Rio Olympics 2016: Age just a number for athlete who made debut in 1992

By Jonathan Liew

Oksana Chusovitina prepares the balance beam for her routine during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification in Rio. Photo / AP
Oksana Chusovitina prepares the balance beam for her routine during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification in Rio. Photo / AP

The video is grainy, but you can still make her out in her black leotard, her hair tied back, her face furious with concentration. Against a backdrop of "Barcelona '92" banners, she vaults and leaps and twists and swings as if it is all she knows how to do. A 17-year-old with the world at her feet, and hands, and feet again.

Barcelona 1992 was Oksana Chusovitina's first Olympics. Representing the Unified Team, she won the team gold medal, and you can still see the footage on YouTube. You almost feel melancholy watching it, knowing all the things about her that she does not yet.

She has not yet torn her biceps, her Achilles, her cruciate ligament. She does not know that she will marry an Uzbekistani wrestler called Bakhodir, and that they will have a son whose childhood leukaemia will make her sick with worry. She does not know that they will be forced to emigrate to Cologne for his treatment and that she will become a German citizen. And she cannot possibly know that in 2016, she will still be an Olympian at the age of 41.

The usual lifespan of a gymnast is one or two Olympics. The luckiest get three. To compete at seven is almost beyond the realms of comprehension.

"How can someone her age dare to do that to their body?" jokes the legendary Nadia Comaneci, who won three gold medals at the 1976 Games in Montreal at 14 - and then retired at 19.

Similar contortions are required to put Chusovitina's longevity into any sort of context. Her son Alisher is older than the youngest gymnast in Rio. One of her Barcelona team-mates is now her assistant coach. And so to describe Chusovitina as merely the oldest Olympic gymnast in history is pifflingly faint praise.

Yet Barcelona remains her only Olympic gold to date. Afterwards she returned to her birth country of Uzbekistan, where she toiled for years in a substandard gym with rusty bars and bent cables. It did not prevent her from winning five World Championship medals in her favourite discipline, the vault. By the turn of the century, she was considering winding down her career and moving into coaching. Only a cruel twist of fate forced her to keep competing.

Alisher was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002, and Chusovitina knew that Uzbekistan's patchy medical system would be ill-equipped to help. At the invitation of a friend, she moved to Cologne, funding her son's lengthy and complicated treatment via donations, contributions from friends and family and her prize money from gymnastics.

She began competing for Germany in 2006 and claimed her second Olympic medal, a silver, in Beijing two years later. She returned home to even better news: after six years, Alisher's cancer was finally gone.

By now, of course, she was having far too much fun to give up competing. And she found that she had been doing it so long she barely needed to train.

"I do a lot of mental training," she told ESPN. "I typically put in two hours in the gym. Then I visualise exactly how the skill needs to be done, and I know exactly what my body needs to be doing."

Will she ever stop? Maybe not. She announced that London 2012 would be her last Games, only to change her mind the morning after her event. And as long as she is still competitive, why not? If she can nail her Produnova vault - known in the sport as the "vault of Death" - then even a remarkable medal is not out of the question.

And if she fails? Well, when you are Chusovitina, there is always another Olympics around the corner.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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