Mother Russian: New mom Mustafina leads Russia at worlds
Russiaâs Aliia Mustafina performs on the floor during qualifying sessions for the Gymnastics World Chamionships at the Aspire Dome in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press) October 28 at 1:17 PM
DOHA, Qatar â" Aliya Mustafina understands she didnât have to come back. Nobody would have blamed the Russian star gymnast for calling it a career after the birth of her child Alisa in the spring of 2017.
The demands of pregnancy and motherhood typically donât play nice with the demands of being a world-class gymnast, particularly one as decorated as Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist and 2010 world all-around champion. Thatâs one of the reasons the 24-year-old was intent on doing it anyway.
Her message: You shouldnât have to choose between two loves.
âWhen you become a mother, your life doesnât end,â Mustafina said Sunday after guiding a young Russian team to second place in qualifying at the 2018 world championships. âIf thereâs a thing you can do that gives you pleasure, you do it.â
Particularly if you can do it as dramatically â" and occasionally spectacularly â" as Mustafina.
Anchoring the Russians on uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam, Mustafina restored a bit of order to qualifying on a day the Canadians rose to a surprising fourth, while Britain, considered an emerging power two years ago after finishing fifth at the 2016 Olympics, failed to make the eight-team final.
âIâm very happy,â Mustafina said. âI was missing the emotions, the equipment, the girls, everything.â
It showed. Sixteen months removed from bringing Alisa into the world, Mustafina was back in her fa miliar spot as the foundation around which the Russian team is built. Sheâs helping 18-year-old Angelina Melnikova, 16-year-olds Irina Alekseeva and Angelina Simakova, and 21-year-old Lilia Akhaimova find their footing on the world stage.
âSheâll kind of lead everybody, tell everybody, âCalm down, itâs OK,ââ said Alekseeva, who earned a spot in the all-around final after being 12th in qualifying. âSometimes weâll be doing routines and sheâll just be talking about it. She knows weâre new, but sheâs done it so many times.â
Not too many, however, that the novelty has worn off. If anything, becoming a parent helped Mustafina realize how deeply she and a sport sheâs helped define have become so intertwined.
âItâs my passion and it makes me feel better all the time,â Mustafina said.
Russia edged ahead of China for second in qualifying, though its team score of 165.497 was nearly nine points behind the Americans. Such is the dom inance the U.S. has over the rest of the world at the moment that the gap between first and second (8.932) was greater than the gap between Russia and 12th-place Italy (8.667).
While the Americans, reigning Olympic champions, are heavy favorites to continue a winning streak that dates back to the 2011 world championships, there is a mad scramble behind them.
Itâs a mix that now includes Canada. A year after Ellie Black finished second in the all-around on home turf in Montreal, the Canadians surged past Japan, Brazil, France and Germany to crack the top four.
âWeâve had a lot of girls working really hard doing a great job of pushing the limits of Canadian gymnastics,â Black said. âSo now weâre having a bigger pool to choose from and I think thatâs great for our team.â
Some teams have taken on a decidedly American flavor in hopes of making inroads on the United Statesâ dominance.
Alekseeva was born in Moscow but moved to the U.S. w hen she was in elementary school, training in Dallas. She was a rising star as a junior, winning the all-around title at U.S. Classic in 2016, a meet in which 2017 world champion Morgan Hurd finished fifth and current world team member Riley McCusker came in ninth.
An inability to obtain U.S. citizenship forced Alekseeva to change course. When Russian officials asked her if she wanted to come home, she jumped at the opportunity. On Tuesday, sheâll find herself competing as a Russian against several American women she thought would one day be her teammates.
Sheâs not too worried about it getting awkward.
âIâve talked to some of the girls like over social media and stuff and theyâre all nice and supportive, both the Russians and the Americans, so I think weâll be fine,â Alekseeva said.
Chinaâs national team coach is Liang Chow, who helped 2012 Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and four-time Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson soar to glory. The hiri ng was a homecoming of sorts for Chow, who competed internationally for China before moving to the U.S. and starting a wildly successful gym in Iowa.
Chowâs challenge is reviving a program that while still elite has slipped over the last decade.
âYou know, after 2008, their performances are going down,â Chow said. âI think itâs good for me to help out a little bit.â
Valeri Liukin is trying to do the same for Brazil, which offered him a job not long after he stepped down as the U.S. national team coordinator in January, less than 18 months after being hired as Martha Karolyiâs replacement.
Liukin, the father of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin, declined to talk about if he had second thoughts about his decision to step away. On Tuesday night, heâll lead the Brazilians onto the floor against an American powerhouse he helped developed.
âItâs very different,â Liukin said. âIt feels very weird to me, too. Itâs not easy. But like I said, I love the sport of gymnastics. This is my life. No matter what happens, I will do this.â
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