I watched Aliya and Nailia Mustafina train at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow once a week for 4 months in 2007. I was only lucky enough to have this opportunity because I speak Russian and went in and showed their coach my British coaching certificates. She didn’t speak English but she can read a bit and agreed to let me watch once a week. It took a couple of months for them to trust me and start chatting to me a bit but it was the most fantastic experience. Their coach was very harsh with them though and there were tears almost every day. I can see how they got so good but after what I saw I don’t think it’s worth it.
In the United States, gymnastics has worked hard to remake its image after publications like Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and films like “The Perfect Body” played up the negative aspects of the sport. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, Shawn Johnson was portrayed as the everygirl who attends public school and goes to prom and football games in addition to being a world champion gymnast.
How far we’ve come since Kim Zmeskal was put on the cover of Newsweek in 1992 with the headline “Under Pressure: Do we push teen athletes too hard?”
The line today is that yes, there are eating disorders, abusive coaches and pushy stage parents, but those cases are few and far between. For the vast majority of gymnasts, there are a huge amount of positives to the sport, whether you wind up in the Olympics or not.
Unfortunately, what Natasha describes sounds much like the old Soviet system, which produced beautiful gymnasts partly perhaps by imposing very harsh training conditions.
Aliya Mustafina, 2008 Junior European Championships, Vault:
Nailia Mustafina, 2008 Gymnix Event Finals, Floor Exercise:
External link: Aliya Mustafina’s website (in Russian and English)
UPDATE: MX notes that Aliya is no longer being coached by the person Natasha saw her train with. “Their coach actually left Russia quite recently and Aliya (I don’t know about Nailia) is now being personally coached by Alexander Alexandrov.”