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Oksana Chusovitina remains gymnastics medal contender at 41

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BERGISCH-GLADBACH, Germany (AP) — In the retro-looking gym that serves as the talent-honing center for Germany’s potential Olympian gymnasts, girls aged six and seven in leotards execute their somersaults and back flips under watchful trainers.

From a distance, it is difficult to distinguish Oksana Chusovitina from the kids. However, she has a son who is about three times the age of the young aspiring gymnasts.

Only when she approaches, do features on her small frame reveal differences: The muscles hardened by years of top-level competition, and the lines around the face tell of experience.

Chusovitina will compete at her seventh Olympics when she goes to Rio de Janeiro, becoming the oldest Olympic female gymnast in history at age 41.

“I am feeling good,” she said, speaking German in an interview with The Associated Press. “On the podium, everyone is the same whether you are 40 or 16. You have to go out and do your routine and your jumps.

“But it’s a pity there are no points for age,” she added, breaking into an easy smile.

Chusovitina, back representing her native Uzbekistan, is an anachronism in an age when gymnasts enter major competitions at 16, and most are teenagers. A legal limit was imposed to prevent ever younger girls coming to competitions.

Her dedication and love of the sport keep her going, she said.

“I have no pain, no problems. The toughest for me is to wait until the next training,” Chusovitina said.

As the Olympics approach, she trains two, three hours a day, or as she puts it, “not so much.”

About 1.50-meters (five-feet) tall and weighing about 43 kilograms (95 pounds), Chusovitina looks very fit. She cannot really pinpoint the reason for her competitive longevity.

“I don’t know how I stay fit, I think you have to ask my mother,” she said, suggesting good genes.

“I love this sport, I love training, I am always eager to train,” Chusovitina said.

Chusovitina’s best chance for a medal in Rio is the vault, in which she won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, then competing for Germany. She has 10 medals in the vault at world championships, plus one in the floor.

But she is reluctant to speak about a podium finish in Rio.

“I don’t want to talk about the podium or the medals. I first want to prepare in the time before the games, fly to Brazil, and be healthy,” she said.

Speaking of which, Chusovitina said she was not worried about the Zika virus even though some top male golfers, notably, have pulled out of the Olympics because of fears of getting infected.

“I am not flying to Brazil to get pregnant,” she said, laughing loudly.

As she jumped onto the beam for a few moves, her son Alisher walked into the gym to wait for her to finish training.

Alisher is the reason Chusovitina mostly lives and trains in Germany. She is married to Uzbekistan’s Olympic wrestler, Bakhodir Kuranov, and their son was born in 1999.

In 2002, Alisher was diagnosed with leukemia. Unable to get treatment for her son or to pay for it, Chusovitina came to Germany at the invitation of a club in Cologne. A fundraising campaign and money she earned in competitions paid for Alisher’s treatment, and he is fully recovered. Approaching his 17th birthday, Alisher is more interested in basketball than in gymnastics.

During Alisher’s treatment, Chusovitina competed for Germany, winning silver in the vault in Beijing and a pair of world championship medals.

Her international career began for the Soviet Union with gold medals in the team event and the floor, and silver in the vault, at the 1991 worlds in Indianapolis.

The next year, she earned a team gold at the Barcelona Olympics, now for the Unified Team, one of the successor teams of the Soviet Union.

Her German manager, Michael Fabig, thinks Chusovitina may not be through with the Olympics after Rio.

“I don’t think she’ll ever retire,” he said with an I-give-up shrug of his shoulders.

MORE: Analyzing the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team

Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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