Milena Baldassarri: "I'm telling a story, like in a theatre"
The two-time world medallist in rhythmic gymnastics is not afraid of challenging Russia and the other sport's powerhouses to make history for Italy in Tokyo.
Rhythmic gymnastics is more than a sport for Milena Baldassarri.
"I love everything around it, it’s a very feminine world, where women can fully express their strength," the 18-year-old told the Olympic Channel.
Baldassarri grew up as an athlete. Swimming, ballet and equestrian were some of the sports she practised during her childhood.
But in the end her heart chose gymnastics.
"When I see others performing and when I perform my exercise, the thing I love the most is sharing the emotions with the audience. I feel like the people watching me are with me on the floor."
Two years ago at the World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Italian won a historic silver for her country in the ribbon event.
She also contributed, along with Alexandra Agiurgiuculese and Alessia Russo, to another unprecedented medal in the team competition, in front of strong nations such as Israel, Ukraine, and Belarus.
In a sport that has been dominated by Russia, and recently by the Averina twins, in the last few years Milena confirmed Italy's progress at individual level.
Can she make more history in Tokyo?
Talent for sports
Milena's mum, Natalia Choutova, was a swimmer from the USSR who competed at international level.
"As soon as I was born, I was dropped into the water! My mum wanted me a future as a professional swimmer and I competed until I was 7," the gymnast representing the Aeronautica Militare club said.
"I was faster than all the other kids. When I had completed my lap, I was forced to wait and I was getting cold. So I decided to try other sports: ballet; equestrian; skiing during the winter; and rhythmic gymnastics."
"I was doing all these sports at the same time and I was quite successful. Every day I had a different training session and it happened that my dad came to pick me up at the wrong gym! So at some point I had to make a choice and it wasn't difficult to choose rhythmic gymnastics."
"Among all the sports that I had tried, this (rhythmic gymnastics) was the only one where I could share my emotions and my feelings."
Milena grew up in Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna, and at 12 moved to Fabriano, 200km away from her home, to join the local club, which has won over 50 national titles during the last decade.
In the Marche city, famous for its paper mills, Baldassarri is mentored by Julieta Cantaluppi, who represented Italy at London 2012, and by Cantaluppi's mother Kristina Ghiurova, a 1979 world champion for Bulgaria.
They are continuing the coaching tradition started by Julieta Shihmanova, mother of Kristina, who was a legendary coach in Bulgaria before dying in a plane crash.
"It's a honour to work them. Kristina represents the so-called 'old school', Juli brings new and fresher ideas, so it's a perfect team and I love working every day with coaches with so much experience."
Writing history for Italy
In the country of her coaches, Baldassarri made her international breakthrough in 2018.
"The Worlds in Sofia were historic for Italy’s rhythmic gymnastics. It was a championship full of success, even unexpected," she recalls.
"Before those Worlds I absolutely didn’t expect to win a silver, we aimed for a medal in the team event and we won bronze.
"The day of the ribbon final that silver was a bit unexpected. You can see the surprise, mine and from my coach, when the score appears. We hoped for a bronze, that silver was the reward for all the hard work, all the sacrifices we made during the months before."
The country has topped the medal table at every Worlds since 2002.
"In this sport the Russian national team is considered the best. They always had a very strong school, their fundamentals are very solid. They’ve dominated the sport in the last 20-30 years," Baldassarri said.
"They keep fine-tuning their routines and the rest of the world is trying to catch up with them.
"We are working to improve, hoping to reach their levels and perhaps one day to do better than them.
"Of course they keep getting better so every time it's a challenge. But this uncertainty is the beauty of the sport.
"Chasing them (the Russians), who are our 'idols', and trying to reach their levels is what motivates us."
Dina Averina has collected 13 world gold medals in the last three years, with her twin sister Arina winning four titles.
"They are the best. They are very fast and can perform extremely difficult routines which guarantee them a high starting score.
"The twins are really fantastic girls…Kudos to them because, despite having won everything in the last few years, they are really down to earth, they refrain from showing off. They are very nice and this helped bond with them and the other gymnasts.
"Perhaps from outside we all look like rivals, but behind the scenes there’s a friendly atmosphere and I’m lucky I speak Russian.
"My mum is from Russia and every summer I used to spend over one month there. I needed to train so my mum sent me to some training camps in some Russian gyms.
"I learnt how to train with consistency and commitment."
Tokyo and a future as an actress?
In the last two Worlds Baldassarri proved that she can compete with the world's best.
"At the last World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, I finished seventh and earned an Olympic berth (for Italy)," she said.
"During these upcoming months I’ll prepare for Tokyo the best I can. I need to work on the exercises I had prepared for the last year.
While the Italians have been very competitive in the group competitions (under the direction of Emanuela Maccarani, 'Le Farfalle' collected medals at the Worlds and the Olympics, including a silver in Athens and a bronze in London), no one from 'la squadra azzurra' has ever reached the podium in a major event at individual all-around level.
"My goal is always the podium because you never know how things can go during a competition. For sure I’ll do my best to qualify for the finals on the last day.
"Only three medals are up for grabs and it will be a fight. So I need to give my best, until the very last second!"
Milena also dreams of an acting career.
After Tokyo, the 18-year-old plans to study cinematography at university.
Her favourite actor? "I like Johnny Depp a lot. He can make you empathise with the characters he plays in his movies.
"One day I’d like to be an actress because I feel I’m already playing this role. During my performances I’m telling a story using my body language, like in a theatre."