By Thomas Oliphant
Behind the moments of elegance shown by rhythmic gymnasts in competition, is arduous training, fatigue and injuries. The juxtaposition between the two aspects of the sport is more than most would know. Hidden, to an extent, by athletic grace.
Every movement of a rhythmic gymnast’s routine is scrutinised, with performance judged on two criteria: difficulty and execution.
Perfection on the judge’s scorecard is rare and the level of commitment to get even close is incredible.
Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Victorian Institute of Sport athlete Alexandra (Sasha) Kiroi-Bogatyreva is intimately acquainted with the sacrifice required and difficulty of near-perfection.
Born in New Zealand in 2002, Kiroi-Bogatyreva and her family moved to Australia when she was one.
“Gymnastics is very popular in Europe and coming from a European background, my parents introduced me to the sport when I was growing up,” Sasha explains.
“At two years of age, I started doing ballet before moving into gymnastics and progressing to rhythmic gymnastics when I was 6.”
Living and breathing the sport from a young age, it wasn’t long before Kiroi-Bogatyreva’s striking flashes drew the attention of the gymnastic world.
“When I was 10 years old, I won my first international competition in Spain against some of the leading gymnastic countries. The reward from the competition was a kettle, which I still have,” she laughs.
Having proven she could match the abilities of the best rhythmic gymnasts in the world, Kiroi-Bogatyreva's drive to master her craft intensified.
“I needed to push myself, so I started attending more and more training camps in Europe. Over time, the training hours and my abilities increased,” she says.
Having sharpened her routines, the teenage prodigy was once again keen on showcasing her abilities in international competitions.
The arrival of the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast provided her with that chance. Kiroi-Bogatyreva claimed bronze in both the ball and all-around events. The remarkable performances from the 16-year-old lit within her a new fire.
And with the careers of rhythmic gymnasts being relatively short-lived, an urgency. In a sense, her career was on the clock.
“Rhythmic gymnasts usually retire between the ages of 21 and 24. Turning 22 this year, I want to make the most of it,” she says.
This urgency motivated her to move her training to the National Gymnastics Arena in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2021.
Baku is home to some of the world’s top gymnastic training facilities, which have attracted professional gymnasts from all over the world.
“The training facilities in Baku are based in an arena stadium that hosts world championships for all gymnastic sports. It is a very unique experience to have the floor that we compete on made available for our training. I don’t know of any other training venues in the world that do that,” she explains.
The pool and sauna are available 24/7, as are medical rooms for treatment.
“The centre is kind of like a boarding school. We live, eat and train there. Everything needed to do gymnastics is in Baku.”
To produce their fleeting moments of brilliance, athletes in Baku are willing to make a plethora of sacrifices. Sasha is no exception.
“We train every day for 8–10 hours. The day is broken down into cardio, strengthening, a rhythmic warm-up and the day’s plan. The plan may be to complete 3 clean routines without a mistake, or to be focused on movement repetitions,” she says.
“When leading up to competitions we train longer hours, often not leaving the gym until we have perfected our routine.”
These long training sessions prepared Kiroi-Bogatyreva for the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, in which she was intent on producing a world class showing.
It turned out to be a career-defining competition for Kiroi-Bogatyreva, who collected gold in clubs, silver in the team and bronze in the individual event.
“It had been so many Commonwealth games without a gold for Australia, so to get the streak back was very rewarding. It had been my dream since my first Commonwealth Games and proved a great stepping stone for future competitions,” she reflects.
However, the quest to be ever better, the dream of perfection, inevitably began to take its toll.
“Sometimes I have to repeat moves 50–100 times to get it right, and with that comes overload injuries such as stress fractures,” she says, not in search of pity but to explain how the most recent phase of her career is turning out.
This level of dedication, and occasional suffering, is an expectation in the world of rhythmic gymnastics.
Kiroi-Bogatyreva spends 10-11 months of the year in Baku before returning home to Australia, where she visits the VIS for strengthening and medical treatment.
“During my time back home, I come into the VIS every day to use the gym and see the medical team. The physios and medical staff are able to get my body right so I can start training for the next season and striving for my goals.”
If the injuries, training, and short careers weren’t enough to deal with, rhythmic gymnasts must also contend with challenges outside of the arena.
Financing sporting dreams is a constant battle for most athletes. Rhythmic gymnasts are no strangers to this plight.
The financial pressures of getting yourself to each international competition in a sport where your leotard can cost upwards of $2000, are immense.
“It certainly creates a hardship. On top of living on my own in a country far away from home. I love Baku but I miss home,” she says.
“My parents and grandparents have set money aside to fund everything I do in rhythmic gymnastics, which I am very grateful for.”
In her limited time outside of the arena, Kiroi-Bogatyreva studies a Bachelor of Law (Honours). She is completing her degree remotely at Monash University in Melbourne as she prepares for life after sport.
“It’s hard to balance rhythmic gymnastics and study, which is why most girls training in Baku don’t attend university. However, I have my goals in sports and law, and that’s what keeps me going every day,” she says, as if to reinforce a point made many times over earlier in her story.
Should Kiroi-Bogatyreva qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, via the upcoming Oceania Continental Championships, it will be a point made on the biggest stage of all.