Patricia Bezzoubenko’s emotions still flowed freely from the young rhythmic gymnast more than three months after that late-July moment in Glasgow.
Atop the podium for the first of what would be four times at the SSE Hydro arena, the 17-year-old had never felt so Canadian, with the Commonwealth Games gold medal for the individual hoop event around her neck, the Maple Leaf going up in front of her and the anthem playing.
“The first time … was so … I can’t believe this,” said Bezzoubenko, at a mid-November promotional event in Toronto. “I can see this flag up above my head and everybody in the audience cried out for me, it was so amazing, these feelings.
“I can’t tell you why, because you would not understand.”
These kinds of emotions are not unusual from a young Canadian athlete, climbing the podium for the first time at a senior international games. What makes this fascinating is Bezzoubenko chose the flag to represent when there was another choice to make.
After spending four years in her North Vancouver birthplace, she went to Russia with her parents. There, she became involved in rhythmic gymnastics, a sport that country excels at, and became part of the elite national program run by coach Irina Viner, at Novogorsk, in Moscow.
She had enough talent to have a shot at Russia’s six-person group team one day and a shot at an Olympic gold medal. But another home was calling and she answered.
“I was born in Canada; this country is in my heart,” Bezzoubenko said, asked if there was ever any question of whom to represent. “I didn’t think about it, to choose Russia or Canada or China, or whatever. [Canada] was in my heart, all the time, when I was thinking about it.”
She is part of a generational trend in Canadian rhythmic gymnastics. Frankly, this is not a sport this country has been particularly strong at over the years. But once in a while, a special talent emerges.
Lori Fung, then 21, won the first-ever Olympic gold for rhythmic in 1984, beating the Romanian favourite in an event marred by the absence of the powerful Bulgarian and Russian teams due to a political boycott. Showing she belonged in the 1985 worlds, Fung took ninth in individual all-around, eighth in ball and sixth in clubs.
Alexandra Orlando, of Toronto, came through 22 years later with six gold medals (tying the all-time record for any athlete) at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne as a 20 year old, adding three gold at the Pan Ams in 2007 at Rio. That same season, there was a ninth in individual all-around at the worlds, plus a seventh in hoop.
Now, it’s Bezzoubenko, still a teen in a sport whose competitive lifespan is into the mid-20s. Her best finish at a World Cup event is 13th all around in Corbeil-Essonnes last season, and 17th at the World Cup final in Kazan, Russia.
There’s more to come, says her Canadian coach, who is enthralled at the youngster’s talent.
“She’s an absolutely gorgeous gymnast … very expressive … emotional, hard working, with a God-gifted talent,” said Svetlana Joukova, who was called by the Russian coaches five years ago and asked to work with Bezzoubenko.
“Of course, the number one [thing] is she trained for this, hours and hours, trying something for a thousand times, all the apparatus … ball, hoop, ribbon and clubs.”
Bezzoubenko started in Moscow at the youth Olympic centre, and has moved to the national Olympic centre in what Joukova calls “gorgeous conditions.”
She lives at least six months a year in Moscow, where it costs $2,000 a month for her parents to send her to the renowned Olympic training centre where she works with the national coaches and the best gymnasts in the world.
The rest of the time is in Canada or travelling the world to competitions and events.
Throw a sphere, about the size and weight of a volleyball, up in the air as high as you can and catch it. Do it again, making sure it lands in the exact spot.
And again. And again. And again.
Having mastered that, now throw it up, do a pirouette, another pirouette while gracefully falling to the floor and then catch the ball. With your knees.
It’s an obvious introduction to Bezzoubenko’s skills, as all great athletic endeavors have similar requirements, but it also highlights what the Canadian rhythmic gymnast brings to the table for the Pan Am Games.
Ask Lori Fung.
“Rhythmic gymnastics is very difficult, and that’s why people don’t realize it until they actually try something what kind of eye coordination and training it takes,” she said, on the phone from Vancouver where she lives and coaches.
“If you were to make a comparison, jumping up and down is normal, but in figure skating, you jump up, spin four times, land on one foot, on a blade, on ice. People have misinterpreted our sport as beautiful, yes, but don’t recognize the difficulty.”
Especially with the ball, where if you miss the thing it can roll away from you, a long way.
“There have been some embarrassing moments where the ball goes under the judges’ table, and the poor gymnast is crawling under the table to get it back,” says Fung, herself an experienced judge.
At least if you drop the club, it tends to land right there.
Bezzoubenko has dropped the ball, but she refuses to let it bother her at the time.
“You feel really upset after the competitions, but not on the carpet,” she says. “You can’t give up, can’t think ‘Oh, I dropped the ball, what do I do now?’ That’s unprofessional. You wait until after the competition.”
Perhaps that’s why the music for her ribbon routine is Queen’s “The show must go on.”
Many young hockey players come to Canada to practice, play and learn with the best, so it makes sense for a rhythmic athlete to head for Eastern Europe.
Fung did it, back in the early 1980s, when she packed up for Bulgaria and Romania. Bezzoubenko is the same way and understands the gift circumstances have given her.
“I think this is the first reason why I want to train there because I can see the best gymnasts in the world,” she says. “And when I see these gymnasts, I want to be as good as they are. They are my friends, and it’s really helpful to be a champion, to be a good gymnast.”
As she looks towards the Pan Ams, and then onwards to a shot at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Bezzoubenko has a little ace up her sleeve that might just bring a little luck to go along with that talent and hard work.
“This is really funny because [Lori Fung and I], we have a birthday the same day, and she’s from Vancouver, and I see this, and think ‘How is this possible?’”
That’s the thing about the athletic world. Possibilities.