By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

“To every young gymnast: never be afraid, always believe in yourself, keep moving forward and keep trying because if you don’t try, you will never know how far you can come.” – Oksana Chusovitina

Inside Gymnastics goes in-depth with Oksana in our July/August issue! We spoke with her in April, together with Svetlana Boguinskaia, about Oksana’s preparations for Tokyo and the legacy she hopes to leave behind. Here’s a preview!

At the top of the vault runway stands a Soviet gymnast who is relatively unknown on the international stage. It’s the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis and Oksana Chusovitina, age 16, is about to make her name known. She sprints down the runway, catapults her body over the vaulting horse, soars through a front handspring pike half, and sticks the landing cold. 

That was the beginning of Chusovitina’s storied career that has now spanned three decades, included 17 World Championship appearances, and a record-breaking seven trips to the Olympic Games. The story rewrites itself with each year that passes. 

No gymnast—male or female—has stayed in the sport for as long as Chusovitina. Her longevity, which is a feat in and of itself, has enabled her do things few other gymnasts in history have done. 

For instance, she has competed under five different flags, has five skills named after her in the Code of Points, and is a part of a small group of gymnasts who returned to international competition after becoming a mother. Just one year after giving birth to her son Alisher, Chusovitina was in Sydney competing in her third Olympics. It was just as impressive then as it is now! 

By merely competing at the elite level, Chusovitina has surpassed expectations and broken the unwritten rule that gymnastics is a sport for teenagers who will eventually retire by their early or mid-twenties. Every time she steps out onto the competition floor, she is proof that age is nothing but a number. And despite the sport becoming progressively harder, Chusovitina has held her own against her competitors—most of whom she is three times older than. (To put everything into perspective, by the time Simone Biles was born, Chusovitina had already won five world medals and an Olympic gold.)

For Chusovitina, age has never been a deterrent. When she competes, she isn’t there to just show her face; she is there to win medals. And she does. At the age of 33, Chusovitina won a silver medal on vault at the 2008 Olympics—her first individual Olympic medal. She has won a vault medal at every single world championship from 2001 to 2006, and again in 2011. In recent years, she has dominated vault on the World Cup circuit—bringing home five gold medals and two silvers from 2017 to 2019. Chusovitina has sent the message loud and clear—gymnastics is a sport for everyone. 

“I think I am one of the pioneers to let every woman know that you can be a wife, you can be a daughter, you can be a mother, and you can be an Olympic athlete and an Olympic medalist,” Chusovitina said. “Anything is possible, and age is just a number!”

The driving factor behind Chusovitina’s longevity is her love for the sport, which has never faded in the last 30+ years. As a result, she has accomplished nearly everything there is to do in the sport. But she is not done quite yet. At the 2019 World Championships, Chusovitina punched a ticket to Tokyo, for what will be her eighth and final Olympics. For the first time in her career, she knows it is time to hang up her leotard.

“I never had the thoughts or feelings until recently, maybe the past two years,” Chusovitina said. “My body and mind feel it and I know for the first time in my life, that it’s time for me to go.”

In Tokyo, at the age of 46, Chusovitina will officially become the oldest female gymnast to ever compete in an Olympic Games—all she needs to do is salute the judges in Tokyo to surpass the honor currently held by Isabel Judd, a 1928 British Olympian who was seven months older than Chusovitina at the Rio Olympics in 2016. At this point, nothing can get in Chusovitina’s way—not her age nor a global pandemic. 

It’s been thirty years since that vault in Indianapolis. The end of an era is officially in sight. After Tokyo, a long chapter in the history books written by Chusovitina will come to an end. But first, there is a little more history to be made.

Stay tuned for the full interview with Oksana Chusovitina in the July/August issue of Inside Gymnastics Magazine! 

Photo credits: Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics; Chris Korotky

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