During training day for the 2011 American Cup Aliya Mustafina, who had travelled something like 16 hours from Moscow to Jacksonville, Fla., had a horrible morning practice. She couldn’t catch her piked Jaeger on bars to save her life.
She missed the bar about six times in a row, landing flat on her stomach each time and looking angrier with every missed grab. During each turn her coach Alexander Alexandrov calmly by the bars and, after the 2010 World champ had reached a boil, yanked her from practice. The Russians went out, cooled off, and came back ready to work that evening.
The unexpected dismissal early this week of Alexandrov, who helped create one of the strongest and most special Russian women’s teams to date for this summer’s Olympic Games, set gymnastics fans reeling. Everyone is eager to see what will happen to the famously talented-yet-temperamental Russian team without Alexandrov steering the ship.
Alexandrov has worked with many of the greats of the past 30 years, including Dmitri Bilozertchev, Tatiana Gutsu, Dominique Moceanu and most recently the fiery, determined Mustafina, the most decorated gymnast of the London Games.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this most impressive coach, however, is that he doesn’t give up on an injured athlete. Mustafina’s incredible comeback from a torn ACL at the 2011 Europeans has been well documented. Almost nobody disputes the part Alexandrov, her personal coach, played in the recovery from an injury that just a few years ago would likely have ended her career.
Alexandrov puts up with the famously moody Mustafina with aplomb, and she too admits that she leans on him — even when she’s mad at him. “All the great ones are difficult,” Alexandrov said candidly in a recent interview, and you can practically see him shrug. “You think [Viktoria] Komova is easy?”
Less known to a younger generation of gymnastics fans is Bilozertchev, who before Kohei Uchimura came along was a good candidate for greatest ever male gymnast, based on his domination of the early and later part of the 1980s. (I don’t mean to take anything away from the fabulous Japanese and Soviet men of the 1960s and ’70s by saying this, nor the incredible Li Ning, who shone as brightly but for a briefer period of time.)
What makes Bilozertchev’s incredible story moreso is the fact that he nearly lost his leg after a car accident in 1985. He fought to walk, and then to do gymnastics again, before returning to win the 1987 World title and nearly win the 1988 Olympic title.
Recently Gymcastic, the new gymnastics podcast, interviewed NBC commentator and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Tim Daggett, who discusses his own severe leg injury that, like Bilozertchev’s, nearly led him to lose his leg. (Daggett sustained the injury at the 1987 Worlds, Bilozertchev’s big comeback meet.) During his own recovery and very long road to the 1988 Olympic Trials, Daggett looked to Bilozertchev — and Alexandrov — as an inspiration. “His coach at the time was really the person who made [Bilozertchev] who he was,” Daggett said during the interview. You could easily say the same for Mustafina.
So clearly the Russians can’t afford to let Alexandrov get away. In a follow-up interview, Russian team coordinator Andrei Rodionenko defended the action by saying that Alexandrov’s duties had shifted, and it wasn’t meant as a personal slight. As for shifting of duties, it is understandable — imagine what an uproar there would be if U.S. National Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi had a pupil she was coaching personally while at the same time being head of the U.S. women’s team.
Let’s just hope that in his new capacity Alexandrov can produce more like the names listed above. That would be the best thing for Russian gymnastics — heck, for gymnastics in general — by far.
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