At 37, gymnast Chusovitina still going strong

Associated Press  |  Last updated July 26, 2012
Oksana Chusovitina shouldn't be here. Not wearing a leotard anyway. A coach's sweat suit maybe, but certainly not a uniform. Yet there the well-traveled 37-year-old was on Thursday, grinding through gymnastics podium training at The O2 Arena with German teammates closer in age to her 12-year-old son Alisher. Precise on beam. Powerful on vault. Same as it ever was for one of the most remarkable athletes of her generation. In a sport where 20 can be considered ancient (just ask the recently retired Shawn Johnson), London will be Chusovitina's sixth Olympics. Yes. Sixth. ''You can see that that there are not many gymnasts her age,'' said 18-year-old teammate Elisabeth Seitz. Or any, for that matter. And this isn't some publicity stunt. Chusovitina remains among the elite. She took silver on vault at last fall'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 help. Still remarkably fit if not as well-muscled as some of her contemporaries and sporting an ''all business'' pixie haircut, 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. Maybe not. 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 bout with leukemia to an adopted country that has welcomed her guidance, not to mention her pretty useful scores. Born in Uzbekistan, Chusovitina was a rising star when the USSR collapsed, helping the Unified Team win gold in Barcelona in 1992 and placing seventh on floor. She returned to Uzbekistan following the games 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 alibi, missing an extensive amount of time 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 games 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. All she did was win silver on vault in Beijing in 2008 and come 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. While Chusovitina can't do the difficult Amanar - the world's hardest vault attempted by only a handful of gymnasts - she makes up for it with consistency, sticking her landings with such force it's as if her feet are magnetized to the mat. Go to YouTube and her form looks as good, if not better, than it did in Spain two decades ago. She'll go to work on vault and beam for Germany when team qualification starts Sunday as her adopted country looks to improve on its sixth-place finish in Tokyo last October. The ride will end someday, and Chusovitina acknowledged she's leaning heavily toward retirement. She plans on bringing her husband and son (now an avid soccer player who considers Germany home) back to Cologne at some point so she can focus on the next phase of her life. Whenever it begins. After what she's accomplished, it might be too early to rule out a run at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro ''I don't know,'' she said with a laugh. ''Maybe I'll want to compete in Brazil.''
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