January 2, 2009

Fabian Hambüchen: "I Don't Need a Major Conflict"

On Christmas Day Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published this in-depth interview with Fabian Hambüchen. Judging from a reference to the recent DTB Cup, the interview took place in mid-November, which is to say before Hambüchen decided to compete in the Bundesliga Final rather than the World Cup Final and before he had surgery on his little finger.

The interviewers do go on a bit about growing up, but it's an interesting interview nonetheless - a nice peek into the life of the man many feel will take over from Yang Wei as the world's top all-arounder.


(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

"I don't need a major conflict"

As a gymnast Fabian Hambüchen is a big name. At home in Wetzlar he is happy still to be a son. His father has coached the high bar world champion since his childhood days; his mother sits with him during the interview. Here is the young gymnast in conversation with Christiane Moravetz and Evi Simeoni.

You are 21 years old and live in your parents' house. For how much longer?
My girlfriend and I are just beginning to look for a flat. We'd like to move in together. I hope to manage this by the spring. Because if I become a student, the two activities shouldn't overlap.

What do you want to study?
Management economics, specializing in sport management. It will be a correspondence course.

So is this a further step into adult life?
Yes, but the greatest step is moving out. Studying is also part of the growing-up process, but it's simply the next step. A bit of gymnastics here and there is great, but I haven't done anything else for a year and a half now. That's enough.

It's an exciting moment in your life...
My girlfriend and I will be facing many things which my parents usually take care of. For example, cooking. I'd like to be able to do that. Also doing the laundry and other such stuff, which I'm sure we can figure out. We can just call Mom and ask her how to do it!

Fabian and his girlfriend Viktoria at the 2007 World Championships (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Is it in such moments that you become aware what it means to be a child?
Things won't be done for me anymore the way they are here. However, if the whole media frenzy were to pour in over me alone, I would be beat within a month. Therefore we have split the workload.

With you so many factors are in tune: your father is a gymnastics coach, you are unusually talented and your body meets the physical requirements for gymnastics so well, as if there had to be a plan to this somewhere. Did you ever think as a child that you were born for gymnastics?
I never thought that I came into the world in order to be a gymnast. It was simply what I wanted to do, and it still is. That's the reason I spent my whole childhood and youth in the gym. When I first took up gymnastics, my father certainly didn't think that in a few years' time I would be right at the top. In the beginning it didn't look that way at all. That came with time.

Can you remember one moment when it became completely clear to you that you wanted to become a gymnast above all else?
Some afternoons, when I had time off, I went to the football [soccer] field with a friend and kicked the ball around a bit. If a coach or other responsible person would ask me whether I wanted to join in the game on Saturday, I'd say: "No, no interest, I only want to do gymnastics." It was clear me there that I didn't want to do anything else.

How old were you when you first competed?
Five, I believe. You had to be six to compete, but I had special permission. It was a team competition for seven-year-olds, and there I was as a little pre-schooler. Attack!

Was it a direct path for you, or did you consciously have to go past turnoffs?
So far it really has been direct. Also, I never had to say: "Now I have to stop, now I must somehow go on in a different direction." It was always clear to me. On the one hand there was school, which must be seen through to graduation. And as far as sports was concerned, I must continue to work my way up. Now there is a new factor to be considered: my girlfriend. Nevertheless the gymnastics path will continue as it always has done.

Were there no lures or temptations?
No. Partly because my friends were mostly gymnasts themselves, and they understood, or because I always saw them anyway. But if the others were out having fun on a Saturday evening, I wasn't with them. I didn't go to a single party, not even from my school class. I never felt the need to go. I would also have been cross with myself if I had been exhausted in training on the Monday.

Didn't you rebel against your father during puberty?
It's not as if we never had rows. But in that regard there were no great problems.

How did you experience puberty?
It all went by easily, both in terms of growth and in terms of behavior. Others shoot up in height, or their voice breaks. For me, that all came slowly over time. I never had a growth spurt.

Did you never have the chance to work through the essential father-son conflict?
I don't think I've missed out on anything. I don't need a really big conflict with my father. We have plenty of small differences of opinion.

Fabian with his father and coach, Wolfgang

How would you characterize your relationship to your father?
On the one hand we are very close, but then again very distant. Close, because we depend on each other very much, we spend a lot of time together in training and in this sense we communicate a lot. Distant, because my father is not someone who embraces you often, he is not the type for that. When he congratulates me, he just shakes my hand.

When you are at loggerheads, are there times when it gets loud?
Yes, of course. We are both stubborn, so sparks fly from time to time. Usually we then go full throttle.

Did you ever feel that you were treated differently because your father was the coach?
With such a setup one always has the feeling that one is pushed harder. But I believe that wasn't the case with us at all.

Did you never experience training as an ordeal?
It's never simple. Stretching each morning is no bed of roses. At the beginning it must also have hurt, but that I don't remember anymore. Now we don't feel it as pain anymore. We say simply that it is uncomfortable.

Aside from gymnastics, who or what determines your life?
If I want to do something, for example with my girlfriend, then I'm the one who decides. However, if it concerns other things, like moving, then my father still very much wants to put a word in. He's always comparing it to his time, and then I say: "But that was twenty or thirty years ago."

Is there any rivalry between your love life and your sporting life?
No. My girlfriend spends a lot of time at the university. She is there relatively early in the morning and stays till evening. So that fits in. It will work even better when we live together. I made myself clear at the outset: gymnastics always has top priority, nothing can change that.

What role does your mother play in your life?
She played a good role from the outset: overseer at school, overseer for medical issues, mediator in conflicts between my father and myself, if you want to call it that. We seldom had conflicts ourselves. I believe we never really argued.

The Beijing Olympic Games were certainly a milestone in your life. What kind of process took place on the way there and in China?
On the way there I was very self-confident. I was mentally on the ball, I went at it offensively and said: "I want gold." But once there, something went wrong, as if I were on a different planet. It started well. Things went brilliantly in qualification and I thought: "Everything is going as planned." Then I injured my finger, in the team final I fell from the high bar, and from then on it was jinxed. I can't even describe the all-around as a competition. For me it was more of a battle for survival because of my finger. I wasn't in the competition at all. I only thought: "Hopefully it won't hurt too much." Everything was completely wrong. I was hoping with all my heart that we'd get a medal with the team, or that I'd get one in the all-around. And I thought: "If that happens, you'll already have a medal in hand, and you won't have any more pressure on high bar." But it turned out exactly the way I didn't want it. I was standing in front of the high bar, hadn't won anything yet, and had only this one shot at a medal. And on top of that I had to compete first, and the routine didn't go well. After I had landed, I just wanted to run out of the hall and not watch the rest of the final, because I was so pissed off. But then luckily I came third. If I had come fourth, that wouldn't have changed anything in my intention to continue with gymnastics, but I'm overjoyed with the medal. Everything else I may still achieve later.

Fabian messes up at the Olympics. Note the perfect toepoint even during the fall! (Photo: Reuters)

Was it the first time that things went badly wrong for you?
I've had other competitions which didn't go so well, but in those cases I was simply not in particularly good shape. This time, however, I was perfectly prepared. And then I get there and mess up three times.

Has this experience changed anything in your attitude to gymnastics, possibly also to other things?
If so, then to gymnastics. At the World Cup in Stuttgart [DTB Cup] last weekend I was surprised to find that already in the qualification I wasn't in the least bit nervous. I stood in front of the high bar and knew that I would get up there, work through my routine, and be in the final, and the next day I would pull out all the stops. Boom, just like always. I then went and did just that. I still can't explain what was different in Beijing. Afterward, as I participated in the first competition of the German Bundesliga, I noticed: "Hey, this is why you do gymnastics, because you have fun, because you enjoy it, because it's simply wicked. And not because you absolutely must get a medal."

Would you say that Beijing was an important experience?
Yes, you can say that again. Next time it will go differently. Not, perhaps, from the medals point of view, but as far as my attitude is concerned.

Can one say that is a step in the process of reaching maturity?
Definitely. These are things which will help a lot in the sporting area in the future, but also in my private life. No matter the situation in which I find myself, I must remember to think: "What can I do, what do I want to do and what must be done?" instead of rushing into doing something out of sheer joy or frustration. One must block out everything, or at least try to, in order to be present here and now and concentrate on just the one thing.

Did this experience change your relationship to your father?
He is also learning. These were his first Olympic Games. They were my second Olympics, but he hadn't been in Athens. He has now experienced for the first time what something like that is like. Even when you are older, you don't stop learning. The process always goes on, regardless in which direction.

Did you have the feeling that you disappointed your father?
No, not at all. And I believe my father is the only one who can relate to that, who really feels with me, but who can say at the same time: "That's OK, you did well."

Did the experience also set you free in some way?
Definitely. The pressure before the Olympic Games was insane. Whether it was in my head or from the media, it was only about getting gold.

(Photo: Reuters)

What do you feel when you hear the expression "growing up"?
On the one hand I'd say that I am now grown up, but on the other hand there is still something missing. As long as one has parents, that will probably never stop.

Can you imagine that you will have the feeling at the end of your gymnastics career that you are now grown up?
For that I will certainly need a few more years. But once I have taken over all the work from my parents, I will be able to say truly: "I am grown up."

Because of gymnastics you are earning more money than most do at your age. Does that give you a feeling of being an adult?
On the one hand, yes, just because the money is available. But on the other hand, no, because I don't yet have the overview or "power" over it. After consultation with my father I am investing a lot and I discuss everything with him. When I move out, I must calculate how much money I want to spend on the apartment. And once I'm really managing my money by myself and am doing everything myself, then I will be grown up.


  1. (TCO) Great article, thanks. He is an iknteresting character and very boyish looking, so not so surprising that they asked those growing up questions.

    I like his demeanor with the other gymnasts, well with the Ami gymnasts. He is well aware of and appreciates others around him. Liked his interaction with Horton at Worlds and Olys. And wit Paul Hamm, he would make comments on the Making the Olympics guest book (still visible) as well as he shipped a box of grips to Hamm who was having breakage problems with the American brand.

    Many gymnasts don't seem to enough appreciate the spectacle around them. That's why it is cool when some of them do. Women seem less interested in the sport as sport than men also. Barbarossa being one of the exceptions.

  2. You're welcome, TCO. Glad you appreciated the interview!

    We agree on the "many gymnasts don't seem to appreciate the spectacle around them" thing. On the few occasions we've spoken to elite gymnasts (from several countries), they seemed not to be overly interested in their own sport. They clearly focused on their own thing and had little attention for what was going on elsewhere in their sport. We've learned our lesson over the years - never get too fanboyish with athletes, for they themselves tend not to be fanboyish at all!

  3. (TCO)

    That's one of the cool things about NCAA, mens and womens. It has more the spirit of a sport. And the competitors watch each other intently during a double meet.

  4. So many questions about puberty and father/son conflict.

    Are you sure this article wasn't for Oedipus Times?!

  5. Perhaps the journalists know more than you do and were hinting at a conflict.

  6. Rawles, we WERE wondering! It did seem a bit over the top, didn't it? As our translator (Kristina) said when she submitted the story, some of those questions would have made us angry. Fabian is a hero for dealing with them so well.

    Then again, maybe Anonymous is right and the journalists did know more than we do.

  7. He's sort of a sex symbol, cult symbol over there. So I think they end up interested in all the details of his personal life, like a gossip magazine. I agree he was a gentleman in handling it. And that (his demeanor) along with his look (and skill) is why people are so interested in him. Heck even Rawles thinks he's cute.

    They should have let me interview him. I would have trolled him about how the Kolman and Pineda are the same move...and provoked a reaction. I could have generated some sparks and gotten more drama and interest.