Friday, July 5, 2013

Why I think Zhenya is #1

Ask Uliana Donskova (2012 Olympic champion in group RG) who her favorite athlete in rhythmic gymnastics is, and the answer is “Zhenya Kanaeva.”
Zhenya & Ul at the 2013 Spring Cup in Krasnoyarsk
Ask Dasha Dmitrieva (2012 Olympic silver medalist in RG) who her gymnastic idols are, and she replies, “I do not have idols in the full sense of the word, but I love Ira Chaschina. She was my favorite gymnast, when she was performing. I also love Ulyana Trofimova, who now competes for Uzbekistan. She is able to combine amazing things and emotions, which is very difficult. And, of course, the incomparable, invincible Zhenya Kanaeva. She has made a huge contribution to Russian sport; truly legendary gymnast.” [Translation by GoogleTranslate with editing by me.]
Dasha D cheering for Zhenya
Now, I’m not going to try to list all of Zhenya’s numerous titles and accomplishments here.
There are much better sites for that:

Awesome resource for Zhenya info and rhythmic gymnastics in general

Zhenya’s Wikipedia page in English

I will, however, make some observations and explain why Zhenya is #1 for me.

Since I have been only following RG for less than a year, and honestly have only really watched the Olympics, I am not an expert AT ALL, but if you ask me why I think Zhenya has been so successful, I think there are eight reasons.

First and foremost, Zhenya is incredibly hardworking and dedicated.  Recently, Irina Viner (head coach of the RG team) shared an anecdote about Zhenya getting up early to train even when on vacation!
She strikes me as the type of athlete who would practice, practice, practice until she perfected an element, and I always admire that kind of perfectionist dedication.

Second, Zhenya’s routines are extremely difficult.  Now, I know that others have quibbled about how she lowered the difficulty of her routines since 2011 and always does the same tricks, but at the 2012 Olympics, it was clear that she had the most complicated routines of all the gymnasts competing there.  Although each individual element of her routines may not be extremely difficult, what makes Zhenya’s routines so impressive is that she strings so many difficult elements together in combination.  Sure, it may be true that she “played it safe” at the Olympics, but for many years, she pushed the technical barriers of the sport, and that is exactly what I think athletes should do.
You try catching this on your back!!
Third, Zhenya has a fantastic coach—Vera Efremovna Shtelbaums—with whom she has an incredibly close relationship.  Vera Efremovna has basically known Zhenya since she was a child, and the total trust they have in each other (and affection for each other) definitely have helped Zhenya succeed.
Zhenya & Vera Efremovna
Now, Zhenya being Zhenya (i.e. incredibly modest), she would probably stop there and tell you that she was able to achieve her success all thanks to hard work, her amazing coaches and the supportive training environment, but I think there are a couple of things that are special/unique about Zhenya that made her the Greatest of All Time.

Fourth, Zhenya is extremely naturally flexible.  In particular, her back is extremely flexible, which allows her to pull off her signature ring pivots.

I definitely think that part of the reason that Zhenya was able to stay on top for so long was because her natural flexibility spared her from serious injuries that derailed many other gymnasts’ careers.
I say this because figure skater Mao Asada (who is also extremely naturally flexible) has not had many serious injuries compared to Yu-Na Kim and Miki Ando, for example, who are not as flexible.  (Figure skating is my only other point of comparison, since I haven't been following RG that long.)

Fifth, Zhenya is good at all the apparatuses, and she claims to love them all equally.  In contrast, most gymnasts seem to have some favorite apparatuses, and some they like less. To me, Zhenya's facility with all the apparatuses suggests that she naturally has superior hand-eye coordination skills, so they are equally easy to her.  Having no weaknesses (among the apparatuses) is certainly a strength.
Rolling a hoop/ball AND scarf

Sixth, Zhenya is beautiful!  Let’s be honest here.  Rhythmic gymnastics is a subjective sport, and looks definitely matter.  Now, Zhenya is absolutely gorgeous, and even several years back, she was super cute.  Of course the judges (and the fans) would want to root for a girl with a smile like this!

If Zhenya were not so adorable and pretty, she probably would’ve been very successful, but I don’t think she would have been as successful and as popular as she is.

These six traits are things figure skater Mao Asada exhibits as well—extreme work ethic, always trying difficult elements, very close to her coaches, naturally flexible, naturally good at jumps/spins/steps, and super cute.  However, I think there are two additional characteristics that Zhenya has that Mao does not have, which have made Zhenya the very best in her sport.

Seventh, Zhenya seems to be extremely mentally tough.  She very rarely makes mistakes in competitions, and when she does, she is able to cover them very well (think on her feet).  That ability to execute in competition is something that Mao Asada unfortunately lacks.  You may be able to do the hardest tricks in practice, but if you can’t perform in the competition, it doesn’t matter.
Totally focused!

Finally, Zhenya seems to be very smart and self-aware.  I think that Mao Asada has struggled because she doesn’t understand her strengths and she doesn’t understand what the judges want to see.  I think Zhenya is the opposite; I think she is VERY aware of what she is good at and what she needs to work on.
Lyubov Cherkashina, the bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics, once commented that if you ask Zhenya how she did after a competition, she immediately lists all the mistakes she made.  As a result, she has been able to maintain her motivation to continue training hard, which in turn helped her win almost every competition and made her legendary!
Thinking had!
Yes, I definitely think hard work and a great coaching relationship helped propel Zhenya to the top.  But that is not all that is needed to win.  I think Zhenya’s special combination of natural aptitude, intelligence/self-awareness, mental toughness, and personal beauty made her the Greatest of All Time.

As Alina Kabaeva, another queen of rhythmic gymnastics once wrote, “What a star she is!  I think any type of sport could only dream of having performers like Zhenya!”

More on Zhenya to come...

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