It is easy to carry the weight of your world on your shoulders when you don’t know you are doing it.
But what about when you do know?
This year at Worlds I was saddened to see the nervous performances of Anna Dementyeva. She simply did not seem like her exciting little self. She did not seem like the same gymnast we saw step in after her team mates injury and snatch the European title earlier this year. The Anna Dementyeva we witnessed at work in Tokyo was nervous and tentative. It was obvious that she was feeling the strain. And in the meets since she has not performed to her usual standard. The sparkle in her eye and the tiny smile she has when she was competing- even on beam- now seems a little strained. One has to wonder if the pressure of expectation- the pressure of knowing her own potential- has got to her.
Tokyo 2011 was such a different picture to six months earlier, and even to the year before at Worlds where, despite succumbing to nerves in her individual finals, Dementyeva managed performed well- bars aside- as the youngest member of her team and prove she was a thing of the future for Russian gymnastics. Perhaps it was because in that moment she didn’t yet know what she was capable of.
This sense of her naivety was compounded by a conversation I had with one of the Russian delegation at one point during the 2010 Worlds about the possibility of interviewing her. I expected to have to wait until the whole meet was over, but the delegation member’s view was that Dementyeva was a baby and therefore unaffected and unlikely to be affected by media distractions like her older team mates.
This in itself did not surprise me. When I think of all those Romanian and Soviet babies of the past, those eleven, twelve and thirteen year-olds who dominated the sport, it seems normal. I have always thought part of the success of the Soviet machine was the youth of their gymnasts. And I often think that at a younger age you are less aware of the weight of your talent, and the weight of your actions. As one writer for the Russian Gymnastics Federation magazine said (in very exagerrated terms), when speaking of a young gymnasts of the future such as Komova;
“Only ‘visitors from the future’, despite their seeming external fragility, have such inner strength, comparing to which everybody around is powerless. They alone being a child can withstand the load for adults. They dominate over the pain, even when the pain dominates over every cell.”
Early success can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what kind of person you are. And there is probably nothing like growing up and realising what a key performer you are for your nation to let a sense of uncertainty and doubt creep in.
Perhaps the child does not feel the pressure, but the ‘adult’ gymnast does. Perhaps it is part of the coming of age of the gymnast these days. In the past, especially, the Soviets rarely kept a gymnast long enough for us to see her psychological maturation. But it did happen at times and we did see gymnasts undergo this change from blithe baby to daunted adult. One example is the transformation of Nadia Comaneci from a unconcerned, unaware wunderkind in 1976, to a more apprehensive, mature performer in 1980.
There must come a time when a gymnast realises what it means to be great at this sport, that they are expected to win because they have done it before. For some the expectation is a call to arms. A gymnast like Mustafina seems to feed on this kind of pressure. Jordyn Wieber too seems wholly able to push doubt aside and simply perform. For others it is harder to deal with. Perhaps when you start to want it, you know what it takes to get it. You know eyes are on you and you know the world is expecting big things of you. It is then up to your temperament to decide how to deal with that knowledge. Everybody feels pressure. It is just about how you deal with it.
Many gymnasts succumb to the first big pressure test, but move on. I think of Svetlana Khorkina’s tentative early years compared to her fiercely confident and competitive later years. I think of what Mihai Brestyan said about Alexandra Raisman after she first earned a surprise all around spot at the 2010 Worlds, and then made mistakes and missed a medal ; “Aly had hopes. But her dream was too big, and when she woke up, bang!- it frightened her !” Raisman then proved since she has the mental strength to adapt to expectation, if her consistent and strong 2011 Worlds performances are anything to go by.
Some gymnasts never seem to get past this realisation of what they could be- what they could become. One prime example is Romania’s Raluca Haidu. Here is a gymnast with so much potential. Here is a gymnast with early success who seems to be frightened of the very thing she wants. Fans were given a precious insight into Haidu’s psyche in Secrets of Deva when, as a little girl sitting on her father’s lap with her gymnastics dreams still in tact, her father mentioned the possibility of the little girl not making it and the young Raluca simply dissolved into tears. And since then, despite her abilities, Haidu seems like a gymnast for whom the realisation she could be great has cowed her.
There have been others in recent years who blinded us as babies and then succumbed to this kind of nerves at times as seniors. I think of Vanessa Atler. I think of Ksenia Afanasyeva and Tatiana Nabieva. I wonder if Tan Sixin will go this way too.
Of course, I am just speculating about Anna Dementyeva and this may not be the case at all. There may have been injury, fatigue, a number of other factors at play (apparently she was running a fever). Still, it got me to thinking about youth and the awareness of pressure. As Shawn Johnson said in a recent interview with GK, maturity and awareness brings a whole new set of feelings to the sport;
“I feel like the first time I had such an innocent mind, a naïve mind, not to know what it took to get there. It just kind of happened. Whereas, now, I know exactly what it takes. That’s what’s scary. You know you have to go into the gym every day and give 110% or you won’t make it. It’s overwhelming.”
And with age comes wisdom. It is the very reason why when we were ten and eleven, we could throw flips on a trampoline without blinking and when we are adults, the very same action makes us think of the potential of broken limbs. It is why the child who could stand up in a room full of adults and sing the songs she learned on Sesame Street is later cowed with stage fright before the high school play. We know we are being watched, we know we are expected to perform. We know what failure to do so could cost.
It is a fact of our sport and of the age of female gymnasts. Only those who know what they want and can also bear the weight of others wanting it from them can succeed. I sincerely hope this has just been a bad month or two for a maturing Anna Dementyeva because she has been such a delight so far.
Sincere thanks to Vladimir Zalagda for his translation of the Russian quote. Don’t forget to check out the fabulous Russian site he works on- I-G TV
Article: Brigid McCarthy