By Gina Pongetti Angeletti

Congratulations are in order for Oksana Chusovitina. She qualified for vault finals on Wednesday evening in Subdivision 5, the last group to compete for a chance to make top eight and move forward to Saturday’s individual event finals. And, in eight place, she did just that.  Her score was a 14. 349. Her D-score average was a 5.3 (5.4 and 5.2), well below the 5.9 average (6.0 and 5.8) of Russia’s Maria Paseka, but with execution, she was just over a half a tenth out of the lead. Remarkable.

Feature photo by Grace Chiu

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This is her 16th World Championships (yes, no mistake in that number). It is longer on the international elite gymnastics scene than some of the athlete competing here have been alive (they must be 16 years old within the year’s end). Unbelievable. She has been to seven Olympic Games, starting her senior elite career in 1989, after winning Junior Nationals for the then-named USSR. Her Olympics began in Barcelona in 1992, and 25 years later, she is still in the hunt for a medal on vault on the world’s largest gymnastics stage.

Though she only has two Olympic medals (vault silver from 2008 for Germany and a team gold from 1992, when she represented the Unified Team), she has a total of 31 medals in international elite competitions, some of which she has won for her native country of Uzbekistan.  She is the only female gymnast to span seven Olympic Games. With the increase in Code of Points, not sure if the body and training schedule would even make this possible anymore. The years of 1997, 1999, and 2009 are the only three since 1990 that she has not medaled at an international Competition. Every year. Her marriage took place in 1997 and she had her son, Alisher, in 1999. Good excuses for not preparing for the world’s largest athletic stage for gymnastics, right? Through injuries, training cycles, entering in and out of the coaching world, and many actual and possible retirements and comebacks, she returns to be a staple in this sport.

She has five skills named after her, two on each vault and uneven bars, and one on floor exercise.  For some, she pushed the difficulty envelope. For others, her creativity and impeccable timing was allowed to shine. Beyond her unreachable influence on the sport, her inspiration spreads well beyond that. She is coaching and providing her athletes with not only a fantastic understanding of the progression of the sport, but the mental aspect of training and perseverance.

Here in Montreal, the Women Athletes’ assembly took place at World Championships yesterday.  Her peers in the sport elected her for a term of four years as the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics representative on the FIG Athletes Commission. “I’d like to thank everyone. I will try to do my best to give you the best,” Chusovitina said in a recent press release.

What a pure honor for her, and a way for her to give back to the current athletes in respect, representation, and unity. She is preceded by Great Britain’s Elizabeth Tweddle, so she has great shoes to fill.

For a woman that once said that she had “achieved everything that she could have achieved in gymnastics,” before taking a hiatus to coach and try a ‘normal’ life, she is still here. The sport draws you in. The infinite possibilities of achievement in history books, in medal counts, in country representation—they make it hard to leave anything on the table.

At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, she reflected on the decision to keep training and on her constant struggle to leave the sport.

“If they ask tomorrow, maybe! I said I finished, but, the next morning I woke up and I felt that I could do more,” Chusovitina said through an interpreter.

The camaraderie of the elite gymnastics world is like no other—and she is a living legacy. Chusovitina reflected on the tremendous respect, support, and admiration of the gymnastics community at the world level.

“It helps me very much that they believe in me, and it really is a great, great help,” she added. “I am aware of it. And I want to say a great big thank you.”

This year, of course, is the first year of the new quad culminating in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. Montreal is the first stop on this journey, which she appears to still be focused on. Her son is also curious of her intentions, the intentions of the famous woman he simply calls “Mom.”

“To be honest, he asked me, ‘Mom is this really your last Olympic Games?,’” stated Chusovitina. She told him “wait and see.”

The world is looking forward to watching you today, Oksana. Athletes who are a quarter of a century younger than you are standing in awe, observing a true champion of sport, mind, and heart.

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