Oksana Chusovitina shouldn’t be at the Olympics. Not as a gymnast anyway. As a coach perhaps, but certainly not as a competitor.
Yet there the well-traveled 37-year-old was on Sunday, grinding through gymnastics qualification at The O2 Arena with German teammates closer in age to her 12-year-old son Alisher. Chusovitina is truly one of the most remarkable athletes of her generation.
In a sport where 25 is usually thought of as being ancient if not past it, London 2012 is Chusovitina’s sixth Olympics!
“You can see that that there are not many gymnasts her age,” 18-year-old teammate Elisabeth Seitz told NBC Sports. Or any, for that matter.
And this isn’t some publicity stunt. Chusovitina remains among the elite. She took silver on vault at last autumn’s world championships — placing second to 15-year-old American McKayla Maroney — and could very well find her way onto the podium again next week with a little luck.
Still remarkably fit, Chusovitina has avoided the kind of injuries that end the career of most gymnasts regardless of whether they want to give up the sport or not.
What’s her secret? She’s not telling. At least, not this week. “Maybe after London,” she said.
Chusovitina learned a long time ago it’s wise to “never say no.” It’s that kind of attitude that’s kept her around so long, through the downfall of the Soviet Union to her son’s lengthy battle with leukemia to an adopted country that has welcomed her guidance, not to mention her exceptional performances on the mat and beam.
Born in Uzbekistan, Chusovitina was a rising star when the USSR collapsed, helping the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) win gold in Barcelona in 1992 and placing seventh on the floor.
She returned to Uzbekistan following the Olympics but was hardly slowed by leaving the comfort of the Soviet system. Competing in her native country’s colors, she finished 10th in the all-around at Atlanta in 1996 but didn’t make the all-around finals four years later in Sydney.
Then again, she had a pretty good excuse, missing a lot of training in the year leading up to the games due to pregnancy. Considering Alisher was born a mere nine months before the 2000 Olympics, the fact she returned to training in time to make the Olympics was a victory in itself.
At 25 with an infant, she could have retired. It never crossed her mind, even after Alisher was diagnosed with cancer as a toddler. Looking for a chance to provide her son with the medical attention he needed, she moved to Germany, where she competed for a club team based in Cologne and used the winnings from competition to pay the bills.
Alisher fully recovered, and as a sign of gratitude Chusovitina offered to join the German national team. She went to take silver on the vault in Beijing in 2008 and came in ninth in the all-around at age 33.
Though Alisher and her husband Bakhodir Kurpanov have moved back to Uzbekistan, Chusovitina remained behind, believing she can still hang with girls half her age. She wasn’t wrong.
Her form looks as good, if not better, than it did in Spain two decades ago. She has qualified through her adopted nation of Germany for the team final.
The ride will end someday, and Chusovitina acknowledged she’s leaning heavily toward retirement though she hasn’t ruled out competing at the next Olympics just yet, speaking this weekend, she said: “I don’t know, I’m feeling good – maybe I’ll make it to Rio!”