn’t have to go home again. It was a kind of after-school care center and from there we could go straight to the gym, which was also the school gym at the time. I was able to train for two hours every day. The great thing was that it was a permanent gym, which means we had equipment that never had to be taken down. There were several uneven bars, balance beams, floor runners, and anyone who does gymnastics now knows how long it takes when you first have to set up a whole gym with gymnastics equipment. It takes a lot of time. We even had our own ballet hall with a ballet trainer and our own piano with a cliched pianist with a white scarf. A lot had already been done, the training groups were relatively small and that was pretty cool and I really let off steam. Of course, that also played into my parents’ hands, because I didn’t hang on the curtains at home anymore. I was in care and could simply get rid of my energy somewhere else.
Why was I spotted now? I think I had really good prerequisites. I was very small and quite lively. In addition, I was already very well-trained back then because I had always done a lot of sport with my parents. It was an advantage that in the GDR you really spotted special talents who were then integrated into the training centers. They don’t do that anymore. I can’t remember that in Oldenburg or anywhere else anyone went to the schools and spotted the talents there. If the parents don’t really follow along and see that the child joins a club, like my daughter and son did, then nothing happens at first. The state itself is not interested in whether someone is active in sports or not. And that was the state in the GDR, of course, because they attached great importance to sport, because they also defined themselves externally through sport. This small country just didn’t see so many other opportunities, I think, and so it promoted the sport extremely and also put a lot of money into sport promotion.
Again, for better understanding, when I started doing gymnastics regularly I was six or seven years old, and that’s when I really learned the basics of gymnastics. Because of my good performance, I was then suggested that I be delegated to the children and youth sports school at the age of nine, and that was super cool for me as a child. Everyone knew what a children’s and youth sports school was. Everyone wanted to go there. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined what exactly was involved, that I would then have to leave home. Well, I just raved about it and said, I want, I want, without really realizing what that means.
When people asked me back then what my big dream was, or rather, they always ask the children, what do you want to be when you grow up? Then I always said I wanted to be world champion. I didn’t even realize that being a world champion wasn’t a job. Well, this is still in my head, through and through, I wanted to be a world champion in artistic gymnastics. And it was very clear to me that one day I would be one. As I said before, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was delegated to the children’s and youth sports school in Dresden, and that meant I had to somehow get from Cottbus to Dresden if I wanted to go there. That meant I had to ride the train by myself at the age of nine. In the beginning, of course, my parents took me, but we didn’t have a car and at some point they just didn’t have time to sit on the train all the time. There was also a rail replacement service very often and when I was young I had to figure out how I could somehow get to the school. What’s more, they didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t even let them know that I arrived, I just arrived or didn’t arrive. That was how things were for my parents, and I can imagine that being very difficult.
I have children myself and when I imagine my daughter or son having to travel to another city at the age of nine and I don’t even know whether they have arrived? Unbelievable how much trust they actually had in their children. I think you became independent very quickly, and the parents also dealt with it differently than you do today. I don’t know how it is with you. If you imagine that you are nine years old and you are supposed to get on the train and you can’t even look on your cell phone where you might get to the train station, or which train or bus is running in the replacement rail service…you had to ask your way through everywhere and trust the goodwill of the people that they will take you by the hand and somehow drag you to the next bus. I think that was a very big challenge for me.
Well, I definitely always arrived, but the conditions were just not ideal at all, which then prompted my parents to say that they didn’t want it that way anymore. They were then able to switch me to another city and after about three months I left the sports school in Dresden and was able to go to Berlin. There it was a much better relationship and circumstances to develop my talent. I was really flabbergasted there at first because we had a huge sports forum. You can imagine it like this, there were the gyms and the speed skating hall, the swimming pools and athletic halls. Everything was relatively close together, we had our food complex and school complex nearby, we could also use the swimming pools and even had our own sports medicine. So that was really something completely different than what I had gotten to know in Dresden.
But now a little bit about artistic gymnastics. What actually is artistic gymnastics? What did I choose there? Artistic gymnastics is for men and women. The women train on four pieces of equipment, the uneven bars, the vault (the vaulting horse is now a vaulting table), then we have the balance beam and we have floor exercise. And the men have six pieces of apparatus, which are high bar, rings, pommel horse, floor exercise, vault, and parallel bars. In artistic gymnastics, as a woman, you wear tight leotards, that’s how it was in our time. And then the hair was tied back in a neat ponytail and, above all, a lot of value was placed on [how we looked on] the outside. We started doing makeup at a relatively young age, had a bit of glitter and glamour, and I think that was what I found really great as a child and why I might have decided to do gymnastics. That’s what I remember still today, that many little gymnasts who wanted to start doing gymnastics actually found the leotards and bows so great, and that decided it for them.
But I think gymnastics is one of the most complex sports for me, apart from all the glitz and glamour, because you really have to develop a lot of strength to hang on the uneven bars or to be able to do high jumps. We have to turn several times in the air and then ideally land on our feet and still have to look very elegant on floor and beam. If you don’t know that well, well-known gymnasts these days are, for example, Elisabeth Seitz or Simone Biles, and among the male gymnasts everyone knows Fabian Hambüchen. Well, those are names that get a lot of press coverage, and at that time in the 1980s I was one of the most successful gymnasts in the GDR.
But we are not there at the moment. That will come much later. I have just arrived in Berlin and of course, we also went home at the weekends. Sometimes we were allowed to leave on Friday after training, that was a long weekend, but usually we drove home on Saturday afternoon and always had to come back on Sunday. We were then picked up by the bus and it drove us away from home. That was very difficult for many children, but I started joking on the bus back then because I just didn’t want the children to be so sad. I was just about the same age as the others, although sometimes I didn’t feel so great inside myself. Of course, I did it first and foremost for my mom, because I noticed that she found it difficult to say goodbye, and that’s how I naturally developed a certain strength at a young age. Whether this strength is a positive thing remains to be seen. In spite of all that, it was a really exciting chapter in my life. I took in everything through my child’s eyes, everything was calm and exciting, but have to come to the end now.
Well, I can promise that this is only just getting started and I’m happy if I’ve made you curious and hope you’ll tune in again for the next podcast!