Hangzhou: Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina made her international debut for the Soviet Union, and while the country may be long gone, the 48-year-old is still going strong.
The Uzbek finished agonisingly outside the medals in fourth in the women’s vault final of the Asian Games in Hangzhou on Thursday and is also set to compete in the balance beam on Friday.
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Chusovitina’s presence is all the more striking because competitive gymnasts are typically young, often in their teens.
But the Uzbek does not care and has set her sights on appearing at next year’s Paris Olympics, by which time she will be close to her half-century.
It would be a ninth Olympics for an athlete who won team gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games as part of the “Unified Team” that represented 12 of the former Soviet states.
“I was lacking a bit today, but that’s OK, life’s not over,” Chusovitina said after the vault final, which saw her finish just 0.150 points out of the medal positions.
“I’ll train and now I know exactly what to work on in order to compete at the Olympics.”
Chusovitina announced her retirement after the Tokyo Olympics two years ago but her love for gymnastics soon prompted a change of heart.
She set her first target to appear at a fifth Asian Games, although the competition was postponed by a year because of China’s zero-Covid policy.
It was worth the wait when she competed on Thursday, with the Chinese fans in the arena giving her a rapturous reception.
But she was unable to jump into the medal positions ahead of North Korean pair An Chang Ok and Kim Son Hyang and China’s Yu Linmin — a trio whose combined age is only 11 years older than Chusovitina’s.
“I have no emotions left,” she said.
“But I am very happy that everything I planned I achieved, so we’ll move forward.”
Not looking too far ahead
Chusovitina was born in Bukhara in Uzbekistan and took up gymnastics at the age of seven.
In 2002, her son Alisher was diagnosed with leukaemia and she and her family moved to Germany so he could receive treatment.
She obtained German citizenship in 2006 and won a silver medal for her adopted nation at the 2008 Olympics.
She returned to Uzbekistan’s team in 2013 and thought she had reached the end of the road after the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Olympics.
But her change of heart has left her with “even more energy than before” as she tries to book her place at the Paris Games.
“We move forward — I need to try more difficult jumps,” she said.
“I’ve had bad colds this summer and now I am getting back in shape, so at every competition I want to improve my basics to qualify for the World Cup and the Olympics.”
Chusovitina has claimed gold at the Asian Games before, winning both the floor exercise and vault in 2002.
She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2017 and was named Uzbekistan’s best athlete of the decade in 2020.
Her son is well and studying at university, and hopes to become a maths teacher.
Chusovitina’s aim may be to appear at the Paris Olympics, but that is as far as her ambition lies.
“I never set goals,” she said.
“I just practise, compete and enjoy it.”