Aleksandra Soldatova, portrait by Gergely Marosi

Aleksandra Soldatova
Aleksandra Soldatova at the 33rd European Championship in Budapest

It’s time to talk about Aleksandra Soldatova.

The last time I’ve seen her in person was in the mixed zone of the European Championships in Budapest, where she promptly said she’s in no mood for interviews and left. A disappointed, shaken, beautiful, queenly figure.

Budapest was a kind of disaster for Sasha, who came to the Europeans as the only active World Champion in the field, and left as a backup for Russia for the World Championship in Pesaro.

Surely this is not what she hoped for. Surely this is not what we hoped for.

The second part is insignificant – probably no proper top level gymnast gives a damn about how we think of their achievements –, the first is significant, which was clear from the stunned look on Soldatova’s face. This is not what she is capable of. This is not what was planned.

Fast forward two and a half months, and Aleksandra Soldatova is competing in Minsk, at a World Challenge Cup to where Russia decided to send its B-team. B-team is relative – probably all countries would love to have such lineup as an A-team –, but while the Averina twins are preparing for the World Championships, Sasha is out there, scraping the all-around win. A ‘just only’ win, and in the apparatus finals she ends up with no gold medals.

Even more alarming is how the whole performance comes across.

Two and a half months ago Sasha looked to be in peak physical form, despite clearly struggling with the pressure and expectations. Now she is like the slow motion version of herself. She simply looks not ready. She surely had a nagging injury, you can feel that, and she was treated in a private German rehabilitation centre after Budapest. She is also over her ideal competition weight – most probably this is also injury-related. She somehow lacks conviction. Obviously she’s still world class, but this is just a shadow of the real Aleksandra Soldatova. No joy, just work, and obvious discomfort. No spark at all.

Aleksandra Soldatova
Aleksandra Soldatova training in Minsk World Cup 2017

I remember watching Sasha for the first time in Debrecen, at a World Cup 2014 season opener. The original start list promised Yana Kudryavtseva and Margarita Mamun, so we were naturally somewhat disappointed when the Russian command chalked them off and replaced them with Elizaveta Nazarenkova and Soldatova. There was a buzz though about Soldatova being a real gem.

And she was.

She came like a whirlwind. Amazing agility, out-of-the-world flexibility, body technique that just stunned the fans in the hall. It was supreme. She was a bit shaky with the apparatus and prone to concentration lapses and sudden mistakes, but she left the hall with an all-around win and two more gold medals in the apparatus finals.

I considered her the prototype of the ideal 21st century rhythmic gymnast. Physically, she’s remarkable: low centre of gravity, lot of power, very athletic and of course insanely flexible. Perfect package. She has charisma as well, and if she picks up more presentation skills, more “acting”, plus more reliability and control over her body, she should be THE next star. Or that’s what we thought.

Obviously Sasha became a star on her own right, helped by her brilliant performances and also, probably her stunning beauty as well. Though she was considered no. 3 behind Kudryavtseva and Mamun, she was a member of the World Championships gold medal winning team in Izmir (2014) and Stuttgart (2015), and it was on the cards that she might have an outside chance of competing in Rio. Eventually, Russia voted for experience, and it paid off, though it was the eternal second Mamun who came away with an Olympic gold, deservedly so. The fact, that with 8 routines Kudry and Mamun were more reliable than Soldatova, who always had the weakness of not performing at 3-day competitions on the same level, probably contributed to the decision.

Soldatova sat out the Olympics (though she was training in Brazil if she was needed), and probably came away determined that Tokyo 2020 should be hers. I wouldn’t have bet against her: she already raked up 3 seasons of experience on the highest level, while her in-team rivals were only doing World Cups at best. She came into 2017 as the leading Russian gymnast, and whoever is the Russian team leader at the start of the Olympic cycle, has good chance of staying the Russian team leader in the whole Olympic cycle.

Not Soldatova, though.

She was a bit unconvincing in the early season, while the Averina twins – who did not have a chance for Rio, so essentially were preparing for the new Code of Points and the 2017 season – looked much more comfortable with the new code. They have superior handling to Soldatova, they grew, they matured, and while their artistic skills are still not that convincing, their insane difficulty-packed routines win golds. In Budapest it was make or break time for Soldatova, who should have sent a warning to the twins: I’m still here. I’m still number one.

Yet she came away as a number three, after a very shaky competition.

Aleksandra Soldatova
Aleksandra Soldatova and Irina Viner in Budapest

Something looks to be broken, and in Minsk Soldatova showed all signs of a star gymnast in crisis. We can joke about a crisis being winning the all-around, but this was surely not the Sasha that attracted a legion of fans. Something was off. Mentally, physically. Gone was the agility and the speed, gone were the tornado-like performances, she soldiered her way through the routines, riddled with mistakes. It was, in a way, quite heartbreaking.

She did not seem to be in a good place at all.

It’d be highly risky to start guessing about what might cause the problems. The result in Budapest and her relegation to a backup for the World Championships surely came as a kick in the teeth. This is difficult to stomach, especially difficult when you are not used to setbacks and failure. Think of Yana –she competed through the summer of 2015 with an undiagnosed ankle fracture, and after the injury layoff the air of invincibility was no more. Soldatova was never invincible, but she was the heiress, she was supposed to be the one taking the crown. That was probably what she was mentally counting on as well. In a few months she’s fallen to number three in the pecking order, and to be honest, maybe Iulia Bravikova is more likely now to be picked as number three.

That is a serious problem for both the Russian command, who surely do not want to lose one of their biggest talents, and obviously, for Soldatova as well. Her performance in Minsk revoked memories of how Kabaeva came back (slowed down, out of shape) or how Merkulova struggled in a seemingly never-ending vicious cycle of injuries. We can only have feelings, and the feeling was that something is seriously off with Soldatova.

Perhaps it’s time for soul searching, perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation of herself. Perhaps she needs something that ignites the spark again. The thing that she had a close friendly connection with Kudryavtseva and Mamun, and she kind of lost this support system in the hall, is probably not helping. The Averina twins are in their own world, even Sasha says so. They only need each other and they are the best support system to each other. Soldatova seems to be out there, competing without conviction, struggling, maybe not enjoying full support, and seeing herself left behind by her rivals. This is the best and cruellest thing in the Russian team: there will be always someone taking your place, if you fall – and she knows that very well. The twins have already taken hers, and judged by their performances lately, the decision of Irina Viner cannot even be questioned.

The main problem so far looked to be that she is not improving in areas of her weaknesses (handling, control, concentration). Now the problem looks more like the need to stop her downhill slide. One feels that maybe radical change – a longer break or even a shakeup in the coaching setup – is needed. Something is needed, that is for sure.

Right now there is a chance of Aleksandra Soldatova joining the list of the big “could-have-beens” of rhythmic gymnastics. And it’d be a damn shame, as Soldatova seemed to have (and probably does have) everything a huge star should have.

Rita Mamun might be the example to follow, who was at a time in danger of being dropped, yet kept on working on herself and eventually won the biggest trophy of all. But Rita – a late-comer to RG, who was left behind for a lot of time by her own peers – was used to how to fall and pick herself up from the floor. It is an open question if Sasha will be able to do the same.

Let’s hope we see the tornado girl back in her glory. But it will be a long, very difficult road for sure.

Aleksandra Soldatova
Aleksandra Soldatova and Shumilova at Minsk World Challenge

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