Catching up with … Vitaly Scherbo (BLR)!

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Catching up with … Vitaly Scherbo (BLR)!

July 25, 2017

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Olympics, UEG caught up with the star of the Games and winner of an unprecedented 6 gold medals, Vitaly Scherbo

Born in Minsk in 1972, Vitaly Scherbo impressed gym fans early on in his career when he won 3 golds at the 1990 Europeans and took the silver all-around at the 1991 Worlds but it was the 1992 Olympic Games that elevated him to star status. In Barcelona, Scherbo won 6 gold medals, making him the most successful athlete at the Games.

Nowadays residing in Las Vegas (USA) where he owns a gymnastics school, the 45-year-old spends his free time with his friends, enjoy a sauna, playing cards and having a drink, or taking out his family in the RUV. Most of his time is, however, still spent in the gym, coaching the boys at his school.

UEG: The 1992 Barcelona Games were 25 years ago. Can you believe that?

Scherbo: Actually ... no! These 25 years have gone like a year. But I feel like an old man anyway. 45 [years] that is kind of already getting there.

UEG: How do you remember those Games? How did you feel when you won those 6 gold medals? Did you realise at that time how special this was?

Scherbo: No, I did not. It doesn’t matter what kind of meet, World Championships, Olympic Games, national Championships, some simpler Challenge meet or some qualifying meet, for us, we were so professional that every meet you looked to win. You looked to do good, no matter what. Of course there was some adrenalin and of course you shape up a little bit more when you have World Championships or Olympic Games but the moment you get on the podium that all disappears. For us, it was like a job. We were there to win and we knew that we were going to win. I knew that I was going to get medals, at least 2, 3 gold and a couple of silver and bronze. I realised that and had planned it in my head but winning 6, even then, I was a little bit surprised and shocked but I didn’t realise what it actually meant to win 6 gold medals from 8 possible. For months I didn’t realise. Only when I became a mature man doing my own business getting further and further in life away from the competition then you realise what you have done, especially by watching all other Olympics and all other athletes who are struggling to get more than 1 or 2 medals. Winning a medal is a big huge thing for everyone so of course now I realise what I have done. In that time it was more like ‘yeah something big’ but even though I expected less I did still expect winning. That is how you feel. You just take it as an obvious thing. Sorry for this arrogance but this is how young professional sportsmen think.

UEG: Do you think it is possible nowadays to win 6 gold medals?

Scherbo: No, it isn’t possible and it will never be possible again because of the rule changes. The rules have changed dramatically and gymnastics has changed dramatically. When I was competing, most of the gymnasts competed all-around and they had 1 to 4 good events where they can score and get a medal. All-arounders were more in honour than right now. Now gymnastics is more for the countries that can produce event specialists. Now we have only up to 6 gymnasts all over the world who are on equal terms in the all-around to win medals. And the all-around medal is the hardest one to get. For the other medals you need special skills, extraordinary routine on this event. That’s the situation in the world now. Lots of countries have their specialists on 1 or 2 events that are not doing all-around and it has become really hard for all-around gymnasts to make the podium in these events.

Look at Kohei Uchimura! I consider him the best gymnast of all times. I don’t even think anyone in the future can beat not just his record but the ability to win major competitions, as he did, winning the last 8 years, winning everything. I consider him best of the best. Of course there are lots of interpretations, arguments and comments between people, discussing who is the best, the greatest but in my mind he is the greatest and he will be forever. He is a real Champion! I don’t consider myself even close to this guy. By the medal counts, yes, of course but I was in the right time, the right place and while I was well prepared I was also lucky. I think if Uchimura was in my place 25 years ago he would win 3 or 4 and a couple of silver and bronze. If I imagine myself competing now, even with my talent and hard work maybe I would be in the top 3 of the all-around because I am an all-around man but I don’t think I would win more than one or two events and that is with luck. He’s winning all-around but then just one or two silver medals. This shows how great he is but also how great the specialists are.

UEG: When you look at the Olympics now, do you wish you were competing there?

Scherbo: No. I got off at a good time. I got off as the winner because to finish as you are going down and people from behind beating you, that is not a good feeling. I am actually happy that I am not competing and I did not compete in 2000 which I was hoping for, trying to do all-around and get into 4 event finals but I am glad I did not. I got injured and retired. I am happy that God showed me it was time to leave. I thank him very much for that.

UEG: Did the break-up of the Soviet Union disrupt your preparation for the Barcelona Games?

Scherbo: We always trained near Moscow, at the Olympic training camp, 300 days a year. We were there for a month and a half, two months at a time, then we had a week to go home, and then back again. After that, we had the same system in Belarus. Here in the United Stated they don’t have so many camps, only before the big competitions, for a couple of weeks and that is it. Usually they prepare at home with their own coach.

UEG: Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates?

Scherbo: Of course, with everybody! Everybody is on Skype on my contact list. We still talk. Most of them are in the United States now. I meet them at competitions. I talk to them. We spent time together with some of my close friends from the team. We always get together for some fun, fishing or hunting.

UEG: What has been your favourite moment in gymnastics?

Scherbo: I had just got to the senior national team. I was selected by head coach Leonid Arkaev who is one of the best organisers and coaches in the world, making the gymnasts reach high level. He invited me to the senior national team when I was 17. Early, one year early. I was one of the youngest in the senior team.

After the first camp I was suspended because I was caught smoking and this obviously was not allowed and it was a bad thing. He wanted to show all others that even talented gymnasts, the stars, we can live without them. Discipline is the most important thing so I was kicked out of the team for ever! It was devastating, I lost interest in gymnastics as I couldn’t make the team anymore, couldn’t become anyone. For me, everything was over. The head coach of the junior national team Nikolai Andrianov, rest in peace, who was a very good close friend of mine who saved me from the competition so I would not break myself and injure myself before I become a star. He was a student of Arkaev and talked to him for months: ‘Leonid, you are making a big mistake. You have to give him a chance, he is the one, he is going to be the greatest’. Arkaev finally gave in and told him: “Ok, there is a national championships coming up and if he’s going to win, then I’ll think about it”. My coach told me this, and what did you expect? From 8 possible medals I won 6 golds, 1 silver and 1 bronze. I killed 4 events and got second and third on the other events. I destroyed everybody. But when the camp for the national team started and I didn’t get an invitation… I thought it was over so I quit, stopped doing gymnastics. Three days after the camp had started my coach called at 8 in the morning: “Vitaly we have a plane in 1 hour to Moscow”.  Why? Arkaev called my coach asking what was going on, if I was a star now. The camp was already passed its third day and I wasn’t there! He didn’t give me an invitation but he needed to show as a head coach that it wasn’t his fault so my coach apologised saying we were a bit sick and that we would be there in 2 hours. To which Arkaev answered: “Well if you can’t be here in two hours, don’t even bother showing up”. So I went to the camp, a month later I made the team for the World Championships, at only 17 years old, I went to Stuttgart in 1989. I was actually the substitute, not on the team but I still got the gold medal from this competition as a substitute. Then my career just went up.

So I think that the moment when I won the national championships is the turning point in my career where I proved everybody including myself that I am better than everybody and this smoking incident was over. You know, everybody was drinking and smoking, I just got caught. This is what I will remember for the rest of my life because without that I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Now Arkaev is one of my best friends. When he comes to the US, he always comes three days to see me in Las Vegas. And when I go to Moscow we always spend 2 or 3 days together at his house. Always. He’s saying now that he didn’t want me to leave, that he just wanted to scare me and make a point to other gymnasts. Of course, that is not true.

UEG: Did you have any big disappointments?

Scherbo: Not really… Well, I can’t really call it a big disappointment but the 1996 Olympics. I knew that I was going to place in the top three all-around. I mean, there was a small possibility to win but second or third place that is what I was thinking of, although I was obviously going for the gold. And I knew that 99.9% I would get one or two gold medals in event finals, especially vault, floor and parallel bars. On floor I was winning every competition before the Games, European and World Championships and bars I was winning also. I was the best of the best on floor then. In the final, on the first pass, because the floor was so bouncy, I made a beautiful pass but my feet just bounced off the floor and I fell on my hands. It was devastating. I was in shock. I didn’t even know where I was, so much in shock. Maybe this is the biggest disappointment. Because if I would win there, I would probably also win parallel bars too. I got third place on parallel bars due to others that did pretty well and because I didn’t win floor I wasn’t considered the biggest favourite.

Besides that, I like my career. I am happy with what I achieved. I won every event at the World Championships, which nobody has done before and I don’t think anyone will again. I have 33 World medals, 14 of them gold. I think that’s a pretty good achievement. I did the best that I could. I don’t see any more disappointments.

UEG: When did you move to the US?

 Scherbo: In 1993, after the Olympics, I moved to the United States while competing for Belarus. For the competitions and camps I went back to Belarus being with my team. Until 1997 I went back and forth, travelling all over, doing exhibitions, competitions. When I had free time, a couple of weeks or a month, I spent it with my family in the United States.

UEG: How do you see the difference between the gymnastics you were doing in the Soviet Union and how it works now in the US?

Scherbo: Well, I don’t work out now, and after 1997 I retired so I can’t really compare the workout in the United States and the Soviet Union or in Belarus. Now I coach and I have my own gym though it is a completely different thing. There it was professional gymnastics and now it’s more recreational and amateur.

UEG: You don’t coach high level gymnastics at your gym?

Scherbo: Yes we do, we have high level gymnasts but not as high as world level. Mostly juniors as after 18 they go to college. We get them a scholarship. They move on. I don’t coach elite gymnasts, mostly juniors and youngsters. I have some good kids who are in the junior national team, who are winning and competing really well on a regional level. The biggest thing is getting our gymnasts, who are investing their time and money, to get to the level where the colleges will give them scholarships so they can pay for their own study. The system and the life is different than in Europe. It is hard to compare. Here it is more business than professional sport. In Europe, sports is more focused on the higher level as most of the gyms are supported by the government, region, city. Here it’s private businesses.

UEG: Was that a big change for you?

Scherbo: That’s actually what I was going for. I needed something to live on, I need to survive and support my family. The only option is to open my business so this is more business than the pleasure to create high level gymnasts.

Thanks Vitaly!


Interview by Tina Gerets