At age 14, Russian artistic gymnast Viktoria Listunova announced her potential to the world, winning the three gold medals – including the individual all-around – at the inaugural Junior World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Gyõr, Hungary.
But being born in 2005 meant her Olympic dreams would have to wait until Paris 2024… that is until the 2020 Olympic postponement meant she became eligible for the Tokyo Games in 2021.
“It is such an opportunity, it is such a big chance,” Listunova told Olympic Channel. “I should try not to miss out. It is every athlete's dream.”
That dream could find her at the Games with fellow up-and-coming Russian stars Vladislava Urazova and Elena Gerasimova, who hope to challenge the American women who have dominated the sport since 2011.
“We try to be a team and it is very important because when we were at the World Champs, it was very important that we supported each other,” Listunova said of the trio of talented peers. “If something doesn't work out for someone, we immediately say: 'It's okay, don't worry, it will be okay.' We try to support each other, sometimes to also inspire and try to strive for this important goal that lays ahead of us, just in a year’s time.”
In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, Listunova discusses those Tokyo dreams, her origins in the sport, the great she’s likely to face next summer: Simone Biles, and much more.
“Close to Olympics, I will try to get better with my English because it would be interesting to talk to her, how she trains, how she spends her free time, for example,” she said of the chance to perform at the same competition as Biles. “It would be very exciting to talk to her.”
The interview below was conducted in Russian, translated, and lightly edited for clarity.
Olympic Channel (OC): You started doing rhythmic gymnastics and artistic swimming. Why in the end did you choose artistic gymnastics?
Viktoria Listunova: Probably, I chose it because there were some reasons connected to genetics, because in this sport it is very important. For example, for artistic swimming, I was very small, height wise and the coaches told me: 'You are very promising. All is good, you suit [the sport] well,’ but in terms of the height - I can't be added anywhere - neither group nor duo. We wanted to try solo, but I know that you can get deductions for being small and everything else that fits in gymnastics.
OC: What do you love the most about artistic gymnastics? Why this sport is so special to you?
Listunova: It attracts me... I can say it in three words: grace, beauty, and elegance. I really like this type of sport because all the people, all the spectators... When they watch, they are always surprised to watch, they watch it with a sigh. Everyone is madly interested, and I'm interested in showing myself in this form, I don't know how to say it...
OC: You are currently the junior world champion. What does it feel like to be the best in the world among young gymnasts?
Listunova: Frankly, I can't immediately answer this question. To be honest, I realized only afterwards because after these competitions, the other serious ones followed immediately. I did not have time to enjoy my past performances, how I performed before or rewatch the videos. I had to keep preparing for the next competitions. So I got very good emotions from these competitions. It was very interesting, and as I always say, I got a lot of experience. It matters for every gymnast, and it's great that such competitions were held for the first time, knowing that these competitions are still going to continue. Maybe every other year, maybe every year - it is still unclear, but it is still an interesting experience especially for juniors to feel like high-level athletes, so they could also compete at the senior level.
OC: You said back then you couldn't imagine what it means, but now you must feel something about being the best among young gymnasts. How did you celebrate it?
Listunova: Now, I can imagine. But once again, I will say - there was no time right after the competition to celebrate it until later during summer when I literally had a week of rest... because after [junior worlds], again, there were three major competitions in a row and therefore rest was necessary to unload a little bit. Even though you can say you miss gymnastics a little bit while resting, it is very important because sometimes you go into training and you think: 'Oh, again, this gymnastics.' I don't have such thoughts, of course. I'm just talking about others. Of course, I celebrated with the family - showed everyone the medals. Everyone was madly interested to hear how it all happened.
"It is such an opportunity, it is such a big chance. I should try not to miss out. It is every athlete's dream." - Viktoria Listunova on her unexpected Tokyo 2020 eligibility
OC: Who in your family was the most happy about your victories?
Listunova: Honestly, everyone - mum and dad, and my older brother and even my little cousin... I brought him the medals - he was so happy with a joyful face.
OC: You mentioned people who are in gymnastics for a long time, who sometimes do it when they don't really want to. Speaking about the complexities of sport - did you have this feeling that you want to quit it?
Listunova: I don't have such thoughts every day. I try not to think about it, I try to go towards my goal. Now, unfortunately with the whole coronavirus situation, the Olympics were postponed. Because of this, the age category for both male and female gymnasts was shifted. Men born in 2003 are allowed, while for women, those born in the year 2005 [can compete].
So, that includes me, since next year I turn 16. And if I make it to the team, I can perhaps perform. So it's very important not that I think about it every day. I just try to go towards my goal. There are moments of exhaustion when I get very tired... But no, it's not really in my thoughts that I want to quit it all because you're tired. You try and you try, sometimes you try so hard but an element just doesn't work, but you still go forward trying and wanting to make it perfect. The most important thing is that it has a perfect execution, especially at competitions.
OC: Gymnasts have a very tough schedule, what do you miss the most about normal teenage life?
Listunova: Honestly, I am perfectly fine with everything. Now, we are currently at a closed sports base. We are now closed from the outside world so that the virus does not get in. Before we entered, we had to pass a test that everyone's okay, everyone's got a negative test. We try now more often to walk in the complex, we talk to one another. Everyone has friends. I also have friends who are gymnasts. I love my life. I love being in a moment and you have a chance to go for a walk or something. I still study for school. I am just an ordinary person like the others. Many people consider that the athletes are some kind of aliens, but we are just people. There is nothing complicated or strange [about us].
OC: When you first heard that you might have an opportunity to get to the Olympics, what feelings did you have at that moment?
Listunova: It is such an opportunity, it is such a big chance. I should try not to miss out. It is every athlete's dream. Secondly, probably the aspiration to go forward, the new goal. Because if it didn't happen the way it did, the goal would have been a bit different. It would have been to make it to the World Championships in 2021.
If the Olympics happened in year 2020, I would have followed the girls, cheered for them. I couldn't have performed because of the age. In 2021, I would have prepared and moved to the senior squad and prepared for the World Championships.
OC: What would be your strategy if you make it in 2021?
Listunova: It is important not to worry too much. At the end of the day, it's the same competitions. You need to cope with emotions, to stay calm. It happens to some athletes that at regular competitions, they are calm, but when it comes to the serious ones... They have fear in the eyes or something else. You just have to treat it calmly. You have to prepare and try to make a lot of your final trainings so that everything is good. Then, after those final trainings, I could safely perform at other competitions, as well as at the Olympics. The main thing is not to worry, to be prepared for this mentally, probably to be a strong spirit so that everything goes forward and everything was good.
OC: What helps you stay calm, what's your secret?
Listunova: There isn't really a secret. I must tell myself before the performance or before going to the apparatus: 'It's okay, be calm, everything will be alright, I can do everything.' There's nothing new. The main thing is to try to do just like in the training. It can happen that you try to do it better and then it comes out the other way around, even worse than in training. The main thing to come out just as you did during training and only show it to the public.
OC: Who inspires you in the world of sports and why?
Listunova: For me, it's Svetlana Khorkina and Yelena Zamolodchikova because I admired their characters, their determination towards gymnastics. They prepared for a very long time, tried their best. They have a very good technique of execution. Svetlana Khorkina had beauty and grace, she beautifully performed her main apparatus - the bars. And I've always looked at it with admiration, and I want it to work out the same way for me.
OC: In one interview, you said that you are inspired by Simone Biles...
Listunova: She inspires me in everything. She’s doing exceptional elements - something that's hard for others… but as they say nothing is impossible, so she does it. Because many people think: “what if I do, what if I don’t.” And she just goes and does it. It is exciting to watch her because there is always something new that appears, something new that you want to learn. It's interesting as that's what the whole sport is about.
OC: The competition will be quite serious. Russia was the last country in 2010 to win against the Americans. What will it be like to compete against the American team that is very strong now?
Listunova: We will try not to give up, and we will not set our mind into the second place. We will be setting our mind only for the first place because it is kind of very important for all of us. It's not known yet. This takes time. We need to follow after American gymnasts, what's going on with them, how they train, what do they learn and don't learn. Everything should happen closer to the Olympics because we will know what the composition of the team will be, which gymnasts will be there, strong or weak... But certainly there are no weak ones but... still there are some newbies, not only in our country, but elsewhere in the world there are good gymnasts too, born in 2005.
OC: Is it exciting for you to compete with Simone or would you be nervous, considering she doesn't give anyone a chance?
Listunova: Of course, exciting! It is interesting with everyone, because in this sport you need to express your interest. You have to show yourself, and that's what Simone Biles does, she performs in a very good way. She performs such complex elements, everything turns out so well for her. Of course, it will be interesting because if I'm honest I will see her for the first time then, honestly. I never saw her live, it would be interesting to see her in person. Through the TV, or phone, or tablet I always watch her, there are different elements, the technique... But in real life I never saw her. Of course, close to Olympics, I will try to get better with my English because it would be interesting to talk to her, how she trains, how she spends her free time, for example. It would be very exciting to talk to her.
OC: When you became the junior all-around world champion and with the team, did this add confidence that you can compete with the other teams from the other countries, in particular with the American team?
Listunova: I'll start the story from that moment my career started in Italy. It started with the fact that we noticed that the American team was going there, too.
During this tournament, we managed to beat them. If I am not mistaken, by 2 or 1, or 1.5 points, we beat them. We understood, then, that it is possible, and that's why we strived to win exactly the same way at the first junior World Championships. Therefore, we trained very strongly so that everything turned out well at this competition. Confidence has emerged.
I would say that again, and I will probably say it many time more... Everything happens through experience, you just have to keep trying because without it you won't find the way, as they say: 'Without trying, you won't know.' So at this tournament, we tried some special combos.
Afterward, we might have changed something, added something, for all of us to be better and more confident. Everyone, not only us, but also coaches, were confident that we can beat the American gymnasts at the Junior World Championships.
OC: Who inspires you now in a team of all the girls you train with, and why?
Listunova: To be honest, I try to inspire myself because it's kind of important. My coach helps me with it. We have a special team of people with us who help us - head coach, senior coach, coach on the bars or on the beam. They help and inspire us, sometimes explain the technique of execution, how to do it more correctly or to how to do something so it looks more beautiful.
OC: Your teammates - Vladislava Urazova, Elena Gerasimova... How do the three of you help each other to become better?
Listunova: First of all, we try to be a team and it is very important because when we were at the world champs, it was very important that we supported each other. In general, we support each other now, as well. If something doesn't work out for someone, we immediately say: 'It's okay, don't worry, it will be okay.' We try to support each other, sometimes to also inspire and try to strive for this important goal that lays ahead of us, just in a year’s time. So we train together, that's it.
OC: Let's dream a little and imagine you make it to Tokyo and manage to win gold. What will winning gold mean to you?
Listunova: It will mean… I don't even know exactly what... there will be incredible emotions that I could overcome such a path, it's not easy. In general, each athlete has their difficult path of injuries or other problems. It's going to be just incredible. It's gonna be really cool if it works out. Of course, I will try to make these dreams a reality… so it happens live, not just like a dream. If you lay on the bed and just dream about it, without doing anything - this will not work.
OC: What is more important to you - physical strength or strength of spirit?
Listunova: Of course, first of all, the strength of spirit is important because you have to go forward, to move towards your goal because you believe that everything will be fine. There are situations that you are on your way and everyone tells you that everything's fine but you actually think that you can't do something. This is important because first of all, you have to believe in yourself more than anyone else. And therefore strength of spirit is important. And, of course, physical form matters, too, you can't proceed without it.