The unstoppable Oksana Chusovitina

Oksana Aleksandrovna Chusovitina (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Oksana Aleksandrovna Chusovitina (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: one of the most emotional comebacks in Olympic history.

How she started

You may think gymnastics is a sport reserved for athletes who are in their teens and twenties.

But there is one athlete who breaks the unwritten rules of the sport: Oksana Aleksandrovna Chusovitina. The 45-year-old is aiming to compete at Tokyo 2020 in what will be her eighth Olympic Games.

But she wasn’t always the rule-breaker she is today.

At first, she seemed like just another athlete among a crowd of talents. A spectacular gymnast, maybe, but not one who would redefine her sport.

Chusovitina was born in Uzbekistan in 1975 and just 13 years later won the USSR Junior National Championships, before graduating to the senior ranks just a year later.

In 1992, she took part in her first Olympics in Barcelona, where she won a gold medal in the team event as a member of the Unified Team.

But this was just the beginning of her never-ending story.

Her trophy cabinet now holds no less than two Olympic medals (team gold at Barcelona 1992 and silver in vault at Beijing 2008), 11 World Championship medals (three gold, four silver and four bronze), two World Cup medals (one gold, one bronze), eight Asian Games medals, four Asian Championship medals and four European Championship medals.

Oksana and Alisher Chusovitina (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Oksana and Alisher Chusovitina (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)
2006 Getty Images

Her comeback

Incredibly, not all of those medals were won when she was the socially-accepted age a gymnast should be.

In 1999, she gave birth to her first son, Alisher. Her husband, Bajodir Kurbanov was also an Olympic athlete, having competed as a wrestler at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. In fact, the Sydney 2000 Games were meant to be the last one for Chusovitina. At 25, she was at the perfect age for retirement and had already made history by competing in Sydney after giving birth - there are less than 10 artistic gymnasts in Olympic history to have done so.

But this was not to be the end of Chusovitina’s story.

In 2002, her son Alisher was diagnosed with leukemia and in order to get the best possible treatment, the family moved to Germany. But the medical care was expensive, so Chusovitina once again began competing in international competitions to raise money for her son.

It was a success.

Not only was her comeback successful, more importantly, so was her son’s treatment. In 2008, Alisher was declared cancer-free and just months later, Chusovitina won her first individual Olympic medal in Beijing.

"Medals, no medals, it really doesn't matter when you hear this news. [No] medal could compare to this type of phone call. When your son is healthy, you can't compare any athletic achievements with that," she told ESPN years later.

Chusovitina was so happy in Germany that she began to compete under their flag - both in Beijing and then at London 2012.

After finishing a disappointing fifth in London, she once again announced her retirement. But...

"At night, I told everyone I retired, and the next morning I woke up and changed my mind."

Oksana's road to Tokyo 2020

Artistic gymnastics is in Chusovitina’s blood - and once again it was coursing through her veins.

Representing Uzbekistan again, Chusovitina competed at Rio 2016, finishing seventh in the vault in an event won by Simone Biles - 22 years her junior and two years younger than her son, Alisher.

While she didn’t win a medal in Rio, she did stand on the podium as a cheering crowd were treated to a highlight reel of her greatest moments.

It was a deserved homage, but it may have come too soon.

Now 45, Chusovitina has already qualified for her eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo.

"On the podium, everyone is the same, whether you are 40 or 16", she said.

When she competes in Japan, Chusovitina will be 46-years-old. But despite last year’s postponement, she is determined to enjoy one final dance at the Games.

"I thought I should finish my career at the Tokyo Games, and now I am not going to change my plans. That means another season more at the gym," she explained.

Historically, she has competed in the Games under three different flags (Unified Team, Germany and Uzbekistan) - something no other athlete has done. She is also set to break her own record for the most Olympic Games a gymnast has competed in.

It is difficult to foresee what the unstoppable Oksana Chusovitina can achieve in Tokyo. The living legend has proven time and again she is able to erase the ‘im’ from ‘impossible’.