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Alexander Alexandrov in his own words 1 - A Difficult Decision



Alexander Alexandrov with his daughter, Isa, at the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Rio.  (c) Alexander Alexandrov


Russian coach Alexander Alexandrov has been prominent in the sport since 1983, when he came to the public eye as coach of the brilliant Dmitri Bilozerchev.  He has over thirty years’ experience of coaching World and Olympic Champions both in the country of his birth and in his adopted home, Houston, USA.  In his most recent position as Head Coach of the national women's artistic gymnastics (WAG) team for Russia, he quite simply resurrected his country’s gymnastics programme, re-establishing his team at the very top of the sport.  Prior to Alexandrov’s appointment, at the 2008 Olympics, Russian WAG had walked away empty handed, without medals.  At last year’s London Olympics, artistic gymnastics was one of Russia’s most successful sports.  Alexandrov’s Russia won the most gymnastics medals of any country competing, and his athlete Aliya Mustafina was Russia’s leading medal winner at the Games.  Alexandrov’s continuing contribution to Russian sport and to world gymnastics is immense.

Yet on his return to Moscow after the Games, Alexandrov faced an inquisition.  Press reports favoured accounts from head coaches Valentina and Andrei Rodionenko as they led an assault on Alexandrov’s reputation that ultimately led to his resignation this spring.  The unfortunate Alexandrov could barely get a word in edgewise as the Russian press focussed heavily on the sensational attacks made by Valentina Rodionenko. 

Alexander is now working in Brazil as head coach to the national WAG team, and early in July he granted RRG the privilege of an interview.  This interview took place thanks to the initiative and hard work of his daughter, Isa, who was determined that her father be given a fair hearing, and spent many long evenings and weekends, transcribing and translating the interview she undertook with him.  It is long, but every word adds something to our knowledge.  There is a lot here to learn about gymnastics, Russia, and the nature of certain human beings.  I have found parts of it very moving.  But enough from me.

For now, it is time for Alexander Alexandrov to have his say, completely in his own words.  I hope you will be able to find time to read it, to comment, question, rant and laugh along with him.

The interview is in five parts; you will find the first in this blog post and can link to the others below:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Brief guide to the interviews


Introduction

Hello, my name is Isa, I am Alexander’s daughter. The idea of interviewing my dad came to me a long time ago, way before London Olympic Games and all the drama that soon followed.

After well-publicized and quite hurtful situation with my dad post London Olympics, I made an attempt to interview him, but it was too soon, and every memory was hurting too much for him and for his family. So I let it go and figured that if this interview is meant to happen, it will, on its own terms and in its own time.

My family and I have been following Elizabeth’s blog for quite some time. We would read the blog entries and the comments from the readers, and if it was something interesting or pertaining to dad and/or Russian women’s team, we would always tell him about the blog when we would Skype. So,  when dad left Russia and came to US to spend some time with his family and to get rested before his next chapter in life, I asked him if he would be interested in sitting down with me to “lay the cards on the table”.   When he agreed, I reached out to Elizabeth to see if she would be interested in interviewing him and to come up with questions she’d like to ask.  Needless to say Elizabeth was very excited, and so was I.  Dad and I got together on a HOT and humid Sunday evening in Houston, and had a very long and fascinating talk for over four hours. Some of the things he told me I knew, some I have guessed about, and some were a complete surprise …

Here is the “coherent” version of everything we talked about, hopefully this will shed some light on many things and will give people a new perspective on his situation, what happened and reasons for it, and what is going on in Russian artistic gymnastics as of today.


The Difficult Decision

RRG: What finally forced your decision to leave? Why did it take so long for you to decide to leave Russia, after what always seemed like an uncomfortable compromise of taking a step down from being Head Coach?

AA: To begin with, my decision to finally leave Russia was not “forced”, nor “all of a sudden”.. I could have left and actually planned to do so right after Andrei Rodionenko (AR) had arranged what I cannot call anything else but “Judgement Day”.  The Rodionenkos decided to demote me as Head Coach in a very illegal way. The fact is - I wasn’t hired by the Rodionenkos, so it was never up to them to terminate my contract in its entirety.  They have never got an approval from the Russian Gymnastics Federation (RGF), or Ministry of Sport, or got any document signed by people actually responsible for inviting me to work as a Head Coach in the first place.  All they could do is to pass a recommendation to “demote me”. I don’t wish to discuss the details of how the Rodionenkos were able to come up with so many other coaches voting against me; any smart person will understand the nature of this persuasion.  There is of course another story about secretly videotaping that particular meeting of coaches after the Olympic Games, and the videotaping was done without my consent or knowledge.  This was their “proof” of the majority vote to dismiss me as the Head Coach.

When I was “given the verdict”, needless to say I felt it was a slap in my face.  I went to the RGF and to the Ministry of Sport for further discussion. I don’t want to name names, but I had several discussions with people paramount in RGF, and was told that “it does not matter what the Rodionenkos say or try to do, the final decision will not be made by them”.  The way the infrastructure works in Russia, is you have the Ministry of Sport, but there is also the RGF, so everyone is under contract with both, including Rodionenko.  Basically I was told that “Rodionenko can make certain suggestions, but the final decision is not his or hers to make”.  I was also asked to be patient and wait a little bit, and that things will be set right. Another request was not to give interviews or comment much about the situation and to stay “under the radar” as much as possible. So I agreed to wait around, especially since my official work contract was until December 31st, and it was not with the Rodionenkos, but with RGF and Ministry of Sport. Furthermore, all of the terms outlined in my contract had stayed the same after my demotion as the Head Coach.

To explain a little bit more, it is perhaps timely to mention that I was presented with a second contract a few days before the deadline; this contract was for four years, at the same salary and same conditions as the first contract. The only change was my official position: I would now be personal coach, rather than Head Coach.  I signed the contract before going home to Houston for my Christmas break. This clearly shows the interest RGF had in retaining me in Russia for as long as possible.I do not believe that Rodionenkos knew about this offer, because I heard from some people “in the know” at RGF, that Valentina was asking why RGF had purchased a return ticket to Moscow for me, and “what was he doing coming back”.  So to sum this up, I had a second official contract with RGF at the time that I decided to leave Russia. 

So, I came back to Lake Krugloye and simply stopped functioning as a head coach, and started to work exclusively with Aliya.  Needless to say it was difficult, but Aliya and I were doing our best to support each other.  So I worked in this new capacity through fall and beginning of winter.  All this time I was asked to wait, and told that things would get better. From my end, I had said from the very beginning that I no longer would work with the Rodionenkos, period.  People who were trying to change the situation honestly believed that they could, so I have no bad feelings against anyone who was trying to help. It just didn’t work out that way …

RRG:  Valentina Rodionenko (VR) has said that Aliya Mustafina signed a letter releasing you as her personal coach. Is this true and what do you have to say about it?

AA:  No, this is not true. Aliya never signed any type of letter requesting me not to be her coach.

I’d like to start by shedding some light on the situation.  As soon as I was no longer the Head Coach and became solely Aliya’s personal coach, I knew that the situation would become even more difficult for her.  She knew about and heard all of the comments and hurtful things VR was saying about her after her major injury as she was trying to recover. Every athlete will understand how imperative it is to have strong and constant support, and how incredibly difficult it is to overcome any negativity while trying to recover after a major injury.  By the way, no one else was acting in such way or saying hurtful things, just Valentina.  Aliya was very hurt by everything that was said, but she is an incredibly strong individual and she pulled through it despite all of the poison of VR.  I personally was disgusted by all the nasty things VR said in the press about Aliya.  What kind of “main coach” are you if you pour dirt all over one of your top gymnasts, especially when they need the support most?

Going back a bit, after working as Head Coach for some time, it became apparent that my relationship with the Rodionenkos was quickly going down.  I had several talks with Aliya, trying to explain to her that she would have a large target on her forehead and things would get very tough.  But I promised Aliya that I would stay as long as I could to help her to recover and to help to prepare her for London Olympic Games.  VR has made things for Aliya very difficult and dangerous, not listening to me or to anyone trying to reason with her about any safety precautions that needed to take place.  Such as giving Aliya’s feet a break between different apparatuses when she needed a little extra time before taping them up in order to free up blood circulation.  Aliya became the “work horse”.  During Olympic Games, she was supposed to compete on two events, but after some fails by other gymnasts, she was put to work to fill all the holes in the ship.

After the Olympic Games in London, VR started a different tactic with Aliya which proved to be successful.  This time she could not dismiss the huge amount of work that Aliya had done, so reverse psychology took place.  “Aliya, you need to rest more” or “Aliya, if this is too hard, you should not do it/try it”, or “Aliya if you don’t think you should work on this element, don’t do it” and so on.  Aliya is a very smart young lady, but she also likes when someone does not make her do things, but lets her slack more than she should.  She often feels “invincible”, especially being young, and thinks highly of herself as a gymnast.  But she does not often think about the fact that the lack of proper training can very realistically lead to a very serious injury.  The main job for any professional coach is to guide your athlete during these times, especially if the athlete has already established themselves, to make them understand what needs to be done in order to avoid injuries and to actually be able to compete successfully in the future.  As a coach you have to “lead” your athlete, sometimes you have to be tough with them, but this has to be done not only to help them to be a better gymnast, but also to help them become a better person, a better human being. These times are very important in any young person’s life and mould the individual they can potentially become. The Rodionenkos chose a different path, and a very wrong one. 

Alexander Alexandrov and Aliya Mustafina : a 'sad and difficult' parting
So, after observing what the Rodionenkos were doing, I understood that if I constantly told Aliya, “no, you MUST do this”, or “no you can’t do that”, this would be held against me.  I also had discussions with several people at RGF, and basically told them, “you know what guys, I don’t want to and simply can’t work with the Rodionenkos.  I am not a young green boy and have been doing this for a very long time.  Either the Rodionenkos let me do things my way, which has proven time after time to be successful, or I see no way at all”.  Needless to say, the situation did not change, and got worse.  So when I made my decision to leave, Aliya and I had a very long and good talk, where I told her exactly what I think and how I see things.  She is a bright young lady, so she understood everything I was talking about and my situation.  So we parted in a very good and friendly way, although it was extremely sad and difficult for both of us.

I call Aliya sometimes to see how things are.  I called her a little before the Universiade, and felt that her voice was really “off”. I told her that I wanted to wish her luck in upcoming competitions, but she told me that she wasn’t sure if she would compete and she had been in a hospital for a week.  I told her that if she was going to compete in this shape, she would only do more damage to herself; no one needs that from her.  I told her that in the scheme of things, Universiade is not Worlds or Olympic Games.  I understand the importance of these competitions, but her health should be number one priority right now, especially if she wants to compete at Worlds this year.  So I told her to make a decision that is best for her health and not to go out there and compete “on emotions”.  Apparently she was “released by doctors” to compete …

So, to sum this up, I understood very clearly that the longer I was to be in Russia, the more pressure my relationship with Aliya would have.  I am not talking in terms of Aliya and myself becoming enemies, but if I were to be around, they would put even more pressure on Aliya and would not provide any type of support needed for her to move forward and to achieve good results in the future. 

Part 2
Guide to the interview 

Copyright (c) Alexander Alexandrov/RRG 2013
No reproduction without express permission in writing.  Please apply to rewriterussiagym@btinternet.com 



Comments

  1. What a fascinating interview, the best I've ever read! Always so informative and insightful, at times touching and often rage-inducing. I think we would all rejoice if two certain people decided to retire, or even better- unceremoniously booted out of their positions. Thank you so so much to Alexander, Isa and Elizabeth!

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  2. This is an amazing article and a wonderful look into the ousting of a coach who brought back excitement into gymnastics world in 2010 when Russia won the first World Team Championship in the longest time at World Championships. I am grateful that you allowed us to hear the story from you and that your daughter spent hours putting this together for us to read. Thank you so much and I wish you a beautiful journey in Brazil where I see some of the most talented young juniors that you will work with (Rebecca Andrade, Mariana Oliveira, Flavia Saraiva). Thank you so much Alexander, Isa and Queen Elizabeth.

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  3. Thank you for sharing their story Alexander, Isa and Elizabeth. I felt sad after reading this and I hope that things can change for the better and that they would have more transparency in the system :)

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  4. Thank you thank you thank you! This is one of the best interviews I have read in a long time - I'm very grateful to everybody who made this possible. I've gained a lot of respect for Alexandrov.

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  5. After l've read this interview, I think that the Russian WAG team will face a gloomy future in the presence of Rodionenkos and that will take place starting from the next worlds ... Hope I'm wrong

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  6. A very interesting question this interview points out was in what ways is the younger generation truly being groomed adequately to take over once the old guard retires? I really fear for the future of Russian gymnastics without Alexander Alexandrov, who almost singlehandedly, brought the programme back to life.

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  7. This is the best interview I have read! It answers many questions, show interesting scandals, and leaves more even more questions and speculation. It was very lovely to read Alexandrov's opinions on these event. In particular, I thought it was terrible that Demy was sent home, the Rodionenkos wanted to boycott Worlds, and the shameless things Aliya's former coach had said.

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  8. Thank you Alexander and Isa for sharing your story. After years of reading Valentina's interviews I don't think that many of us will be surprised by anything coming from the Rodionenkos. The idea of the semi-boycott in Tokyo worlds is particularly shameful though.
    It is sad to think of the damage that these two have inflicted upon Russian gymnastics and its athletes. It must tremendously hard to train under those conditions, in which the main coaches rather talk shit about their gymnasts to the media than support them when they most need it.
    It's a disgrace for Russian gymnastics that they have driven so much talent away, coaches like Ostapenko and Alexandrov, whose value has been proven over and over again. I also fear that the Rodionenkos will sink Russia back into mediocrity, which is what seems to make them feel safe.

    Finally, a big thank you and congratulations to Elizabeth for bringing us these fascinating interview.

    "I think Grishina is in a good place unless Rodionenkos will start to "choke her" Prophetic words.

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  9. Isa would like to say a few words : 'a big thank you for all the support and comments for my dad! The fact that people are talking about this - is awesome. I plan to Skype with dad tonight so I will be sure to read some of the comments to him!'

    Thanks to all of you for your comments so far - I really appreciate them too.

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  10. What a fantastic interview, thank you Isa xxx

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  11. As a gymnast who trained under Alexander while he was in Houston back in 2000, I can say from my own personal experience that during the mere few months I was able to train with him (doctors recommended i stop training altogether due to a stress fracture in my spine and degenerative disc disease) my gymnastics improved exponentially. This man knows what he's doing. His methods work! Hes proven that time and time again. Neither he or Aliya deserve to be treated in this way. Quite frankly it disgusts me that these people...who calls themselves coaches ...would publicly rip not only a well known and RESPECTED member of the gymnastics community, but a well accomplished gymnast who is supposedly under their "care and guidance"?! It appears to me that once Alexander did all the heavy lifting (building and training a world class Russian team) a couple coaches are saying "ok, we'll take it from here"? Unbelievable. At the rate they're going I fear they are going to effectively run Russian gymnastics into the ground. What a shame that would be.

    To Alexander- I've always considered it to have been a great honor to be able to call you my coach, even if it was only for the final 6 months of a near 15 yr. career. I did the best gymnastics of my life in that 6 months. And ANYONE, anywhere would be truly blessed to have you as a coach. ~Lindsay. a.k.a "Alaska"

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