How is this Russian gymnast contending for a medal after blowing out Achilles?

·3 min read

TOKYO — Olympic-level gymnastics are hard enough when you’re healthy. Now imagine doing it on a torn Achilles.

That’s right. Russia’s Artur Dalaloyan posted the fourth-best score in the first qualifying session Saturday three months after an injury so severe, his foot was bouncing uncontrollably as his wife drove him to the hospital.

“I couldn’t control my emotions,” Dalaloyan said through a translator, explaining why he broke down and buried his face in his hands after finishing floor exercise, his second-to-last event. “One side of me was full of joy and confidence. I was kind of proud I could make it, that I could come to this point and do all the exercises all the way I really wanted to.

“The other part of me felt disappointment in a sense because I understand I could not do all the exercises perfectly,” he said. “There was something I probably could have improved.”

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Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 world champion, performs on the pommel horse Saturday.
Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 world champion, performs on the pommel horse Saturday.

Dalaloyan is the 2018 world champion and was expected to battle teammate and reigning world champ Nikita Nagornyy for gold at the Tokyo Olympics. But he blew out his Achilles in mid-April while training for the European championships, jeopardizing his chances of competing at his first Olympics.

Russian gymnastics officials insisted Dalaloyan would be part of the Tokyo team and, sure enough, he returned for the Russian Cup in June. But he only did four events there, and still wasn’t able to do dismounts.

Dalaloyan initially didn’t plan to do floor or vault in Tokyo and, after podium training Wednesday, he wasn’t sure he’d compete at all. A pep talk from his coaches and teammates Friday, however, changed his mind.

“For me, the Olympic Games is a really high priority. For most of sportsmen and people who do gymnastics, they don’t have the chance to be here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “Thanks to my family, particularly my wife and my kids, and the support of all the Russian team, I could find the strength to keep going.”

Sure, but it’s one thing to compete. It’s quite another to post one of the highest scores at the Olympics.

Russia began the day on still rings, and Dalaloyan landed his dismount without any sign of pain. But the real test came next, when Russia moved to vault, which required Dalaloyan to sprint down an 82-foot runway and land with a force seven times his body weight.

He was last in the four-man lineup, and there was some thought Russia might skip him if its first three scores were high enough. (Teams can drop their lowest scores in qualifying.) But Dalaloyan warmed up without any obvious problems, and landed his one vault solidly.

The next two events didn’t put much stress on Dalaloyan’s surgically repaired ankle, but every second of floor exercise was going to be excruciating. Though he landed his tumbling passes gingerly – or as gingerly as you can when you’re coming down from 10 feet in the air – and with his feet wide to help absorb the pounding, he was already fighting back tears as he walked off the podium.

He sobbed for several minutes on the sidelines before raising his head and wiping his eyes. Then he joined his teammates for the final event.

Dalaloyan’s score of 85.957 put him fourth, behind Nagornyy and China’s Xiao Ruoteng and Sun Wei. Told he would make the all-around final, Dalaloyan briefly put his hand over his eyes and then smiled.

“OK,” he said in English. “It’s not problem for me. Yes, I go.”

On one leg or two.

Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Gymnast Artur Dalaloyan in contention despite Achilles

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