Exclusive! Aliyá Mustáfina: "I'm probably the biggest obstacle to myself."

The reigning two-time uneven bars Olympic champion opens up about her daily life, the future, and the many lessons gymnastics has taught her. 

By Ekaterina Kuznetsova and Rory Jiwani

Russia's seven-time Olympic medallist in artistic gymnastics, Aliyá Mustáfina calls herself "unbreakable".

Why? "Because I absolutely don't care who thinks what about me," she told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.

Since her country's COVID-19 quarantine was lifted, Mustáfina is back to full-time training during the week and spending her weekends with her three-year-old daughter Alisa.

The uneven bars champion at London 2012 and Rio 2016 says as far as making Tokyo 2020 is concerned, "I'm probably the biggest obstacle to myself. First you have to win over yourself and then think about the Games."

The 25-year-old is the subject of an Olympic Channel film entitled 'Life in the Day of Aliyá Mustáfina' where she talks about how she always enjoyed competing against Aly Raisman and now Simone Biles.

"What I really like about our sport is we compete on the floor but we're friends off it." - Aliyá Mustáfina

Olympic Channel: Hello Aliya! How are you and how is your training going?

Aliyá Mustáfina: Everything is going well. The practice is just beginning because of the quarantine. Everything is happening slowly.

OC: How was your life affected by the quarantine?

AM: I can't say that quarantine affected me greatly or in a bad way. Everything in general was a little bit different because there was no training and I had to stay at home. I try to always find the positives in such situations... so I took the time to stay at home with my daughter and develop myself. It wasn't boring.

I played a lot with Alisa, with educational games, stickers, drawing, just hanging out together. I was cooking for her and I became very engaged in cooking because I like it a lot. I am also trying to start to learn English as well as reading books and other interesting stuff.

OC: The Tokyo Olympic Games have been postponed for a year. How has that affected your plans?

AM: It hasn't affected me a great deal. Thinking about Tokyo, it may even be an advantage in my case. Whether I go or not... time will tell. I will not say anything yet.

OC: What will be the biggest obstacle between you and a third Olympic Games?

AM: I'm probably the biggest obstacle to myself. First you have to win over yourself and then think about the Games.

OC: What does that mean - 'to win over yourself'?

AM: Probably first of all, it's my head, my thoughts... I try to deal with it. It's not just doing what is needed but what I really want. Because if there's no desire, it's unlikely that things will work out.

OC: In March, you said you stopped training during summer. Did you have thoughts of retiring at that point?

AM: There were different thoughts there. Every day something new is happening.

OC: You've been written off before - prior to London and Rio - does that provide extra motivation for you to prove people wrong?

AM: To prove something to other people - I don't see the point, not in anything, not ever. To prove something to yourself - yes, this adds motivation. It's much more important to know what you want to achieve and how you want to do it.

OC: Your daughter Alisa is growing up and in our film, Life in the Day, you say she is your big motivation. What would it mean for you to be in Tokyo and for Alisa to watch you there?

AM: She's already seen me on TV, at the World Championships. Now the most important thing for me is that everything I do brings her joy. It's joyful and fun for her to see me on TV - it's probably worth trying for this.

To do something for my daughter, I have to do it for myself. Then later, I can share it with her. Therefore, it's all for us.

OC: You say that what other people think is not important. You have many followers on Instagram. How do you react if you see something negative?

AM: For a long time I didn't receive anything very bad. Probably after the first Olympics there were people who left negative comments but somehow at the right moment I managed to answer them correctly then they just stopped writing them.

I've never felt really hurt by anything. If it's a person's opinion, OK, and if they stated it, no problem. It doesn't affect me in any way. But if it was about my family, my close friends, it hurt me more because... I understand that not everyone can answer like me or react as I did. Therefore I was trying to defend them.

OC: You've said before that you're a fairly closed person. How difficult is it for you to be in the public eye?

AM: The hardest thing for me is to speak publicly and without being prepared. I'm quite closed but with age, time and experience I've learned how to give interviews well and not to shy away from or fear them. So it's not a problem anymore.

OC: Going back to 2011, you tore an anterior knee cruciate ligament which looked set to rule you out of London 2012. What motivated you to make the Games?

AM: The biggest help for me was that I was at Krugloye Ozero (training camp) and I practically didn't stop training despite the injury. I had coaches, friends, doctors with me and the environment didn't change and therefore it never dawned on me that it was the sort of injury that could wreck my plans. Yes, I couldn't jump and walk, but I could do a lot of other exercises.

The most important thing was that the rhythm of my life did not change. Then when the leg started to get better, there were conversations that you do not return after such an injury. I was very interested to prove that wasn't the case. I didn't think at that point that I had the Olympics a little more than a year later.

Aliya Mustafina is carried away after tearing knee ligaments at the 2011 European Championships in Berlin

OC: Apart from your family, what values guide you in life?

AM: The most important thing in life is choosing to do things that I will never regret. This is the most important thing for me. I understand that everything that has happened in my life... I will never say that I regret anything. That's the most important value. To have this exact position in life for me is very important.

OC: If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

AM: Kind. Because I'm very kind. For example, it would be very difficult for me to become a coach because I'm kind. I can't make someone do something.

Then I am unbreakable. Because I absolutely don't care who thinks what about me. I know that I have my own view of certain things, of all things. And I don't care what other people think about it.

And probably honest. Not in a way where I say everything to someone's face, no. But in a way where I will never lie. In terms of how I treat people or anything else.

OC: And what would you say were your shortcomings?

AM: My weakness, if you can call it that, is my excessive stubbornness. And I don't know what else.

OC: Has that stubbornness helped you in your career?

AM: Well, it can be good but also bad sometimes. It is sometimes necessary to stop and walk out of the door instead of breaking the wall with your forehead.

A disappointed Aliya Mustafina during qualification at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

OC: Some of your coaches have said that gymnasts like you are born once in a thousand years. How does it make you feel to hear this?

AM: When I hear such a thing, maybe yes, maybe it's actually the truth... but I believe that great gymnasts can be made from children or people a bit more often than once every 1000 years. Great gymnasts or athletes, it doesn't matter what the sphere is.

Apart from having a talent, a person will learn or will be taught to shape an attitude to what you are doing, to do it right, to make it clear that nobody else wants to do this. If you want to become an Olympic champion, you have to work for it. Not the coach that has to make you. Therefore, in addition to talented people, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to achieve such results.

OC: What motivated you when you were a little girl?

AM: Probably at every age there was a little bit of motivation. As a child, there was a moment when Dad wouldn't let us train for certain reasons and Mum would quietly let us go anyway - she'd wake us up and we'd go while Daddy slept.

Then at 14 I walked away from my second coach Dina Kamalova. It was such a big step for me and I don't understand how I decided on it. Then I thought I was going to quit gymnastics but another coach called me. He worked as an acrobat. He told me, 'OK, enough doing nothing, come train at the gym.' I mean, he didn't make me, he just offered me and I thought, 'That's true, why would I do nothing? I'd better head to the gym.' So I kept practising and constantly stayed in the gym.

And then later, Alexander Alexandrov arrived. He called me and he was friends with Dad who warned him, 'The girl is talented but get some Validol (heart medication) just in case!'

OC: What is the main lesson that gymnastics has taught you?

AM: Gymnastics has taught me to achieve my goal and lots of things... it has given me some kind of foundation in my character. Stress resistance probably, patience. I am ready to share my patience with everyone. And I learned to think properly, to want properly. In general, how I live now - gymnastics taught me everything.

OC: Do you have everything you want now when it comes to going for Tokyo?

AM: Time will tell. At the moment I can't give detailed answers on this subject. And whether I am satisfied right now... probably not 100 percent.

OC: Who are your friends? Do they come only from the world of gymnastics?

AM: I am friends with non-athletes, athletes and athletes I used to train with and competed with at Rio and London. With some people, some time after, life brought us together. So now I can call them friends. In general, I have many friends. There used to be a lot more friends but these friends... I can't say they were using me but it was convenient to be friends with me. Over time these people have left my life. Now those who surround me, I am 99 percent sure that if I suddenly needed help at any time of day someone would come to help.

OC: Being disappointed by people must be hard. What's harder - overcoming an injury in sport or disappointment in people?

AM: To overcome injuries. Because, thanks to my patience, I don't become disappointed by people. I just understand who they are and choose to communicate or not communicate with them. I'm not one to have fights or tantrums or whatever... no, it's not about me at all. It's perfect when I understand what kind of person I am dealing with and I am dealing with them appropriately.

If I was friends with someone and they betrayed me, I would not fight or quarrel with this person. But the next time our paths cross, I won't tell this person any secrets, or anything important in life. So it will be hello-goodbye but only if I need to do it.

OC: You seem very composed and calm in gymnastics and outside of it too. Do you ever get emotional?

AM: I don't remember, to tell you the truth. But it happens. I can be angry but usually it lasts for 10 minutes. I'll say something out loud and that's it. Even when it comes to raising Alisa.

OC: Does Alisa have a similar character to you?

AM: They say that it appears so, yes, with kindness and being stubborn. Let's say if she really wants a chocolate, she will find almost every way to get around my ban and to get this chocolate anyway (laughs).

OC: In 'Life in the Day', you said you don't feel like a famous person in Russia. Does it hurt that gymnastics is not as popular as figure skating, for instance?

AM: It is hurtful, of course, and in the future I have a big dream to do everything to make gymnastics more popular so that children come into it. I want it to be popular and for people to know that in addition to rhythmic gymnastics there is also artistic gymnastics.

But I think we as athletes are to blame for it not being popular. For example, (world all-around champion) Nikita Nagornyy is doing a good job in promoting gymnastics very well with himself, his YouTube channel and his instagram, in general with all the communication that he does. I think if a lot more people could do this, naturally more people would learn about gymnastics.

For gymnastics to be popular you have to win and constantly talk about it. Probably that's it.

OC: You say you're too soft to be a coach, but where do you see yourself in the future?

AM: I'd like to be somewhere in gymnastics, I would say. I can't imagine what exactly I would like to do. But if I didn't have gymnastics in my life, I would feel not just a little but very sorry.

Precisely because I gave so many years, so much energy to this sport and that it wouldn't change after me leaving it. That gymnastics would stay the way it is.

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

AM: I would just like to be remembered. This is probably the most important thing. I want children who would come to gymnastics in 10 years to know who Aliya Mustafina was, what she had to go through. And that if she could do it, it means you can too. I want to be an inspiration for young children to get into gymnastics.

And I want again for gymnastics to become popular so that every person in Russia knows that artistic gymnastics exists and there are athletes there who obtain good results.

OC: How much of a test is the Olympic Games for a young gymnast?

AM: I remember my first Olympic Games and I realised that - when I arrived there - it's the same kind of competition as everywhere else. Just like the Europeans or Worlds. It is absolutely the same because you have to do the same thing. You have to go out and show your programme. You'll be looked at, clapped at and that's it.

There are no special weights added at the Olympics to make it heavier. And as for the young girls, well... first of all the coaches have to explain to them what the Olympic Games are all about. So they are ready despite them being 16 and 17 years old. This is not a young age in gymnastics.

OC: What is more important - physical strength or mental strength?

AM: In order to win, everything is absolutely important. And even luck, that might be on your side or it might not be. It's very important, too.

The preparation is important, the ability to perform. The mental state - if you are ready or not ready; afraid or not afraid. If the fear is present, it is important to be able to supress it and keep it from affecting you. A little bit of everything is how you get the result.

Winning is a goal. After you achieve this goal, you are confident that you have done everything like you were supposed to. And got lucky along the way. And if you don't get it, you can treat it differently. I mean, me with my temper... of course, I would get upset but only because I would understand that I did something wrong. Therefore, I have this result. I have earned what I worked for.

Aliya Mustafina on her way to bronze in the floor final at London 2012

OC: Turning to a difficult subject, what are your thoughts on the allegations of abuse by gymnasts in the United States and Great Britain?

AM: I find it wrong. It's not right and it's unethical and it's probably inconceivable.

OC: Is it painful for you to see these stories about girls you competed with?

AM: Of course, it's distressing to see such headlines because I can't imagine how the person who went through such a thing must feel. I would like to support them and probably these things cannot be forgotten. It's very hard but, despite what happened to them, maybe they could prevent it happening to others in the future.