Exclusive Q&A: Oleg Verniaiev on Olympic success, his Tokyo 2020 goals, Simone Biles and more

Of Biles, Verniaiev says, "I don't know in how many years or decades there will be one like her."
By Scott Bregman and Ekaterina Kuznetsova

Like the rest of the world, Olympic parallel bars champion Oleg Verniaiev of Ukraine is mesmerized by the gravity-defying efforts of Simone Biles.

"No one can understand how she does it," Verniaiev told Olympic Channel of the woman who has won some 30 World and Olympic medals in artistic gymnastics. "Because to be like her... I don't know in how many years or decades there will be one like her, or at least closely resembling her."

The 27-year-old, who took silver in the all-around final at Rio 2016 behind Japan's Uchimura Kohei, spoke with the Olympic Channel in August about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on his training, success at the Olympic Games, future goals, and more.

Below is a transcript of that interview, translated from Russian to English and lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olympic Channel (OC): Let's start from the very beginning. How did you get into your sport - artistic gymnastics?

Oleg Verniaiev (OV): My parents just took me to gymnastics school. My mother reached the first level in artistic gymnastics, so there was some knowledge about what it is. In kindergarten when I was little, me and another guy, my friend...We had too much energy. We probably annoyed the teachers, so they said: 'Make your children do some sports, probably gymnastics. So they have less energy.' And that's how I got into artistic gymnastics. So this is how my journey started.

My parents were supportive from the beginning. Dad would always say: 'You can do it, you can do it!'. Mum always dedicated so much time to it, as well. Time and attention, and in general since I was a child, we were moving to the same direction together with the same spirit.

OC: How does your family cheer for you? Do you have brothers or sisters who cheer for you as well?

OV: I'm the only one kid, maybe my dog supports me, but I'm not sure. (laughs) Pugs are too insolent in life so it is important that everyone cheers for him.

My parents go to almost all the big competitions with me, since 2013, mainly to the European Championship and to the World Championships. They are always with me, watching me.

OC: You were part of an epic battle in the Rio 2016 men's all-around final against Kohei Uchimura. What was it like to go toe-to-toe with such a great athlete?

OV: Actually, I wanted to compete with him for a long time. I was young and inexperienced, but I understood that maybe from 2013, thereabouts, I can approach the scores that are close to his results.

But it was probably my mistake because I always wanted... not to perform well, but try to beat him, and probably because of it I felt burned out. And then year after year, you gain the experience. I just arrived in Rio and I already understood that I can be his rival.

And for me, it felt not like it was before... Not the dream of a lifetime. I just understood that I was going to the Olympic Games and my main task was to go out and perform my entire program. It's not to compete with Kohei, not with David [Belyavskiy], not with Max [Whitlock], not with anyone else who will compete, Deng Shudi was one of the top 3, too. I just wanted to go out and do my program.

And it turned out that the coach prepared me perfectly for the Olympic Games. And I felt very fine and... performed not badly.

OC: Before that, in London, you finished 11th. Then four years later you became a champion. What was the main transformation behind that?

OV: In London, I was young... Probably, I knew, yes, the Olympic Games are so cool, the highest high. Cool! I got there so it's alright. In general, back then I was pretty well prepared, in 2012 before the Olympic Games, at the European Championship, I finished second on parallel bars. I lost to Marcel Nguyen, who became second on the parallel bars at the Olympic Games in London. But since the European Championship, Marcel left that program, and I added complexity to mine.

I had complexity like Feng Zhe, the Chinese athlete who won the Olympic Games. I had the same difficulty as him, 7 points. But because of the technical error, me and the coach didn't chalk the bars properly, I made the mistake and fell. I didn't get to the final.

But as for the rest... In general, it all started from the team final, when we were third and then ended up fourth [after an inquiry by the Japanese team]. Imagine, I am 18 years old, I felt burned out - too many emotions, so much going on, up and down, joy and disappointment.

I just remember that I went to the all-around without any emotions, I had neither strength nor adrenaline. I didn't feel anything. I just went out and did my job but I didn't have enough physical strength. I started from high and then mistake after mistake followed, taking me down.

OC: How was Rio 2016 different from London 2012?

OV: I approached Rio when I was 23 years old and in a much more conscious way. I was already the European champion more than once and [2014] world champion [on parallel bars]. I already understood gymnastics in a more mature way. The preparation was very different, we didn't go into too many places, you know, when you want to try this or that.

We were concretely preparing the all-around, we prepared the parallel bars and also aimed to try the pommel horse. And it all turned out. What we prepared got me into the final. The competition on vault and the pommel horse was tough. It did not turn out but my hopes were the all-around and parallel bars. In general, I showed the result and I am pleased. I have a medal in the all-around, of course, it's a pity that it's not a gold one. But it's sports, and it happens. But I also have a gold medal from the Olympic Games, so in general, my goal was fulfilled.

OC: What goals do you have left in your sport?

OV: Goals... Well, as you can see my cycle was not an easy one. In 2018, I went through two surgeries. In 2019, two surgeries. I didn't manage to fully recover so the postponement of the Olympic Games is probably more good news than sad news for me. Because my age allows me to [still compete] and there is time to work on new elements. The time is not just for recovering but working on upgrades to my competitive program.

As for my goals, I want to return to the all-around leaders race. Last year's world championships showed that I am capable of doing it and now we are working on it. At the same time, I will try to concentrate on parallel bars because there is a young Chinese man, Zou Jingyuan, he is very strong. He is two heads stronger than anyone else. In order not even to fight with him, but to even think about that, it is necessary to reach the same difficulty level as him or even preferably higher.

And if, difficulty-wise, you can't catch up with him, then as they say: 'Dream on.' Therefore, we work in this direction and it would be nice to try a few more apparatuses.

At the same time, we have a couple of young guys. Next year, they will move into the senior gymnastics group and I hope they will get better, just like we did in London, at 18 years old. They have a very high potential and - God willing - they will be healthy and will work... As you probably know when you are young - sometimes you work, sometimes you don't.

In general, I very much count on us to participate in the fight for the three spots in the team. I can't guarantee that, because it all depends on the overall team. But I would really like it to happen, because my dream is a team medal at big competitions. I would really like it, because I gave a lot of energy to compete for the team. In 10 years, I invested a lot for the team. I really want this work to lead to medals.

OC: How does it motivate you that young people can be better than you, the experienced one? And who are these young gymnasts that we can watch out for?

OV: My coach and a youth team coach work in tandem now. I work with the youth team and a couple more people. The youth is being pushed to compete with us. We have a reason to push harder so that the youngsters don't take over. That's how we are working together in a tandem now.

Speaking about the youngsters right now, they are: Illia Kovtun, he won three individual gold medals at the Youth Olympic Festival last year, and Nazar Chepurnyi, he is Youth Olympic Games Champion [in the mixed team competition]. These are the two young ones.

And now from older group, it is Evgen Yudenkov and Vladislav Hryko. These four people, five including me, we are now working together as one team. The guys keep growing and moving forward so I hope we will make something out of it.

Oleg Verniaiev celebrates after a performance at the 2017 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Montreal.

OC: You mentioned your injuries, so how is your body doing now, and how do you assess your current form?

OV: Now, it's hard to say, because due to COVID quarantine, we didn't train for two and a half months. As a grown-up, experienced gymnast, I completely stopped doing anything, I did not train at all, just slept and rested.

I gained a lot of weight and only now we are recovering and getting back to a certain regime. Therefore, what I can tell you is that I have a huge desire and a big incentive to work. It would be strange to talk about shape right now.

OC: You are known for competing quite a lot, so has time away from the sport been difficult for you?

OV: During quarantine, it was easy because I was resting. It became a grand vacation. But after, once we started to train, it was a little hard because you work and you don't know what you're working for. If, for example, you know that in December, you will have competitions - you get fit for December. But when you don't know when you have your first competitions, it's hard to work towards the maximum shape. This uncertainty is the hardest thing. But... I have this kind of belief that it's better to be ready and not to perform, than to be not ready and you are told to perform.

OC: What do you think is possible for you in Tokyo? Competing there will be Nikita Nagornyy and Artur Dalaloyan, can you catch up with them?

OV: I think there will not just be Dalaloyan and Nagornyy [to compete with]. I think there will be Xiao Ruoteng and Sam Mikulak. This is just from the current guys. We have such a sport that some 18-year-old guy can suddenly appear, and as they say, ‘get old people to think'.

With Nikita Nagornyy, he is in general a very good friend of mine. I am very close with him. I support a healthy rivalry. I was taught in a way that if I lost it was my mistake, and I just had to work more. So I was very happy when Nikita won the all-around, and I really have no envy or any problems about it.

I am in favor of the strongest one to win. I don't want controversy, discussions of judging, or something else. I know a lot of guys who come home and start saying: 'Oh, this guy was overscored and I was pulled down.’ And with time, you just realize that a person can't analyze his own work, thinking that he is an ideal athlete but he just doesn't have any luck because all the judges of the world are gathered against him, and try to favour someone. I am not on their side. The coach would always tell me: 'If I found a mistake in your work, that means the judges will see it even more. If I don't find any mistakes, then maybe the judges won't see them either.'

OC: Interesting philosophy, but here's a related question to what you said. If you could change anything in your sports - what would it be?

OV: Actually, I don't know.

This generation in which I am competing for the past 10 years... Thank God, I haven’t seen any meanness. I haven’t seen that someone that stole from someone or did something bad. It’s the opposite! When all the guys are together, it doesn't matter from where they are - the U.S., Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, France, Italy, Ukraine... All the guys work normally, cheerfully, in a cohesive way. Of course, we have such sport that judges decide. It's not athletics where robotics decides.

It might be interesting to try judging through machines. But if machines are there to judge, then, there will be no favors or anything. Perhaps it would have made you realize that in fact you are not treated so badly but rather fairly by the judges.

So I don't even know what you can change. I like it all, everything suits me.

OC: You've achieved a lot in your sport. What are the main difficulties you face in Ukraine in sports?

OV: In Ukraine... Well, the problem is, for example, with the medical area. All the surgeries and recoveries are on me. No one helps you in any way, we don't have good recovery centers on the Olympic base.

Our new base director, he tries to develop [better recovery resources], some devices were bought, at least something is being done. Before, none of it existed. For instance, all my surgeries I do at my own expense, all the recoveries are at my expense. I am very lucky, I know a physiotherapist from team Israel, Adam Wadir, and he has been leading me for five years. And if I have any questions I'm going to see him. Of course, it is expensive, but I understand that this is the man who already knows me by heart and no one can help me better than him.

But then again, I can't fly there every week. If I fly there, my training process is erased. So we have very big problems in medicine.

Plus, I would like to see the sport more popularized in the country, more funding. But due to the current situation of our country, it is hard to say it. Of course, you want something, but I'm already humbled. I have come to the conclusion that everyone lives in their own time. If we have it like that, so it should be.

On social media, I try to push our youngsters as much as I can in all the interviews. When I started, I did Instagram myself, tried to do something like that. Now I'm already trying to tell them about it and explain that the sooner you start, the more you do it, the faster you will be known.

But in addition to this, it is necessary to show the result. If you just post on Instagram but at the same only being 20th or 30th - nobody needs you. This should be done together or mutually. And so I am trying to explain these young people all these nuances and all the moments, so they already know about it and are ready for it.

OC: You’ve helped the Ukrainian men achieve a lot in gymnastics recently but Ukrainian women still have been struggling. Why do you think it's like that?

OV: It is just my opinion, I'm not an expert to say anything but earlier there were probably more experienced coaches in women's gymnastics. Whether you want it or not, you should look at the result. When we had [coach Oleg] Ostapenko, when he was younger, then we had medals at all competitions. In 2008, our last team of girls performed in a very worthy way but still without any medals and that's it, it all went down afterward.

Probably you have to do something with the coaches because when, over five years, I keep hearing that the young athletes are bad - I don't believe it. It can't be that one coach has all the bad kids. This is unrealistic. There will be five uninterested in gymnastics but at the same time, two who would want it and will be talented. They need to be helped. But it can't be that through the span of some years, all kids are bad but coaches are great.

OC: It's a tough question to ask, but looking from the outside in. What are your thoughts on the abuse situations that have been reported in gymnastics in the United States and Great Britain? What do you feel for athletes who spoke up about this topic and revealed what happened to them?

OV: I find violence inadmissible. When someone yells at you that you are a fool, that you are bad and you get a cuff on the nape or beaten up - it's wrong and I'm against it. I believe that such coaches should be kicked out or punished.

You know, a coach should not only be a coach, he should also be a psychologist, he should make the child interested, intrigued, make it into some kind of a game, to provoke somewhere beautifully, to motivate him - it's like a game with the child, to make them interested. If the child is uninterested, you won't force him to do it in any way.

That's why I think I was incredibly lucky with my first coach - Olga Ermakova. She's in Australia now coaching. She played with us all the time. She knew, for example, that with me, you can easily provoke me with a game. She knew how to get me started on something. And she always engaged me with a game. I always wanted to win, always, and so she was the right person to lead me.

When I moved to Kiev to my current coach, Sartinsky, he knows where to provoke me. Sometimes he would say: 'Well, you're all old, you can't do anything.' And I go: 'What do you mean, I'm old?' And so it triggers you. Or he comes to you and says: 'Try to do that, and I'll give you a small gift for it.' And you think: 'Why not?'

OC: Talking about your future. What do you plan to do after gymnastics and do you see yourself in the role of coach?

OV: Honestly, in the role of coach, probably no, because I have analyzed many times how my coach leads me. I don't understand how he does it! I don't know how he thinks through everything so globally. I'm sitting and just like a little kid, I don't understand what's going on. My thing is to work, you just tell me how.

Of course, I would love to pass on my personal experience to gymnasts. But to become a good coach... At the moment, I probably couldn't be even if I wanted to, and I don't want to take chances on that. In any case, I would like to stay in gymnastics, to develop it, to help to promote, to do something about it.

OC: What motivates you to stay in sports?

OV: I perform a lot, I go to many competitions... I don't know, it just brings me crazy pleasure. I caught myself thinking that it was like a drug to me. I'm addicted to it. When I arrive, I don't want to train as much as I want to perform. I am just being pulled and pulled and pulled into it. When I was in a good shape, three-four months with no competition and I just can't... I can't train, my head goes crazy because I need to compete. And now that was missing.

When I first got out of shape with injuries. I sat thinking: 'well, cool, I will manage to rest.' And then I watched the European Championships on TV in 2017 with our guys and I sat and thought: 'Ah, why am I not there? I should be there. I already want it.' My shoulder was still in the cast, you know but I already want to go there, and I realized I'm just addicted.

For me, this is the biggest motivation. It is not my job, but a pleasure.

OC: Clearly, you love to compete. But did you ever think about better funding and fewer competitions?

OV: You know, a lot of coaches, even the ones who currently work in our gym, told me that I am not working correctly, I am performing too much, that I do a lot of things incorrectly. But, as a result, I became an Olympic champion.

We compete exactly as much as I need. If I believe that I need to perform, it means we go to competitions. Because you know, I really get my program nailed down at competitions. If I have an opportunity before the Olympic Games to compete a couple of times, I will take all these opportunities. I will compete for the first time and will see where I have all the imperfections and will correct them. It's like this every time, so for me it's more convenient like this.

OC: How would you like to be remembered in sports?

OV: It's my dream and the goal to win the Olympic Games once more and to show both the good people and my haters, who, even in the gym, talk behind my back, saying that I am done with my gymnastics… I want to show that surgeries or injuries is not the end of the career. You can come back after anything and be only stronger. This is a big indicator when you have had four surgeries in two years, and then, in some time, you become some kind of a champion, either Olympic or world champion. It's the answer to all questions.

Perhaps, this could motivate some people not to be afraid of it because many people psychologically break after the injuries. They think: 'That's it, I will not be back anymore. I won't be able to.' It's not true, it's all in your head, and how you direct yourself from there will determine the course.

OC: You mentioned haters. How do you react to them?

OV: In general, I feel calm about hate. It makes me laugh, sometimes it motivates me; sometimes it's just fun. I don't pay attention to such people because the person who works and who has the courage to come up and tell it to your face – this, I respect.

I like these kind of people a lot. Those who write you from fake accounts, those are 'couch experts' - I don't even pay attention to them. The person who can't openly express the opinion - I have nothing to talk with them about. That's why I'm calm about it.

OC: What does it mean to people in Ukraine that you’ve achieved such success in gymnastics?

OV: There are certainly people who recognize me on the street. My Rio story turned out very interestingly. At first I didn't win, couldn't quite reach the Olympic gold medal.

And, then, I became Olympic champion and as it created a certain hype in gymnastics, people recognized me. Many people won't approach or tell you anything, but when you enter a new group of people or for example, in the taxi... 'Oh, is it really you? I was watching and cheering for you. We know you but didn't want to bother and say anything. But we know you, we cheered for you.' People started recognizing me a lot, it's awesome and very flattering.

OC: The coronavirus pandemic became a forced vacation for you, but otherwise, you just don't stop. What about your previous vacation. When was it last time?

OV: In 2017, I went to the Maldives. I was dating a girl then. I already went through the Olympic Games, and I knew I would have surgery in January so I went in December. I just wanted to fly somewhere far away where there are fewer people

So, it was just the two of us there for 10 days. I was with the girl and disconnected from everything, from the world, from social networks, from everything. We just had such a blast there, so my last proper vacation was in 2017.

OC: For those people who don't know you - how can you describe yourself in just three words?

OV: Faithful. Probably stubborn, and third… I don't know how to correctly describe it - nasty or harmful. I am often called harmful, my nickname is 'devoted' [Note: ‘vernyy’ in Russian, which is word play with his last name Verniaev. Harmful is vrednyy in Russian].

I am often being told: 'You are not devoted but harmful.... 'You are not vernyy but vrednyy.' So I choose these three words, 'devoted, stubborn, and harmful.'

OC: Would you like to create your own element in gymnastics, like Simone Biles has, for example, so that everyone remembers you for that?

OV: Oh, this Simone Biles (smiles). She already has more elements of her own than in the whole gymnastics. (laughs)

Maybe I would have liked that, but at the moment, I just don't see the element I could create because doing an element of very little complexity just for the sake of it having your name...It makes no sense to me. To do something extra difficult… I have not yet come up with such an element.

My priority is about creating a program with which you can win. Of course, when there is an opportunity to come up with such elements and make them happen, it's cool because it's history. But I haven't worked it out yet.

OC: Who do you look up to in gymnastics?

OV: As they say: 'Don't create yourself an idol.' But there are great people in our national team, for example, incredible gymnasts like [1992 Olympic champion Igor] Korobchynskyi, [1991 World champion and 1992 Olympic gold medallist Grigory] Misutin. It's just world-class stars.

[Four-time Olympic champion Alexei] Nemov is also a name, especially in the Russian-speaking countries, an incredible name in gymnastics.

I always had Kohei as my example because it was always interesting for me to look at him, in the gym and outside of the gym and at competitions.

At the moment, of course, the person that everyone is amazed and surprised about, and no one can understand how she does it - is, of course, Simone Biles. Because to be like her... I don't know in how many years or decades there will be one like her, or at least closely resembling her.