Ukranian gymnast Dariya Zgoba recently announced her retirement at the age of 21.
In her brief life she has crammed in years of exhausting training and competitions around the world, culminating in the Olympic final in 2008. Now, as an elder stateswoman of the sport, she has given up competitive gymnastics and is concentrating on inspiring others.
In Shetland for a five-day visit, Zgoba has been coaching at Clickimin’s hugely successful gymnastic club, which has 150 members aged from six to 15 (plus a waiting list of 150) and holds seven classes a week. And she has had a warm reception at the club on this, her first visit to the isles. “It’s fantastic,” she said, “I like the children, they listen to me and they want to be better.”
Zgoba’s place in the rarefied world of international gymnastics seems secure – she has a move named after her – but she is backing it up with academic qualifications and is now in her fourth year of a degree course in physical education.
She quit competitive gymnastics after tearing her achilles tendon – her most recent and most painful injury – but leaving the sport that had occupied so much of her time left a gap. Eventually, however, she realised: “The world is not finished, I can continue to do sport and compete for my university.”
Ultimately she would like to work with school children as coach and choreographer.
Zgoba was brought to Shetland by Clickimin coach Mark Wylie, who is full of admiration for Zgoba’s teaching at the leisure complex, particularly of her warm-up routine, an essential precursor to gymnastics sessions. “It’s very different, I like the Ukranian [warm-up] better, it’s more thorough.” He added: “She’s been a great help, an inspiration. She’s full of new ideas, she’s not allowed to leave.”
The warm-up, 20-30 minutes long, was put into practice at Clickimin on Monday evening when dozens of young girls (and a few boys) bent and stretched under Zgoba’s instruction, circling their legs like windmills or lying on the floor, rocking like see-saws.
These exercises have become part of her life, one which saw her training up to seven hours a day, six days a week, fitted in around school work when she made the national team in her mid-teens.
Her talent was spotted at the age of four-and-a-half, when she first went to a gymnastics class in her home town of Ivano-Frankivsk, where she still lives, and she has just celebrated 16 years with the same coach. “It’s unusual to have the same coach all the time,” she said. “You feel support when you’re together, it’s beautiful when you have a good relationship with your coach.”
By the age of five she was practising for an hour-and-a-half a day – by the time she was 10 it was four hours daily.
In 2006, at the age of 17, she took third place in the World Cup in Brazil on her favourite piece of apparatus, the uneven bars. Then in 2007, “my best year”, she became European champion and won the World Cup in Germany on the uneven bars. Coming 12th in a contest in the USA spurred her on: “After what I see in the US I think I should be stronger.”
By 2008 she was competing in the Olympic final in Beijing, finishing in eighth place, an experience she likened to a “big holiday”. “It was happiness to participate in the Olympics, many people watch but not many can compete. It was a chance for life.”
During her time in the sport Zgoba met British gymnast Beth Tweddle, who has visited Shetland on several occasions and who will compete in the London Olympics. “I hope she will get a medal,”, she said.
Although her competing days are over, Zgoba has plenty of plans for the future. After her degree she intends to gain a coaching qualification, then take a master’s degree and possibly one in sports psychology.
The elements of gymnastics are a firm foundation for any other sport, she said, and are of mental benefit too as the quick thinking required aids concentration. It has recently been found that the training can be used to help children with Down’s syndrome develop. Zgoba has realised there are endless possibilities after her competitive days: “Now [I know] there are no limits.”
Locally gymnastics has been developing since the island games in 2005 and cannot progress further until funding is found to install a bouncy floor, necessary for the performance moves. The club is actively seeking premises to buy or rent so that the special floor can be a permanent feature.
• Zgoba can be seen performing on You Tube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5Cf3ofY0QA