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Sergei Starkin - 'My job is to bring Aliya back to the best in the world'

Sergei Starkin, then coach to Denis Ablyazin and now coach to both Denis and Aliya Mustafina, at the 2012 Olympics.  Courtesy of the RGF
The latest news, that Aliya Mustafina now has a personal coach - not just a personal coach, one of Russia's best coaches, Sergei Starkin - was only released yesterday.  Since then we have heard from Vladimir Zaglada on the implications of this change - and now Sergei Starkin himself has spoken to Natalia Kalugina.  The following English language summary of the article is as close as I can get to the original, though please be aware that I will have to paraphrase where the translation isn't clear; this is not a word for word translation.

Back in early December, when Aliya Mustafina turned to Sergei Starkin and asked him to work with her, there was talk about why a men's coach should work in the women's sport.   This is despite the fact that Starkin began his professional life as a women's coach.  His best known gymnast - leader of the men's team at the 2014 World Championships, Denis Ablyazin - is well known, but earlier, in 2001, Sergei also coached Olga Ugarova, a gymnast who won gold with the Russian team at the 2001 Universiade.  I asked him a few questions.
- Sergei, what made you decide to work with Aliya Mustafina?
- Listen, a girl who has done so much for her country, the best gymnast in Russia, cannot be left without a coach one and a half years before the Olympic Games.  You can't leave her without support!  She had begun to realise that, unfortunately, without a coach her results were beginning to fail.  She wants to overcome this crisis.  She came to me and said that now she feels I'm the only coach for her, she is ready to listen to me.  She understands that to return to the previous level, she must change her preparation a great deal.

- Do you believe that in today's gymnastics one coach can work with two top-level gymnasts - in this case a man and a woman?
- I believe that in any case you should try. The first thing I did when I decided to take this work on was to sit down and write daily training schedules for Aliya and Denis. On paper, it became apparent that on average p personal trainer works with each gymnast for four and a half hours daily, and that Aliya's and Denis's classes do not overlap. Thus I can, without prejudice to each of the students, divide myself fairly between them both. The junior coaching staff will have to help to coach some of the junior gymnasts.  I understand that not everything on paper will work out in real life, and we will have to make some adjustments, but I am ready for that. 

- There is a purely psychological point: Denis is a proud man, and Aliya, a proud woman. Aren't you afraid they may be jealous of each other?
- The first person with whom I spoke was Denis Ablyazin. I showed him the plan, and asked for his thoughts - I gave him the chance to say no.  Denis decided that this is the right step. With Aliya I also spoke. She is a smart girl and an adult. And I will also be vigilant of this.

- Sergei, you are known as a coach who knows how to create the best acrobatics, jumps and somersaults. Ablyazin has some of the world's greatest difficulty on floor exercise and vault, but also Olya Ugarova was the best "prygushkoy" (tumbler) on the team. Aliya Mustafina is focused on all-around. How will this affect things?
- Out of the four apparatus that women compete, acrobatics is a crucial element in three. As for the bars, senior coach Evgeny Grebyonkin has worked with Aliya since childhood. I'm not going to interfere with that. This does not mean that I won't work on bars, but I will leave the final word to Evgeny.

- There is a delicate issue. In the men's gym there is a good working environment but in the women's things are more difficult (Note : Natalia uses a word which translates into English directly as 'scandalous').  How are you going to overcome this problem?
- Firstly, I am not afraid of scandal. I go to work, and do not make a fuss. So I am not really worried about this. And secondly, perhaps, psychologically, and it would be a good influence for Aliya to experience the atmosphere of training in the men's gym.  But I think maybe not. The gymnast must not break away from the team. We have talked, and I explained how important it is to listen and react correctly. Once again I emphasize: Mustafina is very clever.

- How did the team leaders react? - Andrei Rodionenko and Valentina Rodionenko?
- Oh! Andrei Fedorovich and Valentina responded quickly and with joy. I didn't expect this, and had a few sleepless nights.
- Aliya is now having treatment in Munich. When will you begin work with her?
- Early on the morning of December 18 I will fly to Germany. I will visit the clinic with Aliya and talk with the doctor. After that, we will plan our work. First of all, Aliya has to get better.  If, in order to do so, Aliya needs to miss Russian and European Championships, then we will skip them.  Our task is to return to the level of the strongest gymnast in the world. This may take a long time. Possibly up to six months.
Good luck to Aliya, Sergei and Denis as they continue with their work! 
Thank you to Natalia Kalugina for this interview.


  1. Thank god Aliya finally has a personal coach! Starkin seems to be smart about training, I'm glad he mentioned the possibility of missing Russian championships and Europeans. Finally there is someone who is willing to make those decisions for Aliya, if necessary and will stop her from competing if she isn't ready!

  2. He says they only need 6 months to bring Mustafina back on top form? Is that a realistic expectation? She needs a lot of upgrades in order to beat Biles.

    1. Reading this piece in tandem with Vladimir Zaglada's ideas (yesterday's post) it is clear that Starkin's first priority for Aliya is her health and specific conditioning. This will come first before upgrades.
      Starkin says he is looking to bring her up to 'the level' of the best in the world - which is open to variations in interpretation - and of course Aliya will have until the Rio Olympics to complete and perfect her programme.

    2. When he says 6mo to "top form", I think he means conditioning and endurance training. That will make everything else easier. She'll have upgrades by the time she goes up against Biles.

    3. I dont think Aliya will manage to beat Biles with difficulty, but she can with D-scores. She needs to be up there throwing routines that harken back to the 90s where it was hard to find any deduction if she is going to contend..

    4. If you think about it, had Aliya Upgraded to her olympic routine on UB and hit her connections on Beam, with her full routine, she would have contended biles. For beam, it's just a matter of getting consistent. Her form is exquisite there, she should needs consistency. UB, she just needs to be her old self, no need for major upgrades although I'm sure she will have some since it's her strongest piece. As for Floor, Again, it's just about getting the consistency. With a coach, she is likely to perfect that double layout adding on to an already 6.2 out of a potential of 6.3 floor. UB, she will be fine if she can take care of her back. Her double twister is very good I feel. Great Height and amplitude, chest all the way up; great overall even she has some small knee errors (the knee's got better at these worlds as opposed to last), and beam, by the looks of it, she might be upgrading and even if she doesn't as long as she can get confidence and consistency again, thats a possible 6.6 SV.

      In otherwords, it's not like Aliya doesn't have potential D-score already. She is fully capable of a 5.8, 6.7, 6.6 and 6.3 as of worlds had she had better luck with that back and more consistency. So even if this coach just improves her consistency and endurance to hit those routines, that's a mile better than before. So I don't think Mustafina is out of her league her, these routines I have describe don't involve ANY new skills. They're things that she already does so it's not like they are unrealistic. They are more than do-able for her.

      Also, her form is already exquisite on UB and Beam, her leaps on Floor are perfect. The only flaw I can see in her gymnastics other than her inconsitancy on beam (which aren't form errors anyways) is her 2 and 1/2 on floor and her VT isn't textbook perfect even though it's still good

    5. The thing is that Biles is constantly upgrading. Don't get me wrong, I love Mustafina and I would like her to win because I believe that she would have won the AA at the Olympics, if it wasn't for her injury. I do hope that she will bring her Amanar back, especially now with the new coach.
      Biles will have higher D-scores than Mustafina, but what is really surprising to me is that they usually get simialr E-scores as well, and I do find Mustafina's form on beam and bars a lot better than Biles. Biles has a better twisting form than Mustafina.
      Mustafina has a lot of talent, and I'd love to see her at full potential, and I hope that with the new coach she will be able to reach it.

  3. Glad she got a coach and this coach already is saying things that I like, for example

    " Aliya needs to miss Russian and European Championships, then we will skip them" and also having training schedules

    Damn straight she needs to miss them especially Euros, she doesn't need to go there. So Valentina saying she would go to Euros, I hope Starkin remains firm and says no. I wonder if Aliya had discussions with anyone in her decision to ask Starkin to help her.

  4. "mustafina is very clever". never were truer words spoken...

  5. Does Starkin also work with Belyavskiy? I notice that Starkin is on the competition floor with Belyavskiy a lot.

    1. Vitaly Lomaev is Belyavski's personal coach. Starkin often accompanies his gymnast Ablyazij onto the competition floor, so in team events this will involve him in such jobs as lifting the gymnast onto the rings, etc.

    2. Starkin coaches Danil Kazachkov and Pavel Pavlov in addition to Ablyazin.


    Please Queen Elizabeth can you translate this article??

    Thank you for all your work and thank god Aliya has a new coach!!

    1. I am very relieved too :-)

      There is a lot of news at the moment and some time before or at the beginning of next week I will do an elephant post with plenty of links to information about Afanasyeva, Garibov and Aliya.
      The article you link to does have a few points I will refer to, but I am not planning to translate it in its entirety because basically quite a lot of it is Valentina trying to rewrite history and it's all a bit silly. For example, she says that Aliya hasn't had a coach since Dina Kamalova, which we all know is untrue.
      I would rather focus on the good news about Aliya and Afan at present than give Valentina her way.

    2. valentina trying to rewrite history??? She says that Aliya trained and competed based on her talent. She didn't exploit all her potential.
      What a way of changing things!

    3. It's interesting to know that Mustafina has been asked to change her life outside the gym.
      She was not so interested in having a personal coach. Now things have changed because she has realized she can't go on like this.

    4. Another article :

  7. I personally think she needs more of a bars/beam specialist rather than a floor/vault one.... If she gets a great SV on bars, one of the highest in the world again, with a solid, stable beam, she will already challenge for the gold AA.... She just does not have those things yet because of pain, lack of intense training, and no personal coach, whatever you call it. She can boost the floor and vault a bit more, too, but not drastically...clean up the form and landings... Do the spins more neatly....etc.


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