Five years ago, Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova was making a splash in her first senior season. She won the Russian Championships and Russian Cup and was the only woman on her team to compete in the all-around at the European Championships.
She entered Rio with high hopes, but an injury a week before leaving for Brazil and major errors on the balance beam and floor exercise during qualifying left her on the outside looking in. She was the third best Russian in the all-around standings, behind Olympic bars champion Aliya Mustafina and 2014 Youth Olympic champ Seda Tutkhalyan, and missed the final due to a rule only allowing two per country in each final.
That experience is on her mind as the 20-year-old prepares for her second trip to the Games this summer at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I remember when I came into the gym in Rio during the qualification stage - I went into the gym and I lifted my eyes up. There were these stands, which almost reached up to the sky [laughs], all of them filled with people,” recalled Melnikova in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com.
“Of course, I felt uncomfortable because I had never performed with so many viewers before,” she continued, “Now, there won't be as many people in Tokyo. Right now, there will probably be a different kind of atmosphere and setting. But the conclusion is one: 'Don't be afraid.'”
A transformation and a new role
It’s a lesson that has paid off. Melnikova has transformed her gymnastics since Rio, winning three medals at the most recent World Championships in 2019 including all-around and floor exercise bronze.
“Two years ago, I changed very much in terms of my gymnastics,” she says. “Thanks to my experience, I already began to definitely know how I need to prepare, how much is needed to be done. I began to feel my body 100 percent.
“In 2017, I tried to do everything whatever the cost,” Melnikova admits. “Now, I am much more rational. I will first sit down and think whether I really need it. Before Rio, the whole responsibility was on the coach and the coach only saw me and said how much and what I needed to do. Now, I feel like a completely different person.”
Russia will also need her to play a completely different role in Tokyo. With the recent retirement of Mustafina, Melnikova finds herself the sole Olympic veteran. The Russians have the talent to contend for multiple medals at the Olympics in reigning European all-around champion Viktoria Listunova and world junior uneven bars champion Vladislava Urazova.
But they’ll need Melnikova to lead the way with her experience.
“There is such responsibility because the girls are very small, and I remember myself at 16 years old. I was really scared to go out on the gymnastics podium,” she said. “It's very difficult at 16 years old. So, yes, I feel a little responsibility for them - to calm them down and not create any extra stress in team competitions.”
Melnikova knows what it’s like to feel that stress in competition, showing her emotions during the ups and downs of her career: tears in Rio and again after missing out on a medal in 2018, then her signature mini claps of joy when she reached the all-around podium in 2019.
“Sometimes, it is difficult for me to contain my emotions,” she said. “In life, seeing, for example, some big waves, I will jump and scream, and show my joy. I am a very emotional person.”
Melnikova has already teamed up with newcomers, competing with the duo at the European Championships in Basel, Switzerland in April. Listunova, Urazova and Melikova combined for six medals and a Tokyo quota spot at the event.
Now, as she competes at the Russian Cup this week, she finds herself in what might be the final push of her career. She says she hasn’t thought about what comes after the games (“I can’t even imagine a day after the Olympic Games.”) but is certain she wants to give it her all in the lead up.
“I know clearly that I should be in my best shape, so I try to really look after my regimen and my food, and also the training. I try to show my maximum on each training,” she said. “When you prepare, for example, for some other competitions [than the Olympics] - you can leave something out because you're tired. Let's rest. And now, you know that it's your final month, it's the last push and you already have absolutely no time to rest.”
Melnikova hopes that all her experience since Rio will give her a new mindset when she hits the floor at Tokyo 2020.
“I certainly don't know how it will be when I get there, but now, at the moment, I really want to go there without any real stress,” she said. “On the contrary, this is probably your most cool, grandiose performance of a lifetime.
“I think that I will probably be worried more than at usual competitions, or maybe I will be less stressed because I will know that this is a finishing line and there's nothing to lose.”
Either way, she knows there’s only one choice: “You just need to go out and do it,” said Melnikova.