16 September 2019 – The rhythmic gymnastics world championships started today in Baku, Azerbaijan. The ambassador for the event is none other than Yana Batyrchina of Russia, 1996 Olympic silver medallist. She recently wrote about her experiences at her first-ever world championships in Paris in 1994 on her Instagram profile. Here are some highlights from her harrowing account.
I was almost 15 years old when I went to my first world championships. It was hell, I even wanted to end my sporting career.
Two weeks before the championships began, we arrived in France. We lived somewhere near Paris and trained around the clock. Wake up – train – sleep – repeat. If you wanted a rest, you had to do three clean routines in a row. I did two perfectly, but on the third I made the smallest mistake – I had to start again. It was brutally hard.
Because of my fatigue, everything flew in the wrong direction. I thought that my performance would be an utter disgrace, after which I would not be able to look anyone in the eye. At this point, I seriously considered leaving gymnastics, so I wouldn’t have to perform at these world championships. I did not believe in myself at all.
As a junior, I was a leader and almost always won. I was the strongest in Russia, and always first or second in Europe and the world. But at senior level, I did not get into the top ten. It was very confusing for me, and made me doubt myself even more.
The thing is, I was not weaker than my rivals – on the contrary! I had the strongest exercises in the world, my routines were ten times harder than the others’. But I only placed about 12th as a senior. At that time, rhythmic gymnastics was completely different, with different rules. All I heard was “your time hasn’t come yet.”
In those days, it was impossible to move from juniors to seniors and maintain your leadership. You had to start from the bottom and work your way up. It felt like a dead end. I was one step away from giving it all up.
After the training camp, it seemed to me that the most difficult part was over. But other unpleasant surprises awaited me.
We performed in the huge Bercy arena (now AccorHotels Arena), used for basketball and hockey, and now set up for rhythmic gymnastics. Normally, we perform on a carpet flat on the floor, but in Paris they had built a platform more than a meter high for us to perform on.
It was a disaster. The thing is, gymnasts sometimes drop their apparatus, and they fly away from the carpet. Current rules allow for spare apparatus to be placed at the edge of the carpet, but in 1994, there were no such rules, and in Paris it was even worse – if I dropped the apparatus, it could fall off the stage and it would not be possible to pick it up. There was no room for mistakes.
Whatsmore, the ceiling was very dark, and I couldn’t see my apparatus when I threw it up – it just appeared at the last moment when I had to catch it. At the age of 14 I came across these conditions for the first time. I was terribly nervous and very afraid that my feelings would overwhelm me.
I did three routines very well with just one slight mistake. I reached the all-around finals in ninth place, making it to the top ten for the first time! It meant so much to me – only the greatest gymnasts of the world were ahead of me.
In the ribbon finals I placed sixth. I jumped for joy! After that I was remembered very well. I made it clear to both the audience and the judges that I was a force to be reckoned with. And all the following world championships were much easier.
How happy I am that as a 14-year-old girl I had the guts and patience to overcome my fear, pride and despair. It made me stronger.
Yana went on to win team and ball gold, and all-around bronze, at the 1995 world championships, and won many more medals – including Olympic silver in 1996 – at top level until her retirement in 1998. The 2019 rhythmic world championships run from 16th -22nd September.