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Business, Culture Edition From Belarus to Brisbane

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By: Sergei Chinkar •  4 years ago •  

As a Belarusian myself, I spent many years studying and coaching gymnastics in Belarus and for the Soviet Union (USSR). Many now-legendary names passed through our doors and into the history books, triumphing at National, World and Olympic championships. In 1955 there was Olga Korbut, the first to ever do a backflip on the beam apparatus, and then Vitaly Scherbo, who was to become one of the greatest male athletes of all time.

I began as one of the Belarussian coaches in 1970, but Leonid Arkaev was the current National Coach of the Soviet Union at that time and until 1992 when the USSR disbanded. It was very difficult to make the senior team. There was as maximum of one from each republic but if you were in national team then you would win in the Olympics. In his career, Arkaev produced more Olympic, World and European Gold medallists than any other coach in any Olympic sport (539 medals of which 209 are gold – 49 Olympic Champions, 91 World Champions and 69 European Champions).

From 1978, I started attending the monthly senior national camps and continued this for fourteen years. It was very difficult to go to camp for a month and then go back to Minsk for 10 days. After the first year I got an apartment there and sometime I could take my girlfriend. It was tough but it was what you had to do to prepare for Olympic competition.

Vitaly Scherbo was invited to our gym at age 7 and stayed through to the Olympic games in Barcelona 1992. In 1990 when he was only 18, at the Good Will Games in Seattle, Scherbo won 4 gold medals. It was a good experience prior to the ‘92 Olympic games. After scoring a perfect 10.0 on the vault at the European Championships later that year, he went on to become World Champion in Rings and Pommel Horse in 1991.

The Olympics in Barcelona with the Soviet Union team were my first Games. I was the Belarus National Coach from 1990, but still under Leonid Arkaev as the Soviet Union National Coach. In one of the most dominant performances in history, as Scherbo won an incredible six out of the possible eight gold medals for the men’s events. The following year (1993), we had the first World Championships in Birmingham and he became All-Around champion.

By the second world championships, held in Brisbane 1994, I was still National Coach for Belarus. Around this time, I completed my thesis and was awarded my PhD in Human Movement from the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture in Minsk. The team I bought to Brisbane included Ivan Ivankov who won the Men’s All-Around gold medal but unfortunately suffered an Achilles injury on the vault. That year, Scherbo had to settle for coming third, following some time off of his own due to personal circumstances.

While in Brisbane, I met a Russian couple, who organised a meeting with John Curtin, the Australian National Coach. John was looking for overseas coaches to bring their knowledge to his team, so I expressed my interest and agreed to come and try. I also invited him to Minsk to see my working environment and he came for a couple of weeks in 1994. I still remember him standing in my apartment where we discussed my future in Australia. One month later, I got a contract from Brisbane and I bought my wife and son and left Minsk in January 1995.

CULTURAL CHALLENGES

I first started to coach in Chandler which was a very different environment. I didn’t speak any English then, which was a challenge. My wife had to go to English class, but I talked to people in the gym and anywhere I could to try to learn English. Soon after arriving I realised that our financial situation was not great because of the cost of living here and since my wife was not working. I had to find another job, cleaning and doing small jobs for people, but little by little I worked out how to speak English words. “Too hard, too easy, too fast, too slow.” I also used a lot of body language to show flips and twisting. Thankfully I could still do double twists then, so I showed them these things and there were a lot of people around who helped me learn to say different things.

To perform at the highest level in gymnastics, we couldn’t be satisfied with dirty skills, low flexibility etc. We couldn’t get the results without these basic elements. Sometimes we had a gymnast who could perform a single extraordinary movement but then would still struggle to include and show all the technical elements such as fingers, stature.

As a coach, you approach this understanding and find another way to encourage and motivate the gymnasts. At the start, it was hard to forgive things that they didn’t want to do. Now I can speak English and have read a lot of books, so it is easier explain.

After two years I was hired by the Queensland Academy of Sport. I was working at the same facilities and the same gym but now employed by QAS. I was also then made responsible for both programs including the budgets, scholarships and all aspects of the program.

For ten years, from 1998 to 2008, I was Head Coach at Gymnastics Australia. In the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, we had the youngest gymnast Damian Istria, and Philippe Rizzo competing. Both of these men joined Joshua Jefferis for the 2006 Commonwealth Games with Phillipe going on to win Australia’s first Gymnastic gold at the World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark later that year. Damian retired soon after the games to become an acrobat with Cirque du Soleil.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Sam Simpson was Australia’s only male artistic gymnast. He suffered from injuries and retired after the Olympics to become a coach himself.

In 2009, I transitioned to focus on the men’s gymnastics only. In the lead up to the London Olympics in 2012, Joshua Jefferis was originally passed over by Gymnastics Australia to compete in the test event, but when another gymnast injured his ankle, Joshua was selected, made his Olympic debut and finished 19 th, becoming Australia’s best All-around Olympic male gymnast.

Now I am working with Michael Mercieca who will represent Australia in Rio 2016. Before that he has to compete in the Pacific Rim Championship in Everett, Washington in April. This competition will count for experience and from there we are going straight to Brazil for the Olympic Test Event where he has to secure his spot to represent Australia in August. Nothing extraordinary can happen now and Michael is ready for the Olympic games.

My former protégée, Vitaly Scherbo, retired in 1997 and moved to America to setup his own, very successful, gymnastics school. America has a very different system to Australia, with better opportunities to achieve higher results. Unfortunately, we seem to lose our senior gymnasts after high school age, but in America, they continue into University with good cultural support.

I have been in Australia for more than 20 years now, my family are all here and I have sold my apartment in Minsk. Australian culture is very different and I had to change my approach a lot. Coming to Australia, I had to be more patient, smarter, repeat myself more. If you are not patient, then you will not get the best from your athlete. You have to respect their personality so that they believe what they are doing and on this basis, you can be much more demanding. You respect them, believe in them, love them, but you also demand that they do something for a good reason and they understand this. This is true not only for Australia but is true everywhere.

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