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Style, Sticks and Staunch Determination!

Before this past weekend, when talking about Team USA’s top All-Arounders, Oklahoma’s Vitaliy Guimaraes wasn’t a name many people might have mentioned. A steady, stylish, and clean competitor, Guimaraes had never finished higher than ninth in a senior U.S. All-Around. But when the Winter Cup dust settled, it was Guimaraes who topped a stacked field. 

It was an upset victory made even more improbable when Vit, as he’s known to friends, revealed after the competition’s conclusion, that just one month earlier he’d found himself in an even more unexpected position: lying on the floor of the Denver airport in a pool of his own blood, confused and disoriented…

Vitaliy Guimaraes: I was on the way back with my team from the Rocky Mountain Open, and just started to feel a little lightheaded, kind of dizzy, and then, as far as I knew, I just passed out. The next thing I remember, I had regained consciousness, and the paramedics were saying I had a seizure. I broke my nose in the fall—went down face first—and there was a lot of blood. I really don’t remember anything else about what happened.

I never thought in a million years that something like this would happen—nothing like that had ever happened to me before—but it did, and it shook me to my core. Getting past that was a process. I dealt with the broken nose and had to have a small surgery to reset it. Then I had to sit out from not only competition, but training. To let everything heal and get my bearings back. I had to make sure I was doing all the right things. There were a lot of tests, and [because I lost consciousness], they treated me for a concussion, too. We still don’t know exactly why it happened, but we’ve ruled out a lot of things, and taken precautions to prevent it happening again.

Inside Gymnastics: With such a short time between the incident and this competition—just 33 days—how much were you able to train before Winter Cup?

Guimaraes: I had about 2-1/2 weeks of training. I also wasn’t just jumping right back in. The first week, I was just slowly progressing, starting from basics. We just took it really, really easy, to see what I could do. 

With so little time to train did you feel prepared coming to Texas?

I mean, I felt prepared, but didn’t feel 100%. I was confident with my routines, because we’d structured them differently than originally planned … but it wasn’t really until after the meet with Nebraska last weekend, and then the last couple of days before we left, when I had good practices, that I really felt confident I could do all six events. Knowing if I could just do routines like I had been in training, that I could at least fight for a spot on the National Team. Where I finally didn’t feel super cautious or anxious on every turn and I could just think about breathing and let it flow.

Basically, I was just trying to focus on doing my gymnastics, hitting routines, and, I mean, I guess it all worked out.

You could say that. When did you know you’d won?

I hadn’t really looked at the scoreboard at all and when I finished vault at the end of the meet, I was getting dressed and, really, just waiting for the meet to be over. That’s when Mark came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations.’ That’s the first time I looked at the scoreboard. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘There has got to be something wrong with the scores.’ Someone’s score that wasn’t in or something. 

I was in disbelief when I saw the results. I surprised myself, in all honesty.

My mom was there, and as soon as I saw her, we both started tearing up. She just said, ‘I’m so proud of you. I love you.’ She couldn’t really say anything else, but that was enough.

And your coach, Mark Williams, said you celebrated with a trip to McDonald’s?

[laughs] Yep, 11:30 PM trip to McDonalds. It was awesome. [laughs again]

I literally got my food, went back to my room, talked on the phone with some people, took a shower, and went to bed. I was pretty exhausted from the day itself. 

Now that it’s been a few days, has it sunk in yet? Do you feel any different?

I mean, yeah it does feel a little bit different, when you hear all the congratulations. The more I hear it, the more it hits me.  It’s slowly and gradually getting to that place, but even now there’s still a little bit of disbelief. Like, ‘Did that really happen?’

After going through what you have over the last month, does this win mean a little bit more?

It does. I just feel grateful and blessed that I’m still able to do the sport that I love. That I did what I set out to, what I told myself I wanted to do—to have fun, hit routines, and let the results speak for themselves.

You’ve long been known as a very clean, consistent gymnast, who maybe doesn’t have the highest level of difficulty. Now, under a new Code of Points and with a substantial U.S. bonus system, which favors big tricks, does winning this title despite having no additional bonus feel like a vindication for your approach to the sport?

 Yeah. I mean, I guess you could say that. I know I don’t have highest difficulty in the country. I’ve told myself to stick to my technique, trust my training, and trust the numbers we do here. That if I can do my gymnastics cleanly, I should still come out with good scores. Just be solid and consistent. I knew it would be harder to compete with all these new bonuses, but I just tried to focus on my gymnastics, and doing it well.

When we talk about D-score, it’s easy for a bystander to say things like, ‘If you just add X amount of difficulty,’ or ‘Do such-and-such new skill,’ …But can you articulate how difficult those sorts of upgrades are to train and compete, when you’re already working at such a high level?

I mean, we are working on some upgrades—like doing a 2-1/2 on vault and adding another release on high bar—but it’s extremely difficult. I wouldn’t say the new Code helped me out necessarily. It isn’t better or worse for me, just different, and I’m working with my coaches to try to figure out the best structure for my routines. What I can do without losing my consistency.

Also, like, my body can also only withstand so much. My body is going through pain constantly—that’s normal with gymnasts—but you have to manage it. It’s just a matter of doing numbers and bumping the difficulty, while still being efficient and smart. 

It is hard to hear the ‘just add difficulty’ [comments] sometimes, but I try to take it constructively. I know there’s always room for improvement, or some way I can be even cleaner, so I just try to take those comments as a way to improve. To get better at my craft.

Has winning this meet changed how you think about your future in the sport? Made you look at your potential any differently?

Not really. I mean, I still have the same goals, but this is a big step in the sense of trusting my gymnastics and being more confident: mentally, emotionally, and physically. It helps energize me. I look at the long- and short-term goals I want to reach, and this helps me be more motivated. It helps me realize I can bump up a few things here and there, and really compete against bigtime names. 

This isn’t the first time you’ve dealt with a dramatic injury in your career. You’ve talked in the past about how, when you were a senior in high school, your grip locked while on high bar and you broke your ulna, requiring three surgeries in two years on your wrist. It’s the kind of injury that can be career ending for many. How were you able to come back so strongly?

That injury was one of those things where, the moment it happened, I knew my gymnastics was never going to be the same again. It took a serious toll on me: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Just, practically, it was four or five months, most of my senior season really, to even start to get back to where I was before.  

Even now, there is still a lot of pain in my wrist that flares up here or there, but you just have to learn to deal with it. To manage the pain. Manage your workload and expectations.

But I know now that if I can go through something like that and come back to still do the sport that I love…If I can do that, I know I can overcome anything. I wasn’t going to let it break me. So, I push forward, and treat every day like a blessing, because that’s how I see it.

One of the things you’re best known for is you cat-like ability to stick landings. Even for a gymnast, it’s uncanny, and your coaches and teammates have joked you have sticky feet. How do you do it?

I have to give all the credit for that to my mom, (Russian coach/gymnast Tatiana Kondratova).

When I was growing up, she was always making me do drills and work on trampoline. Work progressions over and over, and focus on sticking. She’d say, ‘You can’t leave until you stick each thing two or three times.’ Just this daily thing of her being on my tail about it [laughs]. And when I was younger, I didn’t want to do that at all because it was so hard, but I learned much later to appreciate all those numbers.

She was never my official coach, but she coached at the same gym I trained at, so she was always across the gym, giving me those looks and corrections on the side. She was very skilled, especially on floor and vault, so I always took her advice and ran with it. I was always going to listen to her and not complain.

You trained for much of your junior career at 5280 Gymnastics in Colorado, alongside Olympian Yul Moldauer, how much of an influence has he had on you?

Once I moved to 5280, I connected with Yul right away, and from then on we were best friends. I looked up to him as a role model and human being. I always enjoyed watching him growing up. His gymnastics is amazing. And to see how successful he was, was inspiring. When he said he was going to Oklahoma…I remember, I was a freshman in a high school, but right then I was like, ‘I’m going to Oklahoma too,’ and the rest is kind of history. 

Seeing the success Yul had here at OU. I mean, I did look at other schools, but I just always thought to myself that Oklahoma was the best choice for me. This program has had so much success over the years, and I just wanted to be part of that dominance. To follow in Yul’s footsteps but make it my own way.

Was Winter Cup the first time you’d topped Yul in the All-Around?

It was the first time. It was cool, but it’s not like there’s a rivalry. More like, game respects game. Yul was one of the first people to congratulate me. To hear that from your hero and best friend was amazing. He’s always supporting me and taking care of me whenever he can.

It’s been crazy how the time has passed. College flies by really quickly. I’ve been thinking of that this year, like a daily thing. I remember when I was a freshman and Yul was the team captain and giving me advice, and now the roles have changed, and I’m a captain with all these freshmen looking at me and asking me for advice. It’s pretty crazy to consider.

A big chunk of your NCAA career has been spent under the cloud of COVID. How has that effected your collegiate experience?

It was really hard in 2020, having our season get cut off, and then we all had to leave Oklahoma and go our separate ways. At that point it was difficult to be motivated to continue to train at all. I gave myself a little break from being in the gym to just think about my life. 

I think everyone was doing that, and focusing on, ‘What now? When will it be back to “normal,” and what does that even mean anymore?’ So, at first it was challenging. It really took until December of last year that I think we really felt like we could train as a team again, with everyone in the gym at the same time. It was hard to adjust, but we stuck to the routines, and the protocols, to make sure we could stay out of harm’s way, and I think by the end of the season we all felt very grateful to just be out there competing again as a team, because I think we all wondered at some point if that would ever happen again.

Besides NCAAs, what’s been another highlight for you in your career so far?

Well, this weekend at Winter Cup was definitely one of them, but besides that and NCAAs, I’d have to say Olympic Trials last year. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It didn’t feel like a competition even, more like a show. It felt so cool to be competing with people I’ve looked up and thought, ‘Man I want to be like him.’ For instance, Sam Mikulak. Just to be on the same floor as him.

Not a lot of people get to say they competed in an Olympic Trials. That they got to be on that floor.

At Winter Cup you mentioned your girlfriend, fellow OU senior Oliva Trautman, as someone who helped you through the hard times. Does her also being a gymnast mean you understand each other better?

Yeah, she’s cool. She’s very supportive. She takes care of me, and I try to take care of her. We’re pretty private, but she’s definitely a great part of my life.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I just feel very blessed and very happy with my performance. I look forward to being able to compete internationally for Team USA soon, and hopefully get some more opportunities to get my name out there. I think I’m ready.

Look for more on the Men’s Winter Cup in the March/April issue of Inside Gymnastics. magazine!

For the Men’s Winter Cup Photo Gallery, Click Here!

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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