Aliya Mustafina : Twelve Reasons Why...
Today Russia’s Aliya Mustafina turns eighteen years old. She is still so young, but has already achieved so much in her short life.
If any gymnast could be described as ‘the’gymnast of the last quad, in the same way Cheng Fei was described as ‘the’ gymnast of the 2004-2008 quad, for her gymnastics, her personality, her personal story, her uniqueness and presence, it has to be Aliya Mustafina. In four short years she brought so much to the story of gymnastics. At first, she entered the gymnastics world as a promising, hotly anticipated junior. Then she became a sixteen-year-old rookie, unleashed upon the world who lived up to her promise fully and astonishingly. Sure, some will say, so what? Other gymnasts did that too in this quad.
But there is more to Mustafina’s story. There is the way she was the part of the squad that was the new hope of Russian gymnastics, taking the first World team gold in twenty years with such conviction and confidence, taking the title so utterly convincingly just two years after the Russian women departed Beijing medal-less. Then they produced a new World AA champion who was competitive and talented and charismatic in a way no Russian gymnast had managed to be since Khorkina. In this way, her presence changed the gymnastics-scape for this quad. There are the unique skills and combinations, the way she combined difficulty with a kind of regal elegance. There were the fearless eyes and enigmatic smile. There is the massive, potentially career-ending injury, chased by the mammoth comeback. There is the intensity with which she competes, and the joy with which she celebrates her victories. There was Hijo la Luna on floor, imaginatively connected Onodi’s on beam and mind-blowing bars sets. There was personality and presence. And then there was London, a dream- somewhat different than the one set out for her in 2010- realised.
So, in honour of Aliya Mustafina’s birthday, twelve reasons why her last four years has commanded- no demanded- my respect…..
Beauitful baby Mustafina. Remember when she was the pretty, elegant little gymnast, a tiny brunette ballerina ever second to her powerful, bouncing blonde friend Nabieva? And though we all loved her sweet dance and toe point, we used to wonder if she would ever be able to catch up in difficulty to her tough and talented team mate in getting the big skills. Then came the 2010 Mustafina, with huge skills to match her polish and presence, and our hopes were realised.
Mustafina = Russia was back. Yep, part of our delight in witnessing Mustafina’s 2010 success was tightly wrapped up in the delicious fact that those dramatic, mercurial and brilliant Russians of old were back, baby. How we had missed them seeing them battling it out with the fierce Americans, the stoic Romanians and the virtuosic Chinese again on the competition floor. Led by their brilliant young rookies, they were back in the battle. I hope they are here to stay.
Her bars. Mustafina is a great all arounder, there is no doubting that. But if there is anywhere where she truly shines, it is on bars. Here, all her best qualities come to the fore. There is her ability to perform huge levels of difficulty. That Tktachev to Pak to stalder half on the low bar at the American Cup, chased by a toe-on shoot transition was a breath-stealer. Then there tucked full-in half-out dismount- so difficult, so solid and exciting And this is the apparatus where she is also the cleanest, with few of the form issues she can show on her tumbling and vaulting. And then there is the mere fact she is a Russian-trained, born bar-worker, which shows in her rhythm, her natural swing and, like the best bar workers, her ability to always improve and always innovate. It is here I admire her most.
Her competitive intensity. People call Mustina’s competition demeanour all kinds of things. Some brand her diva, or stuck-up, while others simply love it. No doubt about it, she moves around the competition floor with such presence and conviction, that it makes her competition ever more interesting to witness. I will never ever forget Mustafina on the night she was crowned World AA Champion. Never before had I seen a gymnast, let alone a sixteen-year-old gymnast so calm, so aloof, so apparently unruffled by the immensity of what was happening around her. It was captivating. As one Russian article said after her victory; “In her eyes was reflected Damascus steel. She really is afraid of nothing. And for her there are, and can be, no limits or prohibitions. At least on the podium. She does not know anything else yet. And does not want to know.” Her father once told a story of her in a competition, that mirrored this very image, when he realised her competitive spirit for himself. He approached her on the competition floor; “She was by herself, warming up, practicing some skills, and I shouted, “Aliya! Aliya!” -And she didn’t even turn her head in my direction. At that moment I realized that she was no longer a child, but instead, a warrior.”
Her tenacity. The one small comfort after Mustafina’s devastating vault accident in 2011, when gymnastics fans prayed the Russian’s serious knee injury would not end what was the beginning of a brilliant career, was the sight of Mustafina back in the gym so soon after the fact. It was only a very short time before we were greeted with the comforting sight of the determined Russian back at Round Lake, lugging her her huge knee brace around the gym working as fiercely as ever, desperate to return to her sport- to her form- of old. There was such comfort to be taken in this young woman’s tenacity and resilience. In some way, shape or form, she would be back. She even told journalists during that difficult period of post-injury training, where she was not allowed to vault, and had to dismount bars into a pit for eight months, that she would leave training and go back to the residence and work on her leg conditioning in the stairwell. This, my friends, is what you call die hard determination.
Her relationship with her coach. The ray of light in all the Russian coaching drama this week has been the news that Alexander Alexandrov, while no longer Russian head coach, has no intention of leaving his pupil. The story of their coach-gymnast relationship, told in bits and pieces in the media since 2010, has been a source of much interest and much amusement for gymnastics fans and commentators. Handed Mustafina after her former coach quickly and dramatically departed for the USA, Alexandrov was told to be ready for a heart-attack when he took on this new pupil. While his new, immensely talented and competitive protege did not give him the promised heart attack, Alexandrov had made it clear that coaching Mustafina has been no easy feat. Mustafina herself has admitted to going for days without speaking to her coach. Yet in some ways, it seems quite a happy relationship. And, as Alexandrov has joked, he kind of likes it like that; “Yes, I actually like it when my nerves are frayed.” he once said, ”Argue, quarrel – and then at once find a working tone! And when they get up on a pedestal, you experience such happiness! This moment atones for everything.”
Her commitment to gymnastics. When asked what would be a reason not to come to practice, she responded with ‘Death’.
Her strong sense of team. Despite all the attention paid her and her dominance in the 2010 World Championships, and all the meets beyond, Mustafina has always seemed to be the consummate team gymnast. Despite the fact that early in her Round Lake days she claims she was disliked by the other girls because of the way she ‘walked alone’, Mustafina has grown into what appears to be a loyal and loving team mate. She demonstrated this time and time again in Rotterdam. Every time team baby Anna Dementyeva went up on the apparatus, even when in direct competition with Aliya in beam finals, Aliya was there at the side of the podium, coaching and calling to her. When Nabieva competed In vault finals, it was Mustafina who talked her though the motions, sweetly and somewhat comically holding her foot as she leaned onto the podium and coached her team mate and friend. When Ksenia Afanasyeva faltered in floor finals it was Mustafina who comforted her and walked her from the floor. She appeared to be everywhere and anywhere her team mates needed her to be. And as we all saw in London, it was Mustafina who held Komova closely as the tiny gymnast at the end of the all around competition as Komova vainly awaited the score she hoped for, just two years after being in that position herself, ready to comfort or celebrate, to do whatever needed to be done.
She openly admires other gymnasts. While Mustafina has insisted she does not want to be compared to Khorkina, that she is her own gymnast, she has also been generous in her compliments of other gymnasts, even those outside Russia, such as Nastia Liukin, who she claimed to admire for her elegance, her difficulty and her beauty on bars.
She is human. The Mustafina we saw at the 2012 Europeans was a frightening sight. This was not in any way the pre-injury Aliya we had so enjoyed or the post-injury Aliya her domestic results had favoured. There were flashes of trademark Mustafina, in a beautifully landed DTY, and in her alluring dance on floor, but we still had to face the prospect that, despite all her work and all her determination, Mustafina might not be able to get it all together in time for London, or even more frighteningly, ever. The coaches had said, and history had told us, that returning from this kind of knee injury is one of the hardest things for a gymnast to do. Now we were confronted with the fact that even someone who had seemed superhuman, might in fact only be human.
She allowed us to be surprised. While D score potential told us who were the top medal contenders coming into the Olympics, Aliya’s injury and her mixed performances in 2012 gave no clear picture of what to expect in London. That, it turns out, was part of the fun.I miss the the element of surprise of surprise in gymnastics. While the new code has done a lot to reward difficulty in gymnastics, it has also made things a little more predictable. The upside of this, however, is that, this makes surprises even more valuable. And if there were a handful of delightful surprises at the Olympic Games, such as Deng Linlin’s gold on beam, and Team Canada’s team efforts, Mustafina’s dominance at the Games, when even the Russian coaches were talking pre-Games as though they had no idea what to expect from her, was astonishing- and wonderful.
Her comeback. Everybody loves a comeback. If her incredible performances in 2010 didn’t win you to the Mustafina side, her performances in London probably did. Who can resist the hero who has fallen and then resurrected herself so surprisingly, so bravely and so successfully? And if you didn’t feel at least a teeny touch of the joy Mustafina so clearly felt at the Games, in her ability to return from such devastating injury, to hush the doubters. If you didn’t feel a tiny pang of empathetic happiness at that calm, sated smile when she saw she’d made the podium in the all around after all the work and tears of a hard-fought comeback, then you must be made of stone.
Welcome to adulthood, Aliya, may you inhabit it with the same talents, drive and tenacity with which you moved through your childhood.
Article: Brigid McCarthy