Artur Dalaloyan is determined to be at Tokyo 2020: "I'm doing everything for it"

The 2018 world all-around champion is working against time to recover from an Achilles injury in April, to represent ROC at the Games in 2021.

By Scott Bregman and Ekaterina Kuznetsova
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

The 2018 world all-around champion Artur Dalaloyan is trying to do the impossible: make it to next month's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games three months after an Achilles tendon tear.

Originally reported as a partial tear, Dalaloyan confirmed to that it was something much more severe.

"It was not just a partially torn tendon, but severed tendon," said Dalaloyan in an exclusive interview, of the injury that occurred just before the European Championships. "A lot of media reported that I had just a partially torn tendon, that it is nothing scary. But when I got an MRI in the hospital, I was told I had a severed Achilles tendon and it needs a surgery."

Still, the 25-year-old has pushed on, returning to competition earlier this month at the Russian Cup, competing on the pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars, and high bar without dismounts. The goal is clear: help the ROC win gold.

"I really want to be helpful to the team, really want to make my contribution to the team result," he said. "That's why I'm doing everything for it, I do my best for it."

It's an arduous challenge, but one he says he's up for.

"If pain was a person, it would definitely be my friend. Because it happens that sports, especially artistic gymnastics, is always about injuries, calluses, unpleasant moments," said Dalaloyan. "You always feel this pain and always have to fight against it and you always have to deal with it and look for understanding."

Below is the transcript of the interview with Dalaloyan, translated from Russian to English and lightly edited for brevity and clarity. (OC): Our first and the most important question is about your injury. Can you tell us how it happened?

Artur Dalaloyan: It happened at training. We were preparing for the European Championships. Two weeks before the European Championships, I felt the pain in my Achilles. I don't know the reason. It may be because of exercise stress or the fact that there is a lack of vitamins in the body or something else. It could be a lot of things, actually. But the bottom line is, I got Achilles pain. For two weeks, I tried to treat it, to relieve the load, tried not to stress my leg as usual. I was in a less harsh mode with putting a load on my feet. Of course, before leaving, we had a final training where we needed to work fully and where we needed to try the leg apparatuses. In floor exercises, it turned out that in the last combination I felt such a weakness in the end. It was more like numbing in the Achilles tendon. I landed neatly, looked at my leg and realized I had a tear.

OC: What was going through your head in that moment?

AD: There were certainly a lot of thoughts, including, of course, a resentment. Not a resentment, but regret that this happened. It was for a split second. And by the way, I didn’t feel severe pain, it was more like the fear when you see that one of your organs came off, so to speak. It's not exactly a nice picture. It was the fear, at first, then, I was in shock a little bit. But, then, I realized everything and can’t say that I was super desperate at the moment, but, of course, there was a little bit of despair – why? It’s just three months before the Olympics and I have such a bad injury.

OC: You were examined by the doctors and what happened next? Did you feel desperate when you found out how serious it was?

AD: No. I've actually been helped a lot by my wife. I got injured and at first, we were in my car with her. Moscow is the city of traffic jams, and it took us two hours to get to the hospital. She was in the driver's seat, and she helped me a lot to deal with this stress and that situation. She said: ‘nothing terrible happened’, that it’s normal, this is sport and everything happens. There's nothing to feel desperate about, there is no reason to be down and there is no need to get all worked up and think the worst. No, there is no need to do so. And she talked about it so calmly that it actually helped me a lot to deal with this situation. She's probably the most important person in front of whom I still felt uncomfortable and embarrassed at this moment. I don't know why.

OC: It was a moment of vulnerability in which you are seen by a loved one...

AD: It’s probably the hardest thing in life when I know that I’m vulnerable or weak at some point. Because I'm used to always being strong. I didn’t think about not being able to recover or that I won't be able to go to the Olympics. These thoughts were put aside all together. I just realized that and tuned in to just work, trying to just deal with it and get over it. That moment was as hard as hundreds in my life before.

OC: If you compare this moment to the other moments can you call that one of the toughest moments in your career? There was also a not-so-pleasant situation with missing the Olympics in Rio…

AD: Well, yes, the first thoughts of course were similar to a situation that happened before in Rio, when I had problems with knee meniscus. At some point, I just stopped fighting (in Rio), decided to let it go and that's it. But now I've approached it very differently. I had absolutely different thoughts and my brain was set in a different way. I just started fighting every minute even before I was put on the operating table. And basically, after the surgery when my Achilles was sewn, the next day after coming out of anesthesia, I started working straight away. I immediately started training while I was still in the ward.

OC: The next day, oh wow. How it’s even possible?

AD: I had a cast up to my groin on my left leg. My right leg was also bandaged after surgery to avoid blood clot. In this state, the next day, I started training right away.

First I started working out in the plaster to train my toes, trying to feel them, training them. And, then, I thought why do I have to lie in bed? Because a rehabilitation therapist came to me and told me that I need at least to start feeling my toes, start moving them to keep my foot from atrophying. I thought why I should stay in my bed and asked them for a fitness mat. They brought me a mat to the ward and I started working. I kept fit, I tried to do any physical exercises on my body and my hands, because everything there was fine. I had no desperate thoughts and it actually helped me because when I was discharged from the hospital, I had already started going to a gymnastics center even though I wore a cast. Then, I walked in a special boot for a long time. But my physical condition was good. If I had just lied in bed and waited for a recovery, I would not have had it.

OC: For professional athletes, I understand that the attitude to pain and generally the relationship with pain is completely different as opposed to non-athletes. Tell us about your relationship with pain?

AD: If pain was a person, it would definitely be my friend. Because it happens that sports, especially artistic gymnastics, is always about injuries, calluses, unpleasant moments. You always feel this pain and always have to fight against it and you always have to deal with it and look for understanding. So I am used to pain over my career. And that’s true that pain for an athlete is more familiar than for an average person.

OC Because of the partial Achilles tendon tear, you missed different competitions including the European Championships…

AD: It was not just a partially torn tendon, but severed tendon. A lot of media reported that I had just a partially torn tendon, that it is nothing scary. But when I got an MRI in the hospital, I was told I had a severed Achilles tendon and it needs a surgery.

OC: You said that you approached it differently, not like before. What was your internal transformation? Why do you feel differently now?

AD: I don't know about the internal transformation; it probably can't always be explained. It’s more like subconscious, somewhere inside. There are moments of course when you are out of the depth, when there is a lack of optimism to fight the ailments. But this time, I knew right from the beginning when we were driving to the hospital, when my leg was hanging just like a piece of meat and I couldn't move it, that it’s probably more a psychological moment. If you psychologically get into it deeply – it's going to eat you. If you won’t be like that – it would be easier to deal with that. A psychological attitude is very important, you don’t have to be so non-resistant. Everyone has trouble in their lives and we are not made of iron, we are human beings and we might break something. Even more when you're doing so much work every day plus when you're constantly having thoughts that I need to work, I need to win, I need always to be in a good shape to be at my peak, to always shine. Maybe it happens during those moments, when you burn out and start push yourself too much. That’s why these moments are also an experience, they teach you when to calm down, rethink and reboot and start to take some actions step-by-step.

OC: And going back to the question about missed competitions, it was probably even more frustrating that you were going through such a difficult moment. Did you follow the [European Championships] competition?

AD: Of course, I followed the competition I was cheering for our guys. Thank God it wasn't the European Team Championship, but individual. Each person performed for himself. But I still cheered for all the guys, even more when I saw pictures of them wearing special T-shirts with my photo from the World Championships in support of me, they posted these photos on social media and it became viral. Of course, it was very nice and gave me goosebumps, I nearly shivered. So cool. In fact, this is also a moment that gave me a boost to work and not to despair. Even more so when your team believes in you, hopes for you - you can't just give up. You just have to work and show what you're interested, too. I really want to be helpful to the team, really want to make my contribution to the team result. That's why I'm doing everything for it, I do my best for it. I follow doctors' instructions for recovery and also don't forget to work to improve quality of working with apparatus.

OC: Whose support is the most pleasant? We interviewed Alexei Nemov recently, and he said very warm words about you, that he has a lot of faith in you, Nikita and other guys on the team. Is there someone special, maybe sport legends or someone else?

AD: On the same day when people found out about my injury a lot of people supported me. By the way, Aleksei Nemov also texted me on the same evening. He called me, but I was in the ward and didn't know if I was going to have surgery or not, so I wasn’t able to answer. Then, I saw his message, and it was actually very nice. So inspiring when you realize that the man who is a gymnastics legend supports you and believes in you.

There were a lot of sad messages, when people texted me, 'Don't get upset, your Olympics is in three years, you surely won’t going to the Olympics this time.’ These kind of messages make you believe that everything is already over, that nothing can be fixed. There were a lot of these messages and it was very difficult to deal with it mentally. You understand that a person is trying to support you heartily, but also I understood that I needed just to take those words and put them aside. I answered thank you for the support, but I understood that I can’t take them close to heart.

Of course, I immediately read everything on how to recover from my injury, when you need to sew the Achilles, how long does it take. Actually, there were super scary prognosis, between five months and eight months for a full recovery after that kind of surgery. And of course, all this could probably turn me off and make me stop believing it's even possible. But at some point I told myself that we are not the same, that every person is individual and everyone might have a different recovery. I realized that if I put my best effort to recover and have it as my goal, I just have to achieve it.

OC: How is recovery process going?

AD: I can say I'm still in the process of recovering. I have a new stage right now. I started to run a little bit, I can stand on tip-toe of my injured leg – it’s a big plus for me. We’ve just started training camp, and I can do simple dismounts from the apparatus. My maximum goal right now is to recover at least four apparatuses with dismounts to be able to contribute to the team’s result. It's clear that now we can’t talk yet about the vault, floor exercises, because there's a crazy load on the leg and it's all dangerous. But recovering four apparatuses with dismounts is a real goal and I’m going to do it. From week-to-week, I feel some progress and I have no doubts.

OC: You participated in the Russian Cup recently. What would you say about your performance?

AD: I can say again that my performance is quite good. I'm pleased with it really. I came and in three weeks, I basically prepared all my combinations and all my difficulty even though I couldn't jump on my feet and I took a lot of risk. We have a sport where you can easily slide off or fall, and it's still going to be a load on the leg and it might not bring the best consequences. But I was prepared with all my difficult combinations and even got more points in some.

For example, let’s take the final on pommel horse, which is my weakest apparatus, where my best score was 14.000 at the World Championships in Stuttgart. And here at the Russian Cup, literally after three weeks of preparation, after surgery, after all that happened, I get 14.200 and a little over, and do a good enough performance. I can also boast about the rings, too. I was perfectly prepared for it. Of course, I performed without dismounts, so each score can be added more than an extra point. Because dismount is a special requirement which gives a half of a point and plus its difficulty value – 0,5-0,6-0,7 points. Plus, additionally, I qualified to the finals on three of four apparatuses. That might be because there are not many strong opponents, but anyway I’m proud of it because it’s my first steps, first wins after surgery, after this difficult period.

OC: It’s a super-fast recovery. Do you feel like a superman?

AD: I don't feel like a superman. But we have to limit ourselves, I have to keep myself on a short leash constantly, not to relax too much – just to work the whole day. Now during the preparing time, my day is just about training and treatment. I have maximum hour and a half to rest at lunch. In the morning, I work in a swimming pool, then I have a breakfast, after that I have the main training where I work on difficult elements and work with apparatus. After that, I have special separate exercises for my leg , then go for treatments and after that to the pool, then I have lunch. Now I have a short break. At the evening training session, I work on difficult elements and combinations with apparatus. And then I have some treatment again, physiotherapy, ice, special massage therapy for my skin which helps to avoid scars after surgery. After dinner, I must walk because my leg’s muscles can’t be stagnated. So, the whole day, I work. That is how I spent these three weeks before the Russian Cup.

And now I’m going to continue preparing this way. I believe in the best, that everything will work out.

OC: Are you afraid now to perform since the injury is still so recent and everything is so shaky?

AD: If we talk about working on apparatus with dismounts, I have no fear. But, so far, I can't imagine in my mind the element on which I got a tendon tear, that combination on the floor exercise. I can’t imagine how I can do it, for now, it’s unreal for me. I mean I can do a lot – I can run up, jump, push back and more, but it’s impossible to imagine that combination on which my Achilles was torn. I feel a weakness in my head about it.

For now, this mental barrier is stronger than me, and I understand that I can’t reach it even in my head. There is a solution in physical exertion, when my leg will be prepared enough.. Just for you to understand, I was wearing the plaster for just a week after surgery and even after this week, my leg was completely atrophied. So those muscles that have been working for years, they just atrophied. There was just a bone and hanging skin. It's terrible really how fast you can get the atrophy.

OC: It feels so unfair for athletes because you have been training for so many years and then you just lose that in one moment…

AD: But you know, the most important thing is that everything is in your head. If you get your head straight, you can physically build everything again. The most important part is the head, so the most crucial thing – not to lose anything in your memory.

OC: What does ticket to Tokyo would mean to you?

AD: I can say that at the moment, I am in a situation where I just don't have any competitors. Because the main competitor for me is me. The most difficult task for me is to fight myself, to get over my own problems and my injury. On the one hand, it's good, it's great when you are not worried about your competitors, who is fighting for what. For me, if I can handle this situation, if I turn the tide and go as a team member to Tokyo, it’s already a huge goal and a huge win in my life. It’s probably even more important than anything else, I mean, in terms of sport. That's the situation I have right now. Fighting with myself.

OC: If you are in Tokyo, in what events you will compete?

AD: Four apparatuses right now is the first goal for me. I need to help in the team event – give points on pommel horse, rings, high bar and parallel bars. And, of course, I’ll try to reach finals on those apparatus.

OC: How do you manage to combine personal life and sport? You have already spoken about your wife, about her huge support, but is it still hard to maintain?

AD: Yes, I think it’s a sad story and actually it’s really difficult, especially mentally if I talk about myself. Of course, it’s hard for my wife to be alone with children the whole day. Of course, sometimes my mother-in-law and my mum help with the kids, too, but it’s mentally hard, especially in the pandemic situation. Our sports camp is closed, we can’t leave it and need to stay here. Not like before when we even could come home three or four days a week, to be with our families, to help them, to feel the contribution. In such situation, you realize that you're a man, you're the breadwinner, you have to work despite the current situation.

But on the other hand, you look at it all and you know that your wife is alone, it’s hard for her to deal with it. Of course, it’s a modern century and we have mobile phones, you can talk by video calls, but it’s not enough. It’s not personal, there is no reverence (трепетность), you even can’t do something nice for her, you can’t physically help, can’t take some responsibilities and so on. So it's difficult, of course, but we keep going. Thankfully my wife also has a huge amount of patience, stamina which help her to deal with everything despite all the troubles. We still can understand each other and deal with the situation together. But I hope it's over soon.

OC: Your daughter is growing up. Do you want to see her in gymnastics?

AD: Honestly, I didn't want to. I didn't want to and I don't want to, but I understand that you can't fight the fate. Because she totally got everything you need for gymnastics from me. She will turn 2 in August, and she already turns over, stands on her head, runs all the time. She has so much energy, so where will she take that energy out if not in gymnastics?

OC: Aliya Mustafina became a coach. You have someone to entrust your child.

AD: Yes. It’s true. (smiles)

OC: Right now, ROC is a team that is one of the main contenders for team gold. Will the team be upset with any other medal?

AD: It's a very sensitive question. Because that team was in the making for a very long time, even to be able to fight just for medals at the World championships. We were able to prepare in 2019 to win the gold. Of course, after these heights, after that success, it's certainly hard to think about any other medals. And I think we don’t want to think about other medals, but we understand the current situation is not the best. I mean, there are health issues in our team, because it's not just me who has problems. I have the major problem, but I’m not the only one who has the problems to work and deal with. But we still believe in the best. The most important thing for us is to do our work, to have the right preparation and then just do our job. Everything else will be decided by the judges. Anyway, the strongest team will be a winner.

OC: You told us that everyone tells you about Paris 2024. That it is your backup option. Have you thought about it? It’s three years to go before another Olympics.

AD: I can’t say I thought about it, I wasn't going to retire after Tokyo. I realize that my health and my mental mood still allow me to continue. I still enjoy it, I like it and there is no sense to think about something else. I will continue to work, I am eager to be a bigger success, I’ll come into the spotlight.

OC: But strategically in your head – have you made a plan – what happens if you don’t go to Tokyo… Will Paris be the main goal then?

AD: No, I never look that far in the future. I think about the nearest events, for example in the end of October is the World Championships. There will be more tournaments at the end of the year, at the start of the next year. I may look if I’m ready or not. But I try not to look or plan so far ahead because the more you plan, the more turns life takes.

OC: We know that Kohei Uchimura inspires you. This time he is going as a specialist. What do you think about it?

AD: If I’m not mistaken, it’s his fourth Games. As far as I know, he's only preparing one apparatus right now – high bar. Japan has already announced the squad for the Olympic Games, and I saw that Uchimura is going to compete just on high bar. Of course, I like it, and it inspires me that despite the fact he is in advanced years for gymnastics, he is still fighting and does that beautifully. It’s OK that it’s only one apparatus, because gymnastics takes a lot of health from you and it's not forever, it's not unlimited. But I admire that he is still fighting, trying to achieve his goals. That’s beautiful.

OC: He decided to choose only one discipline. Didn’t you think to do the same? Because four is a lot.

AD: No, my main goal is not to look at the Tokyo Olympics right now as an individual competition. We have a team and the most important goal for me is to be useful to the team and recover, to give high scores on the apparatuses, that’s all I can do at the moment. Of course, I could do more if I didn't have injuries and could have better scores in floor exercises and vault, but now I understand that there are four apparatus on which I can be useful to the team and can contribute to the team’s result and the country's result. So for me this is the main and the most important goal. Individual events are in the second place, we will see.


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