Olympic Gymnastics: Aliya Mustafina’s career one of sheer power of will

“The girl is very talented, but with a difficult character. However, you don’t find much complacency among champions,” Aliya Mustafina’s coach said to reporters during Mustafina’s first World Championships in 2010.

That quality led Mustafina to a dominant showing, announcing her arrival on the major international stage. She won the all-around gold, carried the Russian team to their first team final gold ever, and qualified to all four event finals.

After seeming to be in a decline that culminated in zero medals for the women at the 2008 Olympics, Russian gymnastics was on the rise again. And Mustafina was at the forefront of that push, a harbinger of a new age.

But that new wave of domination did not come to pass as planned. Not for Mustafina, and not for Russia.

She went down on vault at the 2011 European Championships, barely over a year out from the London Olympics. The diagnosis was career-threatening: an ACL tear. Instead of entering the London Olympics as the dominant wunderkind, Mustafina’s narrative shifted to a story of adversity and hopeful overcoming. And that has been the major theme of her career since.

True to the ferocity she showed in her 2010 World performance, Mustafina was back competing just eight months after her ACL tear, that December. As she continued her comeback, the head of Russian gymnastics called her depleted, saying she could only expect to compete for bronze on the uneven bars in London. Of course, Mustafina showed up that lack of faith handily, coming away the most decorated gymnast of the London Olympics. She carried Russia to silver in the team final despite mistakes from her teammates and became an Olympic champion herself on the uneven bars. She also snatched two unexpected bronzes in the all-around and floor finals, coming out the winner in tie-break rules for both.

After London, the political climate within the Russian Gymnastics Federation caused her coach to leave the country entirely. But Mustafina pushed right on, because that seems to be all she knows how to do. There is an oft-repeated Mustafinaism that speaks to this quality. An interviewer asked her, “What would be a reason not to go to the gym?” Mustafina’s response? “Death.”

That single-mindedness saw her show up to World Championships in 2013 looking at best worn down by her decision not to opt for a post-Olympic break, and at worst injured. Her qualifications performance was rough, culminating in a fall on floor. But then, out of nowhere, she pulled out a floor upgrade and won the all-around bronze.

She had just sneaked into the beam event final there, qualifying in last place. When she delivers, Mustafina is a beautiful beam worker. But she is not consistent on the event, and that had been true through most of 2013. “Beam is a tough event—sometimes I even talk to it to make it obedient,” Mustafina said in an interview in 2012.

But then, up in the undesirable position of first up in the event final, she pulled a move that was trademark Mustafina. Her beam set was confident and fluid, one of the best of her entire career. Seemingly out of nowhere, she pulled out a routine that scored nearly a point higher than either her qualifying or all-around beam routines. Nobody else could match it, and she won the gold, which meant she had won a World or Olympic medal on every event. She is the only gymnast currently competing with that distinction.

In 2014, Mustafina’s World Championships began on an even worse note. The struggling Russian team barely held onto the podium in the team competition, taking the bronze, and she left the all-around and bars finals empty-handed. But on the second day of event finals, she shocked when she pulled out medals on both beam and floor.

Aliya Mustafina reacts to her bronze medal win during the 2014 World Championships floor exercise event final.
Aliya Mustafina reacts to her bronze medal win during the 2014 World Championships floor exercise event final.

All gymnasts have strengths and weakness, and most coaches have the self-awareness to design routines that minimize showing the cracks in their armor. But Mustafina, as in all else, plows through with abandon. For one of the more glaring examples, take her twisting form. (Her legs should be together, like this.)

But did Mustafina limit how often she’s twisting and find something that suits her better? Nope, until last year Mustafina has consistently kept them as at least half her tumbling, haggardly twisting her way to an Olympic bronze medal on the event. Her precise dance skills and otherwise clean, controlled tumbling do help offset the helicopter legs.

As injuries have left her without her former power on floor, she has found a way to stay competitive there: focusing on the dance skill side of the score. She includes a variety of difficult turns with two, three, or even four rotations. Maggie Nichols of the U.S. took a similar approach on beam, which is why she does two wolf turns—one with two and half rotations, and one with two rotations—in succession right off the bat.  They are different skills, so they both count toward her difficulty score.

Aliya Mustafina smiles after successfully completing a triple turn with leg held in split position at 2014 World Championships, getting the skill named for her.
Aliya Mustafina smiles after successfully completing a triple turn with leg held in split position at 2014 World Championships, and getting the skill named after her in gymnastics’ Code of Points.

But that’s a precarious strategy, because if Mustafina doesn’t get her most difficult turns all the way around, they are downgraded. She not only loses the value of the skill, but potential connection value. And when she does run into those bumps, she often goes off-script and throws in additional turns on the fly to try and get back those tenths. So watching her on floor these days can feel like desperately clinging to a spinning top, rotating around and around and around and helplessly hoping for the best.

After her unexpected medal haul at 2014 World Championships, she said in an interview (translated by Rewriting Russian Gymnastics), “If I can’t surprise people with my performances again and fight for the win, why continue? I’m not the type of person who travels to competitions just to tread water.”

And even now, after years of major back, knee, and ankle injuries have pushed her into decline, she still takes that philosophy to heart.

Mustafina had been struggling since London to get her difficulty value on bars to the top echelon in the world, perhaps because of her nagging back injury. She seemed to be stuck in the 6.3 to 6.5 range, when the top bars routines are valued at 6.7 to 7.0. But she showed up this month in Rio having done what she always does, pulling upgrades seemingly out of thin air. She is now competing her hardest bars routine since she won gold there in London, with a 6.8 difficulty score. Mustafina was not going to show up to Rio without the goods to defend her Olympic bars title, even with a bad back. She is, as ever, a perennial warrior.

Yes, she infuriates you by leaving with medals she probably doesn’t deserve, making baffling choices in her routine construction, and never knowing what’s good for her. The Olympic all-around bronze she won on Thursday—which made her the first back-to-back Olympic all-around medalist since 2000—has sparked controversy, as it’s the second major medal she’s won while leaving out the required acrobatic series in her beam routine. But grinding out the win is just what she does.

Somehow, Mustafina manages to end up the underdog time and time again despite being one of the most decorated and accomplished gymnasts competing today. Whether it’s Mustafina versus the outrageous politics of Russian gymnastics, Mustafina versus a devastating, terribly timed ACL injury, or Mustafina versus her own flair for occasional disaster, it is that moment of overcoming that defines the Mustafina experience.

Mustafina has not made a definitive statement about her gymnastics future, but she certainly sounds ready to be done in recent interviews. It is easy to see why, after she’s spent years carrying a struggling program on her broken back.

Despite the lack of support she’s received from her bizarrely mismanaged Federation and horrible injury luck, Mustafina managed to cobble together a World and Olympic haul that places her among the legends of the sport. If she wins a bars medal in the final, she will bring her Olympic medal total to seven, which ties her for ninth most among female gymnasts. Her World Championships medal total is tied for sixth highest.

I won’t call that a miracle, because when it’s Mustafina, it’s not. It’s sheer power of will. If her bars routine Sunday is the last gymnastics of her career, she will be going out as she has operated these past six incredible years: always, absurdly finding an opening to make it happen for herself. Will she fly or fall this time? All we know for sure is that she will give it her all in the process.

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