January 6, 2009

Valery Goncharov: "I'm Not Exactly Looking for Absolute Tranquility"

Three weeks ago, Ukrainian site Novaya posted this delightful interview with 2004 Olympic parallel bars champion Valery Goncharov. In it, Goncharov discusses his life away from the gym: the childhood mischief he got up to, how he courted his wife Irina Yarotska, how he gets on with his parents-in-law, how he views the current situation in Ukraine, etc. Yarotska too gets to say a few things about the early days of their romance. A must-read interview for every fan of Ukrainian gymnastics!

Valery in Athens (photo: Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Valery Goncharov: "My wife and I by the fireplace, and three kids around us"

Artistic gymnastics Olympic champion Valery Goncharov never hid from reporters. He is outgoing and sociable, but with one large drawback for the media – he is even-tempered. No scandals, no demands and no high-sounding declarations. He trains and competes, competes and trains... True, in Beijing the member of Sport Club Biola did not win any medals, but today the 31-year-old athlete is preparing for London: "As long as my health allows me." Currently Valery is still living in the Koncha-Zaspa training center, only now together with his wife Irina. But this could all change completely in the near future…

Smoking in kindergarten

Interviewer: Valery, where is your home these days?

Valery: It somehow came about that I actually have three homes. Most of the time of course I live in the Koncha-Zaspa training center. On days off my wife [prize-winning gymnast Irina Yarotska] and I regularly visit her parents, who live in Kiev. And very occasionally I'm home in Kharkov. It's kind of sad, but we only manage to go there once or twice a year and then only for a couple of days. At the moment my older brother Igor lives there.

Interviewer: As a matter of interest, what was your childhood home like?

Valery: It was a typical Kharkov communal flat, for two families. It was an old five-story house. Everybody knew each other. I still remember the neighbors...

Interviewer: And do they remember you?

Valery: I think they do too. My neighbors always used to be surprised: "My God, in the morning we walk to work in the factory. It's still dark on the street. But he is already heading off to the bus stop with his briefcase." And I remember this very well. When I left in the morning it was still dark, and when I returned home in the evening it was already dark. First one training session, then school, and then on to a second training session. I would return at 8:00-8:30 PM. I'd sit down, do some homework, leave others and go to bed. Then I'd wake up and set off again on the same route. It was like Groundhog Day.

Interviewer: So your childhood ended without having really begun?

Valery: It's hard to say whether I really experienced a true childhood. Kindergarten, perhaps, was my only short period of childhood. Already in the older groups I started training, and when I started school I became an independent "small adult." In any case, you understand that I went everywhere by myself, whether to school or to training.

(photo: Nadine Rupp/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Interviewer: And in kindergarten you "lit up" of course?

Valery: Yes, that as well. I had one close friend there. And while we were out playing with all the children, he and I were always "thinking up" things: that we run away somewhere, or that we would get up to something. I remember getting hold of cigarettes somewhere and hiding in the little shed in the garden and starting to smoke. Even now I won't say exactly where we got the matches. The teachers caught us red-handed and made a little fuss (he laughs).

Interviewer: They complained to your mother...

Valery: I don't remember anymore. But I can't say that I grew up as a problem child. There were some little incidents from time to time. My Mom didn't suffer too much with me... I tried to be disciplined and organized. And then, as a youth, I didn't fool around. Our work schedule doesn't allow any excesses. Of course, everyone just wants to relax, particularly when you have a routine and you spend most of your conscious life denying yourself many things. It's understandable that there comes a moment when the cup overflows and you just want to switch to something else, go out somewhere, be entertained. Such moments [where you can relax] are very rare, therefore we learned to value them. Indeed it was quite possible that you wouldn't have a similar moment for another one or two months.

Little mouse in a trance

Interviewer: Valery, can your "refuge" in the training center be called home?

Valery: To a certain degree, yes. You know, I have lived here for the last sixteen years. I have a separate 12-square-meter room, with space for a sofa, cupboard, fridge, television, armchair and microwave. We would, of course, like to have a little more space. But Ira and I have lived here for over two years and she, as a woman, has made it cozy.

Valery and Irina at her parents' home (photo: Novaya)

Interviewer: And are you planning to buy your own home in the near future?

Valery: Of course. Most likely, it will be a house in town. At least, my wife and I are keen on that option. However, it should be a quiet place [in town]. We're not ready to move to the country just yet.

Interviewer: Not while you are still young and active?

Valery: Yes, yes, yes! When we were thinking about this, we admitted to ourselves that we want to be a bit older before we move out of town, to have gotten to the point where you just want to get into your rocking chair and have no stress at all around you. But for now we want to live in our own house, and although it shouldn't be next to "complete hustle and bustle," civilization shouldn't be too far away either, so that you can phone up friends and go out on the spur of the moment. To hang out, play snooker or go to the movies. But to make it in from out of town, that's not very convenient.

Interviewer: What is essential in your family nest?

Valery: A fireplace. I can just picture how nice it would be to make tea of an evening and to sit a while with my beloved wife warming ourselves in front of the fire. On the warm carpet...

Interviewer: And around you...

Valery: Three kids (he laughs). Then it really should be fun.

Interviewer: You and Ira have been together for four years now. I have heard that there is a romantic story to your courtship...

Valery: There was... I courted my future wife for around a year. Then we decided to move our relationship to a new level. Prior to that, we had trained together many years in the same gym and had had nothing to do with each other at all. But then it all seemed to happen by itself. Thank God that we noticed each other. It so happened that I asked the janitor to open Ira's room for me and I took flowers in.

Irina: And I pretended not to know who they were from. I used to share a room with Marina Proskurina [bronze medalist at the 2006 European Championships and Ukrainian artistic gymnastics champion]. And so here I am returning from some training or other, and there in our room is a bouquet of flowers. I had only just started going out with Valery at the time, and everything was still very "fresh," sort of. It flashed through my mind of course that the flowers were from him. But in order not to get my hopes up, I started to tease Marina, saying that this was the work of her admirers. And when I met up with Valera in the evening, I didn't mention one word about the flowers until he brought them up himself.

Valery: Ira was of course trying to be original (he laughs).

Interviewer: In what sense? [The interviewer turns to Irina with this question.]

Irina: In that I wasn't very on the ball. I remember another situation. In the gym everybody had their locker and key chain. Mine was always in my jacket. One day I came down to our morning workout, took my key out of my pocket and found a little mouse on the chain. By the way, "little mouse" was Valera's pet name for me at the time. At that moment I didn't think that this was my key chain. I began to question the girls, checked each box... except mine. The entire workout I was only thinking about whose key it might be. And somewhere at the end of the workout it sunk in. Meanwhile Valera was walking around the gym and smiling mysteriously (she laughs). And then when I was approaching my box, I noticed that there was a little mouse-shaped magnet on the door.

Irina in her competitive days (photo: Jasmin Schneebeli-Wochner/Gymbox)

Interviewer: Valery, it looks like you are a romantic!

Valery: In principle, yes. But I was only doing what I understand leads to a good relationship between a man and his girl or woman!

Interviewer: This came from your childhood?

Valery: The education my mother gave me certainly played a large role in this. And I very much regret that I spent so little time with her. Especially when I went off to training camps. And because she left life so early... That is one of the negative sides of my sporting career. But my mother had time to teach me many things, including respect for women. Furthermore, based on the examples of my big brothers, of which I have two, I saw and understood from my childhood onward what it means to be a wife, sister-in-law or daughter-in-law. My mother was a wise mother-in-law. Whenever there were disagreements [between her sons and their wives] she would scold her sons and take the girls' side. Thus, from my earliest childhood I saw how you must treat women.

Interviewer: And do you have a father?

Valery: Both of my parents are no longer living. But the fact is that they divorced when I was ten years old. For that reason I don't recall any tender relations between them, which could teach me anything. Nevertheless, this was a good lesson about life for me. Now I want to be a husband and father to my own family, and not allow roughness and errors, and to cherish what I have.

There is no life without borsch

Interviewer: Valery, you consider your wife's parents' appartment your third home.

Valery: I visit them with enormous pleasure. I get on with my mother-in-law and father-in-law just unbelievably well.

Interviewer: Does your mother-in-law prepare any delicacies?

Valery: A lot of them – you can't help but lick your fingers! But first and foremost, borsch [Russian beetroot soup]. This always has been and always will be my favorite dish. Perhaps it's not very original, but I can't imagine life without borsch. Ina Alekseyevna prepares it wonderfully.

Interviewer: What about getting together with your father-in-law and a glass...

Valery: ... for a "man-to-man conversation"? We do that whenever we can! We have an outstanding relationship. In the evening Vladlen Semionovitch and I sit together in the kitchen, pour ourselves a goblet of wine or a small glass of good cognac and lose ourselves in pleasant conversation.

(photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Interviewer: Valery, you had the opportunity to move to another country – you actually lived in North America for a year [in 2001 Goncharov went to Canada to work in the Cirque du Soleil]. Did you never want to change your citizenship and stay abroad?

Valery: There was a moment during my "Montreal" period where I really did consider it. But the moment passed. In Ukraine there are factors which keep me here, although there are others which do make me think about emigration. What keeps me here, understandably, are relatives, friends and our close relationships with each other. When I was away for a year, I understood that to me it would be difficult to go without this. Now and then we actually do know how to value what is close to us. Unfortunately, the situation which exists today in our society is not positive. People are becoming more and more vulnerable, and in many respects are showing fewer manners and more disrespect to each other. You encounter this everywhere: outside, on public transport. The roots of this problem are buried deep in the past. This, on top of a general irresponsibility, is causing serious problems in our country.

Interviewer: Valery, how do you imagine yourself in retirement?

Valery: I want to think of myself for as long as it goes. If not young and beautiful, then if possible at least not decrepit (he laughs). Even after my sporting career is over, I'll try to achieve something, to keep myself busy so to speak. I consider it important for an individual to be involved in some process or other. This gives you strength and allows you to keep going longer in good condition. I'm not exactly looking for absolute tranquility.

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