marina nazarova

Sergei Starkin on Aliya Mustafina:

-Last season you started working with Aliya Mustafina, who had always been considered a team player and a tough competitor. But my impression is, after becoming Olympic champion in London, she just never found a good enough reason to keep going. Has that changed?

- Yes, and very noticeably. I think it happened after Glasgow Championship. It is my subjective opinion, but during that competition Aliya realized that she still wants to be there for the team, to not only be willing to help but also to be able to do that. In other words, she thoroughly evaluated her abilities.

- Is it easier to work with her after that?

- Yes. I think we reached the mutual understanding. As I already said elsewhere, if the coach sets unreasonable goals for the athlete and pushes him too much, only considering his own perspective on training, this will lead to struggle. In a situation like this the athlete will first resist this regimen and then both sides will start to complain. It is completely different from working when you are at ease, when there is a psychological comfort there. Do you get what I’m trying to say?

- Not really.

- I’ll explain. The gymnast always feels when he is not able to meet expectations of the coach.

- Is not able to or does not want to?

- No one knows this for sure, unless the they say it. Technically, if someone is always on time at the gym and does what he’s asked to, what can you blame him for? The lack of trust can be very hurtful. For a while the athlete might tolerate this, but then he’ll just leave. I’m not talking about Mustafina now, just the issue overall. But I’m glad that me and Aliya did not have to go through it.  

-At Euros many people noticed that Aliya considerably upgraded beam. Why did not she do the same with bar routine?

- First, let’s define “considerable upgrade”

- Well, up to London Olympics, difficulty and execution of Aliya’s bars routine were unreachable for most of her competitors. In Bern she was only third, while I personally thought her potential on bars to be almost unlimited.

- We circled back to the same statement: we, me and you, can think whatever we want, and wish for anything. But in reality, the situation is different. When Aliya and I started working together, it was decided that she will keep training bars with Evgeniy Grebenkin, as she did, very successfully, for many years. Together we set the goals for current season and did our best. We had a few ideas that could have helped to increase the difficulty, but it all came down to what she can physically handle.

-Are you talking about the injuries piling up?

-Essentially, yes. There is always something - back, knee or wrists. When we go to Germany to get treatment, we go all together: me, Denis and Aliya. Going back to bars, I’m absolutely sure that Mustafina can challenge on this apparatus. There are other gymnasts with higher D-score, but if we are talking execution I do not know anyone who can touch her. You must have noticed that even when she is doing the hardest elements she makes it look easy.

Aliya got bronze on bars at Euros because she made a mistake in the EF. She did not make any on beam. A lot of the credit for this should go to Marina Nazarova who trains Mustafina on beam.

-Why did you choose Nazarova?

-I do not know how to answer.. I did not second-guess this at all. For many years Marina had been the coach who is on the podium with our girls during competitions. Even when they are performing and do not see her, or only see her on the sidelines, it is very important for them to know that she is there, to feel her support. For the same reason Grebenking is always near Aliya when she does  bars. It is not about trusting or not trusting personal coach. The point is that your athlete should feel absolutely secure (comfortable) while performing.

-You did not raise FX difficulty because of Mustafina’s health issues?

-While preparing for Euros we deliberately concentrated on bars and beam only. What will we change in Aliya’s floor and how exactly will we do it - remains undetermined.

- Will you go to the Russian Cup?

- At first we did not plan to: Aliya does not have to go through team selection process, and mentally she is very tough, there is no need to put that to the test. But then we  decided that the Cup is a great opportunity to do AA.  After all, this  discipline in gymnastics requires special attention.

- What do you think about chances of our WAG team?

- I think they are pretty good. And the number of teams that can challenge for medals is limited. American and Chinese teams are traditionally very strong, but we are strong (not weak) as well. Overall the situation is much like the one on the men’s side - there is nothing totally new, we are quite familiar with all the competitors

-So you are saying, in four years since London no new female gymnast emerged that can make you go “Wow”?

- No one like Simone Biles or Mustafina for sure. Meanwhile in men’s gymnastics there are a lot of new competitors.

- Two-times Olympic champion Denis Pankratov once said that he was sure - when he wins Olympic gold it will be something unbelievable. And he was very disappointed when it was not. Besides, it is virtually impossible to make motivate yourself to start over yet again when you know that there will be nothing new for you on this path.  

- That’s is more or less true. This is why I have an immense respect for Mustafina. Because of the constant need to push through the pain any other athlete in her situation would have worn out long ago. This is not only about character, but also about upbringing and the strength of spirit. So I was very happy when I realized that Aliya has some fire in a belly and wants to fight for the team. It is harder to do it just for yourself.