Oksana Chusovitina won her first Olympic medal when the world as she knew it was ending.
It was 1992 and Chusovitina’s last time competing for the Soviet Union. But what was the end of a legendary Soviet gymnastics team was the beginning of Chusovitina’s decadeslong, record-shattering, extraordinary gymnastics career.
Chusovitina was competing before most of her current competitors were born. At age 45, she is the oldest gymnast ever to compete in the Olympic Games. She’s represented the USSR, the unified Soviet team, Germany and now Uzbekistan. She has two Olympic medals, nine world medals and a ticket to the 2020 Olympics.
Blasting Russian love songs over the speakers at a Houston training facility, Chusovitina dances playfully before running full speed ahead, launching herself off the four-foot vault and flipping into a foam pit. Consecutive slams echo throughout the gym as Chusovitina lands hard – on anything but her feet. She climbs out of the foam pit and runs again.
She’s practicing the “vault of death” – one of the trickiest vaults in the gymnastics world – and she’s focused on landing it in competition.
The “vault of death” requires a front handspring double somersault where a slight mistake in timing would cause penalty or injury. Chusovitina is one of the few to compete this vault. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Chusovitina over-rotated the vault, crushing her chance to medal. But that’s not stopping her from trying it again.
“Everyone has fear – only fools don’t have it. But, when you train every day, when you do different exercises, you can control your fear better,” Chusovitina told CNN.
Some athletes train their entire career for just one moment at the Olympics, a pressure Chusovitina has encountered sevenfold, in one of the most physically demanding sports possible.
Training for Chusovitina looks like this: repeated inadequacies, hard falls, tiny adjustments and a handful of perfect landings. She now has an extra year to sharpen her skills after the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As a vault specialist, Chusovitina has been playing the mind game of running fearlessly at high, immovable objects in front of large crowds for three decades. Success requires full commitment and determination – two traits Chusovitina has exemplified throughout her life as challenges have come her way.
Chusovitina began her career with the illustrious Soviet program in 1991, representing the USSR in competitions around the world.
All of that changed after winning a gold medal with the unified team in 1992, when she was 17. Chusovitina said she remembers the bittersweet feeling standing with her teammates, some of her closest friends, knowing that they would no longer train or compete together.
The end of the Soviet Union was a “tremendous tragedy” for athletics, said Alexander Alexandrov, former head coach of the Soviet women’s gymnastics team. As the talented unified team broke apart, athletes returned to smaller countries that had fewer initiatives, resources and training facilities for elite gymnasts.
Chusovitina began competing for the newly independent Uzbekistan and carried that flag in two more Olympics.
But Chusovitina’s life was abruptly uprooted when devastating news caused her to move more than 3,000 miles away from her home.
In 2002, Chusovitina’s son, 2-year-old Alisher, was diagnosed with leukemia.
When neither Uzbekistan nor Russia could provide the medical treatment her son needed, Chusovitina looked for other countries that would be willing to help her family. Germany said yes – if Chusovitina would consider joining the country’s gymnastics team.
For her, there was no question. Her son was first.
“Many people thought that I was competing to provide medical treatment to my child, but it was the whole world that helped me to collect money for Alisher’s treatment. This was not in any way related to my career. I was training to distract myself from everything that was going on at the hospital,” she told CNN.
For eight years, Chusovitina trained in Germany as her son fought cancer and for years she wondered about his survival.
After three years of chemotherapy and five years of checkups, doctors confirmed that Alisher’s cancer was in remission.
During her years in Germany, Chusovitina qualified for three more Olympics, including the 2008 Games in Beijing where she remarkably won an individual silver medal on vault at the age of 33.
As her medal count went up, Chusovitina set her sights on bringing back hardware to the country she calls home. In 2013 she returned to Uzbekistan to round out her career where she grew up.
She’s inspired other female athletes
Chusovitina has proved to women that gymnastics is not a sport just for teenagers, Bart Conner with the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame says.
In 2017, Chusovitina made history by becoming the first gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame while still competing. She joined a list of household favorites in the United States including Alicia Sacramone, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson – all of whom retired from the sport well before the age of 30.
“I can’t imagine doing gymnastics now,” 46-year-old Svetlana Boguinskaia, Chusovitina’s former Soviet teammate told CNN. Boguinskaia is now Chusovitina’s coach and a three-time Olympian herself.
“Now looking at her and seeing what she is capable of doing, she becomes better with every quadrennium.”
Boguinskaia and Alexander Alexandrov, the former Soviet coach, live in Houston where Chusovitina regularly trains. While preparing for an eighth Olympics – unheard-of for a gymnast – Chusovitina is surrounded by people who have been with her from the start.
Alexandrov said from the first time he saw Chusovitina in the early 1990s, her strength and endurance impressed him. She was the type of teammate he wanted to invest in, because Chusovitina would compete even if she was “half-dead,” Alexandrov continued.
Now, three decades after selecting her for the 1992 Olympic team, Alexandrov says Chusovitina has surpassed his expectations.
“No one would think 30 years ago that she would be able to compete at this level for all these years. This deserves great admiration and respect,” Alexandrov said.
When Chusovitina began competing at the elite level, young gymnasts often wouldn’t reach a second Olympics, Alexandrov explains, as a fresh generation of athletes had been preparing to take their place. Alexandrov says Chusovitina was a pioneer in changing that norm and breaking down more barriers in the sport, including becoming a mother.
Her accomplishments amaze anyone familiar with the sport of gymnastics – except for Chusovitina herself. She says she never meant to be famous, but has simply chased after something she loved.
Chusovitina says she plans to retire from gymnastics after the 2020 Olympics. Jokingly, she tells CNN she’s been a gymnast for so long that she’s just lucky to wake up in the morning.
Still, Chusovitina is not taking her last Olympics lightly. With the Tokyo Games postponed until 2021, she has another full year of training ahead. Chusovitina, in the true spirit of a competitor, says she’s just glad the Games are not canceled. Her dream is to take home a medal for her country, Uzbekistan, which she describes affectionately as having warm weather and warm people.
Chusovitina will be 46 when her 29-year Olympic journey is expected to end. Whether or not she takes home hardware this time, her story is still unprecedented and unforgettable. Chusovitina demonstrates it’s not just about winning, but about perseverance.
CNN’s Amy Wray and Nicole Chavez contributed to this report.