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Yana Kudryavtseva: 'Crystal Statuette' suffers for sport - not art

By Gary Morley and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
updated 8:38 AM EST, Wed November 20, 2013
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
Russia's rhythmic princess
  • Yana Kudryavtseva is youngest all-around champion in history of rhythmic gymnastics
  • The Russian was just 15 when she won the title at the world championships on August 30
  • Her father won an Olympic gold medal as a swimmer and she dreams of emulating him
  • Kudryavtseva's national coach is wife of Russia's richest man and trainer of many champions

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- Casually warming up on the mat, Yana Kudryavtseva slips into a pose that would leave a contortionist gasping in admiration.

One leg keeping her upright and the other pointing toward the ceiling, her torso arches back at a mind-boggling angle while her head rests behind the supporting thigh, with both hands on the floor.

It's more "Matrix" than "Blade Runner" -- but there are no special effects here.

"My dad was rather reluctant to let me do this sport, as he knew how hard it would be," the 16-year-old rhythmic gymnastics champion tells CNN's Human to Hero series.

Aleksey Kudryavtsev, in fact, knows all about the rigors of being an international athlete.

A swimmer, he was part of Russia's 4 x 200 meters freestyle relay team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

"I got into rhythmic gymnastics when I was four years old. My dad brought me there," Yana recalls.

"He knew my future coach, so when he brought me to meet her, she told him I have to start training.

"She also convinced my dad that I have to go into gymnastics. Eventually he let me do the training to improve my flexibility, body posture and body shape. As it turned out, this sport has actually become my entire life."

And Kudryavtseva has made her father proud.

This year, while still just 15, she became the youngest rhythmic gymnast to ever win the all-around title at the World Championships, in Kiev in late August.

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Rhythmic gymnastics -- "a beautiful and womanly sport," says Kudryavtseva -- incorporates balls, clubs, hoops and ribbons in its performance.

"For a gymnast to be successful, she needs to strike a balance of everything within herself. She needs to be graceful, flexible, perform all elements, turns, maintain co-ordination -- she has to have all of that.

"If, for example, she only has co-ordination and nothing else, she will not succeed."

The world title was but a small step on the way to her main goal, an Olympic gold medal, and she is quick to reject suggestions that rhythmic gymnastics is not worthy of the Summer Games status it was given in 1984.

"Some of the authorities would like to remove rhythmic gymnastics from the list of Olympic sports and turn it into art. I think this would be wrong, as rhythmic gymnastics is a true sport -- we train around six hours per day, and sometimes spend entire days in the gym."

Ask Yana which of the four disciplines she prefers, and you will get the kind of look most people would give when told to give up air or water.

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"I love them all and cannot lay emphasis on any of them. I might offend one of them!" she retorts.

That sort of focus comes from years of dedicated training, but Kudryavtseva does not believe she has missed out on a normal childhood.

"I cannot say I sacrificed anything. I train for myself, to achieve sports goals, and I do not sacrifice anything," she says.

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"Rhythmic gymnastics is my life, everything I currently need. When I am performing, I feel something very special -- something which the audience can never feel."

Nicknamed the "Crystal Statuette" and famous for her ball-spinning tricks as well as her spectacular ribbon routines, Kudryavtseva is continuing Russia's dominance of the sport over the past decade.

"Russia is full of very good gymnasts. Even the substitutes' bench is full of very professional gymnasts, and competition is high," she says.

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"Even those gymnasts who do not represent the country at competitions are still very high-level professionals and if I would have to compete with them, it would be tough."

Kudryavtseva's first mentor was Elena Karpushenko, and now they work under the supervision of national coach Irina Viner -- the wife of Russia's richest man Alisher Usmanov, and the trainer of multiple Olympic champions.

"We are on good terms with Irina Alexandrovna. We sometimes have conflicts with a coach, as all gymnasts do, but in general we have a good relationship," Yana says.

Together they choose the music and work on the choreography at the elite Novogorsk training center based outside Kudryavtseva's home city Moscow.

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"There are different levels of difficulty of elements," she explains. "If co-ordination is good, it is easier to learn difficult elements. In my case it usually takes one or two weeks to learn new difficult elements."

Despite having achieved so much at a young age, she says her coaches have kept her humble.

"I cannot say I have accomplished really a lot. Like Irina Alexandrovna Viner says: "When you're on the victory podium, you're a queen, but when you come down from it, you're nobody.'

"You cannot be too proud of yourself. I am just like my teammates, we're all equal."

While some of Russia's elite athletes move into politics after their sporting days are over, such as tennis star Marat Safin, Kudryavtseva's goals are much more in keeping with those of the average teenage girl.

"I would like to get a good education, get married and have kids," she says. "I haven't thought about my future job yet."

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