“I always thought my strength was in one thing, but it is in another,” wrote Melnikova of one of those lessons recently in an Instagram post reflecting on the most successful season her career.
Early success turned into disappointment at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 and again at the 2017 and 2018 world championships. It was at the 2019 Worlds, and then the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021 and subsequent World Championships where Melnikova, who starred in the Olympic Channel original series ‘All Around,’ finally broke through.
“I thought that my career was over. Since I was a child, I have always dreamed of becoming a champion and a great gymnast. The start of my career was good. Then the middle was not very good. I thought it was coming to an end,” Melnikova said of the meaning behind her words on Instagram during a recent exclusive interview with Olympics.com.
“But it all happened in a way that my abilities opened up only after I turned 20 years old. I felt my real physical strength, and exactly what I can do in gymnastics. I got a better understanding of my body. I was really surprised because I thought it was over, but it turns out it was just getting started,” she continued.
"In 2016, I thought: 'I'm not going to be a great athlete.'"
Melnikova, 16 at the time, went to the Rio Games with high hopes and even higher expectations. She was predicted to be one of the stars of the Russia team, which included 2012 Olympic uneven bars gold medallist Aliya Mustafina, having won both the Russian Cup and Russian nationals earlier in the season.
But a disastrous performance in the qualifying round left her out of all the individual finals. Instead, she sat, dejected, next to Mustafina who tried to comfort her.
“She supported me like an adult,” Melnikova said of her compatriot and team captain. “In a sporty way, because Aliya also has a very sporty character, a very complex sports character. Her and me are similar in this, in this nature of the character. Her support helped me.”
She picked up a team silver medal in Rio, but still, she had doubts that she could or would ever realize her potential in the sport.
“In 2016 I thought: 'I'm not going to be a great athlete'. These were my thoughts,” said Melnikova.
A different Angelina
After struggles in 2017 and medal near misses in 2018, Melnikova won three medals at the 2019 worlds: team silver and all-around and floor exercise bronzes.
Then came a difficult extra year waiting for the pandemic delayed Tokyo Games, in which a lockdown of the national training center meant Melnikova and the other gymnasts had little to do other than train and recover. Despite the challenges, the 21-year-old led her ROC team to its first-ever Olympic team title at the Games in 2021. Melnikova, the anchor, sealed the victory with an emotional performance on the floor exercise.
Days later, she added all-around bronze before sharing another bronze in the floor final with Japan’s Murakami Mai.
Her success in Tokyo was followed up just two months later with gold at the World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, where, representing RGF, she become the third Russian woman to win the world all-around title after Svetlana Khorkina (1997, 2001, 2003) and Mustafina (2010).
“In 2021 - it's [like I’m] another person completely, with a different mindset. I was preparing completely on my own, in my head,” Melnikova said, comparing her 16- and 21-year-old selves. “My training, all of the work I put in, met my expectations because I invested so much, so maybe it could not have been otherwise.”
Melnikova taking the road less traveled
That investment and work included a tough turnaround between Tokyo 2020 and enjoying the spoils of Olympic gold, and the worlds. But competing there – and winning a world title – was too much to resist.
“When I arrived after the Olympic Games, I thought at night that the only award I didn't have at this moment is a gold medal from the World Championships,” explained Melnikova. “And I thought it might be possible to try again, especially since I still have some strength left. I knew it would be very difficult. But I wanted it so much. That's why I decided to go to the World Championships. Now, I have all the titles and that's why I'm double happy.”
Self-described as ‘a one hundred percent fighter in gymnastics,’ the 2021 world all-around champion's strength to push through to achieve her goals underscores an important learning she’s had in her half decade on the international stage: believing in yourself and trusting your plan.
“The most important lesson of my life, and not only from 2021, is to go your own way and do not turn back. Do not listen to anyone because as soon as you slightly turn to someone else's path - everything starts going wrong,” Melnikova said. “I realised that and after that I'm only following my own path.”
Melnikova’s realisation was hard fought, through the many ups and downs of her career, and she says that focusing on her herself outside of who she is as a gymnast is crucial.
“I work a lot on myself and with my inner world,” said Melnikova, before adding with a laugh, “It's a pity that no one gives any awards for internal achievements.”
Targeting Paris 2024: "I had a long journey, and it's not over yet."
As for external awards, she has plenty.
She ends 2021 with four Olympic, seven world, and 12 European medals. But the future may have more in store, she says.
Melnikova plans to spend six months away from gymnastics, including a tropical holiday (“I haven’t had a vacation for more than two years, probably.”) before beginning her road to the Paris 2024 Games.
“I’m planning to get to Paris,” she says. “I think I still have strengths. I don't know if I'm just saying it for now, there is still 2.5 years to go but we will see.”
After all, if 2021 has taught her anything, it’s about a still developing fortitude.
“That's why I wrote that I thought my strength is in one thing... I thought I only had a chance at the beginning of career and that's it. It turned out that I had a long journey and it's not over yet,” said Melnikova. “It has just started.”