Uzbekistan's 44-year-old gymnast heads for 'last' Olympics

'If I'd stopped, I think I would have strongly regretted it,' says gymnast Oksana Chusovitina as she competes in her eighth Olympics

NO LETUP. The passion to compete continues to burn for gymnast Oksana Chusovitina. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images/AFP

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan – Aged 44 and readying for her eighth Olympics in Tokyo, Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina makes light of her record-breaking survival in a sport dominated by teen prodigies.

"I love gymnastics. I tell myself: why not train and perform while you still can?" Chusovitina said during a recent interview in Tashkent.

"If I'd stopped, I think I would have strongly regretted it."

But while the desire to compete still burns in Chusovitina, she said she has given her word to her family, whom she calls her "strongest motivation," that the Tokyo Games this year will be her "last Olympics".

Chusovitina started her career competing for the USSR but after it collapsed she got her first taste of the Olympics at Barcelona in 1992 in a team representing the ex-Soviet states.

There, she scooped team gold but she had to wait another 16 years – and 4 Games – for an individual Olympic medal.

That came when she won silver on the vault in Beijing in 2008. At that point, Chusovitina was representing Germany, after moving there in 2002 to get her son Alisher treatment for leukaemia that proved successful.

But Tokyo will be her fifth Olympics representing her Central Asian homeland of Uzbekistan – a nation of 33 million where she is so revered that she has featured on postage stamps.

Her appearance at the Rio Games in 2016 made her the only gymnast ever to compete in 7 consecutive Olympics.

Chusovitina told AFP during a break from practicing vaults that it was Alisher, now 20, who persuaded her to call time on a her career in top-level sport.

"He worries about me a lot, that I might get a bad injury or fall ill."

Her own favorite Olympic memory remains returning home from Beijing where her vault performance saw her share the podium with gymnasts from China and North Korea who were both a decade younger than her.

"When I got back the doctor gave me the news that my son was finally healthy," she recalled.

"I think for a mother that is news that you cannot compare any medal to."

A new chapter

Chusovitina's longevity as a top-level athlete may be no big deal to the star, but it is a continued source of inspiration for the young gymnasts who train with her daily at the Republican Gymnastic Centre in Tashkent.

"She is already an athlete of such a high level," said Lyudmila Li, Chusovitina's trainer.

"She knows her body and what it can do. Our only job is to help her maintain those levels."

Chusovitina's husband Bakhodir Kurbanov is himself a former Olympic competitor, representing Uzbekistan in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 1996 and 2000 Games.

He sacrificed his own career for his wife's and focused on helping Alisher battle leukaemia, a decision that causes him no regrets.

"We didn't plan for a fourth Olympics, let alone an eighth, but she has made us proud," Kurbanov said during an interview in their modest apartment on the outskirts of Tashkent.

"My son and I just try to keep up with her."

For the moment, Chusovitina is focused on Tokyo but she has plenty of plans for retirement.

One is to set up a gymnastics academy in Tashkent to bring through the next generation of Uzbek gymnasts.

Another is to take the beam and the vault to the stage in a "gymnastics theater show" that she hopes will be both a fitting farewell to her career in professional sport and a way of popularising the sport locally.

"I want our people to love gymnastics, to see how beautiful it is," she told AFP.

"When people see (the show) they will run to put their children in gym classes." –