Former Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Liliya Podkopayeva paid her former and current Twisters coach Galyna Losinka a visit, which delighted youth gymnasts and parents on hand for the meet and greet.
Twisters director and coach Andrei Kouznetsov acknowledged that having such a big star in the world of gymnastics does not happen every day.
"This is a really big deal for us and, of course, for our kids," Kouznetsov said. "You don't see this type of gymnast in your life because they're usually on the podium or in the competition. You can't even come [up] to them or talk to them, but this is the only time kids can come and hug [her] and get [her] to sign [autographs] and everything. We're about 45 years old, our gym, and we never had even close to that caliber of a gymnast here in our gym so she kind of made history. Cartersville hosts Liliya Podkopayeva here and [it's a big deal], especially [since] she was the all-around champion in the United States in '96 so that even makes her more popular here, so it's really [an] honor to have her in our gym."
Losinka had been trying to get Podkopayeva -- who won all-around and floor exercise gold medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta -- to visit the Cartersville gym and succeeded this time around with her pupil in town for the weekend.
"She never [gets] time to get here and finally, I just [caught] her," Losinka smiled.
"It's very nice to be here and spend time with the kids, but since '97 I [have come], every year, to [the] United States -- for Monster classes, for summer camps -- so I, all the time, stay in touch with kids and share what I got from my past, from gymnastics, from what Galyna [taught] me, what she [gave] to me," said Podkopayeva, who, like her coach, is Ukrainian. "I wanted to see the place where my coach [works], and ... I came here just for a couple of days, just for a weekend."
Twisters members huddled around Podkopayeva and listened closely to her answers to their questions Monday evening.
"Being able to be coached by an Olympic coach [Losinka] is really incredible," said 17-year-old Mary Beth Box. "And, I mean, we've heard all about Liliya and her legacy, but seeing her and meeting her and getting to talk to her and ask her questions just kind of really brought that to life, and it's really exciting."
"I just was excited, I guess, to talk to someone who actually knew what it was like to go to the Olympics so that maybe I could use some of that to try to get up to that point," said 13-year-old Taylor Primuth, who joked that she made sure to wear her good leotard for Podkopayeva's visit. "
Understanding that Podkopayeva, an elite gymnast, had many of the same struggles that the young gymnasts now face made the Olympic star relatable as she told her story.
"I just wanted to know she had the hard times getting to the place where she is because, I mean, I've went through that before, and I just wanted to see if that's what happened to her before," Primuth said.
"She felt like she wanted to quit one time and, like, we all feel that and [know] just how hard it is to be a gymnast and go through it all, and she can relate 'cause she was there, too, so it was really cool to hear about that."
Kouznetsov said Podkopayeva's visit and story is encouragement for his gymnasts.
"It is great motivation, especially [the fact] that Galyna was her personal coach and they see the potential of the coach, and they're going to trust her and respect [her] more -- they respect her anyway, but now ... they're gonna listen better," he said. "When [you] see this kind of person in front of you, it's a regular person; you can feel like you can do the same thing. Why not? For a lot of people, those gymnasts, the world champions, they are like gods somewhere else, but when you see this person in front of you, it is a lot of motivation, especially for these kids.
"She talked about when she started at [age] 5 [and] how she was struggling with some of the things like they do, and she still could make that big success."
The Twisters members also asked Podkopayeva other questions, including her toughest and easiest events.
"The hardest [event] for me was [the uneven] bars. I was scared, nervous," Podkopayeva said. "But [my] favorite event was [the] floor exercise. When you [win] all-around, you are the best in all four events. You can't just be [the] best just on the floor or [the balance] beam, you have to be good everywhere."
In addition to her two gold medals, Podkopayeva also won silver in the balance beam. The vault was the other event she competed in for the all-around gold medal.
The 33-year-old mother of two recounted her gymnastics feats of 1996 very fondly.
"It was amazing. Everything [that] I was dreaming for [came] true. ... It [was] just perfect," Podkopayeva said. "I'm the first woman in the world who won all three titles the same year -- all-around European championship, World all-around [championship] and Olympic games all-around [champion]."
"When I was little, I never thought I [would] be in the Olympic games -- never," she continued. "It was step by step."
She credited those around her, like Losinka, for helping her achieve great things.
"People who [worked] with me, like Galyna and my choreographer, they [spent] so much time [teaching] me," Podkopayeva said. "[Losinka] was like my mom; we [spent] so much time [away] from my family and she [spent] time [away] from her family. It was like one piece. You can't be just [going] in different ways. You have to think together, look together in the same way. That's how it works."
"I took [her] from [the time she was] 7 years old," Losinka said. "She was a good listener; she [followed] directions."
Even as Podkopayeva got older and gymnastics became harder, the coach said her pupil went through her teen phase without any problems.
"Even that time I was expecting that it's going to be harder, but she passed this period, it's easier than everybody else," Losinka said. "It's really hard [after] years and years [of] doing the same thing. ... Physically, it's really hard [and] emotionally. She passed this [with] no problem ... She never pushed back; she never talked back."
Podkopayeva went on a 70-city tour in the United States the year after winning gold in the Olympics and has remained busy since mounting injuries ended her career.
"I'm [a] very social person. In my country, I'm working on TV. I do different shows, like a host; it's kind of like [ABC's] 'Wipeout' show," she said. "I [participated] in [Ukraine's version of] '[Dancing] With the Stars,' and I won. I work with United Nations, like for HIV and AIDS; I'm a Goodwill ambassador for that."
As for coaching gymnastics like Losinka, Podkopayeva does not know if she will do that full-time.
"In Ukraine, our gymnastics is done. Ukrainian gymnastics is done. You can see [in] the last world championship; [the] Ukrainian team won 19th place, so it's bad, it's bad results. And now, all gyms are almost closed, and it's a very hard situation in Ukraine," she said.
"[There is] no money because sports are [funded] from government," Losinka added. "Of course, there's no money in [the] government ... no equipment, no salary for [coaches]."
But someday, Podkopayeva may consider coaching.
"You never know. I'm still doing ... Monster classes and coming here every year, every summer and I have a great time. I like [the] United States; I feel like I'm at home. I used to live in Tampa, Fla., for a year," she said. "Now, I want to live in Ukraine ... but nobody knows what is going to happen in the future."
Podkopayeva's son and daughter take a few gymnastics classes, but the Olympic medalist does not know if it will go further than that, or if she wants it to.
"They take some classes just once a week, and I don't want them to be champions because I know how much you have to spend time [working at that]," she said. "But, [at] the same time, nobody [was] pushing me, nobody [made] me work. I fell in love. [The] first day, when I came to the gym, I saw it and I fell in love, and it was my life."