Vanessa Ferrari, the 'Lioness' chasing her Olympic dream

During her career the 2006 all-around gymnastics world champion has battled injuries, disappointments and recently with COVID. Now at 30 years old the Italian is trying to book a spot for her fourth Olympics in Tokyo this summer.

By Alessandro Poggi

At 16 years old, Vanessa Ferrari topped the podium in the all-around competition at the artistic gymnastics World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, in 2006.

Now 15 years later, after three Olympics and an Achilles tendon rupture in 2017, the Italian 'Lioness' is still there competing against the best.

Ferrari describes herself as still 'hungry for wins and determined to achieve her dream' and qualifying for her fourth Games in Tokyo is now her main goal.

"The motivation that keeps me going is for sure my Olympic dream," she told the Olympic Channel.

And the 30-year-old is pursuing all the possible ways to punch her ticket for Japan.

At the 2021 European Championships in Basel, Ferrari failed to get a spot (for Italy) after finishing seventh in the qualifiers, but marked her return to the continental event for the first time since 2015 with a bronze medal in the floor apparatus.

The four-time European champion, who is also Chief Corporal-Major for the Esercito Italiano, had recently her preparation disrupted by COVID and will try to earn the qualifying points that she needs at the next World Cup event in Doha, which has been postponed to June.

The option to be selected for the team event in Japan also remains open.

Here's our Q&A with Vanessa. We asked her about how's she's been able to be at the top of the game for so long, how gymnastics has changed over the years and how Simone Biles has elevated the sport.

How does it feel coming back after almost one year without competing?

To face a whole year without competing was very complicated, but the motivation that keeps me going is for sure my Olympic dream. During my career I had many injuries and big disappointments. But what helped me get back up has always been my determination to achieve new goals.

What made you decide to compete in all four apparatus?

I took the decision last year during the lockdown. I wanted to take advantage of the additional time due to the postponement of the Games for one year. I worked out a lot when we were forced to stay home and once back to the gym I felt very fit. So I asked my coach (Enrico Casella) to train in the four apparatus and initially he tought I was crazy because he couldn't see me back on the uneven bars after four years. But after a month we both realised I could do it. So I took this decision to have more opportunities to qualify for the Olympics and to have more cards to play once I’m in Tokyo.

You were all-around world champion in 2006 and in 2021 you are still competitive, what's your secret?

I don’t think there’s a secret to remain competitive for so long. I only believe that daily hard work can lead you to success.

Oksana Chusovitina is chasing her eighth Olympic Games at almost 46 years old: are you trying to follow in her footsteps?

I think she's a legend in the gymnastics world, an athlete I've always admired. I don't know if I could ever compete at her age, but I don't want to set any limits to myself. As long as I feel I'm competitive I'll always try to do my best.

Vanessa Ferrari (C) celebrating her all-around gold medal at the 2006 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Arhus, Denmark.

You're trying to qualify for your fourth Games, how has your Olympic experience been so far?

So far I’ve taken part in three Olympics and if I qualify for Tokyo it would be my fourth Games and I would be the first Italian gymnast to achieve that. But my ambitions are more than just qualifying.

I competed in Beijing, London and Rio. In Beijing, two years after my world title, I was under a lot of pressure and it didn't go well, also because of many physical issues. In London I felt well and I don't have regrets, if not for the outcome of the floor exercise: I finished joint-third but for some rule I ended up in fourth position.

As for Rio, I'd been struggling to train ahead of the event due to my tendon issues, but once there I was in good conditions. Unfortunately in the floor exercise final I made some extra steps and I finished again fourth.

How has the sport changed over all these years and how has Simone Biles impacted it?

Gymnastics is in constant evolution because the facilities and the equipment have improved. Biles' acrobatics are of another planet and she reached levels that now are unachievable. I am not sure if the next generations will be able to catch up with her, but for sure the general level will improve in the next few years.

You are known as the 'Lioness', how does this nickname suit you?

During my career I’ve been given a lot of nicknames. My first one was ‘the butterfly’ perhaps because of the sense of lightness I was able to express. Then they used to call me ‘the cannibal’ because I always wanted to win and I was getting upset if I couldn’t win a medal. In the last few years I’ve been ‘the phoenix’ because I’ve always been able to regroup and come back after many injuries. Now I’m called ‘the lioness’ because I’m hungry for wins and they see me determined to reach my dream.

Youth Olympic champion Giorgia Villa and the rest of the 'Fate' (Fairies), who won a historic team bronze at the 2019 World championships, train in your same gym and see you as a role model: how does it feel to be an inspiration for young girls?

I think that my victories have inspired many young gymnasts to take on this sport. I’m happy and honoured I could inspire many girls, including those who are now my teammates. They are also motivating me and this internal competition can only help the team grow even more.

I don't know how's going to be the future of the Italian gymnastics movement: the other nations are getting better and better and I hope that Italian gymnastics can improve too so we can remain among the best.

14-year-old Angela Andreoli, also from the Brixia team, has been touted as the next Vanessa Ferrari, what do you think?

I don't know if Angela will be the new Vanessa Ferrari. From my personal experience, I never liked to be compared to other champions from the past. I think everyone needs to create their own path without unnecessary sources of pressure. And of course I wish the best for Angela and I hope she can succeed also at senior level, although it won't be easy.

But what I like about her is her humble attitude in training, and I think this is a beautiful quality. If you're too confident about yourself, you might struggle to reach your goals because what matters is to work hard each day.