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Olympic champion: Valery Honcharov, the gymnast
Valery Honcharov, 26, won the gold medal at the Olympics in Athens. He excelled in parallel bars with 9.787 points awarded to him in the final. The silver medal went to a Japanese gymnast and the bronze was won by a Chinese athlete. In Sydney, four year ago, he won the silver medal as a member of Ukraine team of gymnasts.
The Olympic champion was interviewed for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine by Natalya RUDNICHENKO.
Do you remember what you felt when the results were announced and you realized you were the champion?
Of course I remember! But it’s so difficult to describe what I felt… At first, I was sort of stunned. Usually, athletes winning a gold medal react very emotionally but I, for some reason, did not express my joy in a flamboyant way. Earlier, I had thought about how I’d behave if I won the medal, and it seemed to me I’d start cavorting, bounding and prancing about like others do in such situations. But I did not. There was a strange calm in me. I think I was in a sort of an emotional shock. I am a patriot of Ukraine, you know, and when they started raising the Ukrainian flag at the medal handing-in ceremony, a great joy swept over me. It was particularly moving to see many Ukrainian flags being waved by our fans in the hall. People also raised posters encouraging me.
Did you think of winning when you were actually in action on the bars?
No, I did not think of anything but only of what I had to do. In fact, you can’t call it “thinking.” It was complete concentration on every little move I had to make. At such moments you don’t hear or see anything. If you allow yourself any thoughts about medals, awards, money, then you are sure to perform poorly. I just told myself I had to do my best.
Who was the first to congratulate you?
Were there any official congratulations?
Yes, but they came later.
Winning an Olympic gold medal is of course an event of greatest importance in any athlete’s career. But it must have been a long way to the medal.
Yes, it was, a hard and long way. It may look so simple and easy when you watch a gymnast in action on the bars or on any other apparatus, and if the spectators do think that it’s so smooth and easy it’s sort of good because it shows you performed well. But for me it was not easy, believe me. In between Sydney and Athens I suffered injuries, had to undergo operations, and there was even a period of time when I stopped doing gymnastics at all.
You see, in Sydney, I performed well, we, as a team, won the silver medals, but a little later I began to doubt I had much of a future in sport. Probably sooner or later everyone has similar doubts. Plus my injuries made me uncertain of myself, and at one point I thought I should quit big-time sport. But then my mood changed and I came back to full-time workouts. Now I’m very glad I did.
I know you lived in Canada for some time. Was it difficult to come back to gymnastics and devote yourself fully to this sport again?
I lived in Canada for a year and I performed in a circus show. Doing all those stunts was a good practice too, and I did not lose any of my physical shape. It was a sort of gymnastics too. But there was some dissatisfaction growing in me. I felt I still could attain something in real gymnastics too. I kept abreast of what was happening in the world of gymnastics in Ukraine and elsewhere, and once, when there was a long break in my work, I went to Ukraine with an intention to come back to Canada. I kept doing my workouts because in the business I was in I had to keep in shape all the time. But during those workouts I realized I still could do a lot of fine things in gymnastics too, my body remembered everything it used to do on those gymnastics apparatuses. Some of the things I did I could do even better than before. My coach, Yevhen Moskvin who was with me in Athens too, and my parents began to encourage me to go ahead and return full time to gymnastics. I did.
It was then that you started training for the Olympic Games in Athens?
You see, in big-time sport it’s like this — one championship of Olympic Games are over and almost literally the next day you start thinking in terms of the next championship or the next Olympics. You are in training all the time and it’s practically impossible to say that you start training for one particular competition starting from such and such time.
What about your psychological state? Was it difficult to regain self-confidence after that circus break in your career of a gymnast?
The only way to regain self-confidence is to take part in competitions and win them. You can’t just tell yourself — I have a new confidence in myself. Workouts and winning is the only way.
What if you lose?
That’s bad, of course. When you lose or do not attain what you’ve planned to achieve, it affects you in a negative way, but gymnastics is my work, and I know I have to do it well. So I kept trying harder, even though I faced injuries and operations.
What were your impressions of Athens as far as the general organization of the Games is concerned?
The general organization of the Games was all right. Things were fine in our team too, but unfortunately you can’t say this about judges and the way they performed. They made many mistakes, there were even violations of the established regulations.
Did you have a good reception in Ukraine? I mean on the official level?
Yes, the officials and the journalists gave us a very warm reception. Only the weather did not rise to the occasion — it was raining when we arrived. Incidentally, when we were leaving the weather was element — bright sunshine.
What about native Kharkiv?
You mean what kind of a reception I was given there? Oh it was super. I did think they would accord me a good reception but the way it was done exceeded all my expectations. Upon arrival in Kharkiv, I was taken in long white limousine to the central square crowded with people. Incidentally, they say it’s the biggest square in Europe. I walked on the carpet to the carpeted dais to address the people and that was a great, unforgettable moment.
At one of your interviews you said that you had devoted your victory to the memory of your friend Oleksandr Beresh. Why?
Oleksandr was not only a friend. He was an excellent athlete. He tragically died earlier this year in a car crash. He won the bronze medal in the individual all-around at the Sydney Olympics. We were close friends. Usually at the training sessions, and at competitions we shared one room in hotels. On the day he died we were together at the training centre, watching television after workouts. Then he said goodbye and left because he had a meeting to attend. Three hours later, he died in a car crush, returning to the training centre. The accident happened about half a kilometer from the centre… His wife and his little daughter will never see him again…
Some observers say that the present-day successes are still based on the sports achievements of the soviet times, on the soviet sports school in gymnastics. Do you have anything to say about it?
I don’t think my victory had anything to do with the soviet school of gymnastics. As a gymnast, I’ve been raised by the Ukrainian school of gymnastics. When I began training full time and was included into the Ukrainian team of young gymnasts, Ukraine was already a free state. Conditions of training keep improving and they were considerably better before Athens than they were before Sydney. Our training was adequately financed. The coaches and athletes are getting better paid, and I think, if things continue to go along these lines, gymnastics will continue to develop and all our achievements in gymnastics will be attributed to the Ukrainian school of gymnastics only.
How is the new generation of gymnasts doing? Are there Olympic hopefuls?
There must be. Our Olympic team is young enough to compete at the next Olympics too, but a lot more attention should be paid to the younger athletes. In fact, training should begin at an early age — only then we’ll have excellent gymnasts. But I do not feel enough is being done in this respect, either logistically or financially.
Now a sort of a personal question if I may — How does it feel to be an Olympic champion? Do you feel yourself a star?
A star? There are a lot of meetings, press conferences, interviews which take a lot of time. But I look at it as at something that will end soon. There will be no time for that. I’ll have to devote myself entirely to training for the next competitions.
Do you keep a strict regimen when in training?
Very strict… The only indulgence I allow myself is sleeping a little longer on Sundays. But it only means I’ll have to start my workouts later.
What about the diet?
It’s not as strict as one may think. When my mom cooks Ukrainian borsch I never refuse to eat it. Besides, I can cook myself and here also I can afford some indulgences.
Do you have any hobbies?
Yes, I do — billiards and bowling. A year ago I started playing lawn tennis. Also, I read a lot of books, particularly on psychology.
What kind of music do you mostly listen to?
It depends on my mood. Mostly it’s pop, ranging from rap to lounge.
It looks you’re pretty busy all the time. But you must have some leisure time, mustn’t you? What do you do in your leisure time?
Well, I don’t have much of that. There may be some free time during the competitions and if they are held at a resort then I may use some that time for relaxation on the beach. In Canada, I did have more of free time and this gave me an opportunity to think things over. I started looking at the work and at myself in a different light. I had enough time to travel around the country and see the sights. Among them the Niagara Falls produced the greatest impression. You have to actually be there to fully appreciate its grandiosity. No photographs or video can render the actual impact. When you are standing above it, you feel the earth trembling underfoot, and you look at all this water tumbling down and understand that you’re just an insignificant speck in the grand universe of nature. It was tremendous!
Did you have time for sightseeing in Athens?
Very little and I managed to see only the Acropolis. The final was at the very end of the Games and I had practically no time for anything but training.