From starting gymnastics by chance to making it onto the national Italian team, and then going to – pinnacle of every athlete’s career – the Olympic Games. Italian gymnast Marta Pagnini is an Olympic bronze medallist, but gymnastics is just one of many things that Marta loves doing. By the age of 29, Marta has been the Italian team’s captain, has won numerous medals; and recently received a University degree, has written a book, and has become an Instagram influencer with many followers. What was her life like during her sports career, and how has it changed since then? How can you overcome difficulties and make it to the Olympics? What does the life of a gymnast consist of? Marta shared all of it with me in a very honest and open interview for Youth Time Magazine.
Hey Marta! Let’s talk about your childhood. How did you get into gymnastics?
I got into gymnastics by chance. I focused on ballet from six to eight years old. When it became boring for me, my mum took me to a gym. First, it was a gym where people were practicing artistic gymnastics, but I didn’t like that type of gymnastics.
I just didn’t have the physical characteristics needed for it, so the coaches told me: “Maybe you can try this ‘other kind’ of gymnastics.” They watched me trying it, and from my side – I saw the ribbon, the hoop, the apparatus, and I fell in love with it immediately.
How soon did you know that it was going to become such a huge part of your life?
It’s hard to say, but everything happened so smoothly, I didn’t even have time to recognize what a difficult path I had in front of me. Everything happened one day after another. I don’t even know how I ended up being on a national team!
Rhythmic gymnastics is a tough sport. It requires a lot of discipline. How did you manage that as a child?
When you are young and just start practising rhythmic gymnastics . . . you don’t know how strict it is, especially compared to other kinds of sports, compared to other kinds of life.
You just do it because you love it and because your parents and your coaches tell you to do it. They tell you to be strict with yourself, to be correct, to be disciplined . . . So, you just do it. You feel what you are doing is just a normal thing. But only when you grow up do you realize you did something great.
Did you ever have breakdowns or moments when you wanted to quit?
Of course, I had those moments. Since I started working on rhythmic gymnastics, I can’t remember a year without a big crisis. I had a crisis every year, at least one! It’s normal, and it helps you to grow.
What advice can you give to young athletes who look up to you?
Believe in your dreams, and understand that even if you struggle or cry, if you lose sometimes or finish last – it’s just a natural process that then leads you to achieving what you are working for.
Not every competition can be successful, you don’t need to win a medal every time. Sometimes the tears that you shed, or the last place in the competition, allow you to get yourself together and understand where to go next, what to improve, how to come back with more power.
Now very often kids think that if they want something, they can have it immediately. But it’s not like that. Gymnastics is also about skills, and skills need time. So be patient and work hard, then good things will come.
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Speaking about diet, gymnasts must keep it very strict. How did you manage that?
It can be very difficult for a gymnast to understand, especially when you are young, the importance of eating well. You should do it because of your health, not because you are afraid to look fat.
It’s usually the biggest problem and the hardest thing to navigate through, to accept yourself, your body. As for me: I really understood the concept of healthy eating only when I became older.
When I turned 21 or 22, I started going to a nutritionist. I cannot underscore enough how much it helped me. It’s important to get explanations about all the food you consume and get it from a professional doctor.
Russian rhythmic gymnast Alexandra Soldatova has recently admitted having bulimia, which became a huge story on the news. Why do you think this happens to such successful gymnasts, and what’s the way to handle it?
Bulimia is a problem that, unfortunately, affects many gymnasts. Our work is connected to our bodies – we work with them every day; in our sport we must display them in a way that every imperfection can be noticed, you feel exposed, naked.
Not just gymnasts, but normal people, normal girls go through these problems. Can you imagine what it means for a gymnast? It doesn’t matter if you are under pressure, it doesn’t matter if you are an Olympian or a gymnast who practices twice a week – it can happen to anybody.
It’s an actual disease that must be cured, the person needs to be listened to, they need help. It’s so important to take care of the gymnast who is going through this. The only way is, again, to ask for the help of a professional doctor, who knows how to handle it.
The Olympics. In London you became an Olympic bronze medallist. Can you tell me more about this experience?
The Olympic medal is one of the greatest memories I have experienced. It is simply one of a kind memory. It’s been a great moment. I remember arriving at the Olympic village, and an even more vivid memory is of arriving at the Wembley arena where we had the competition.
I honestly started to cry when I saw the Olympic rings. To me, it was a dream I had had since I was a very little girl. About the medal . . . I realized, fully, that I had won the Olympic medal only after I came back home. During the time I was in London, while I stood on the podium – it was all happening so fast, and I just couldn’t realize it, it felt surreal. The conscious moment of knowing, “I am now an Olympic medallist”, came sometime after.
You even have an Olympic Games tattoo… Thinking of getting any new ones?
No, I don’t want any more tattoos (laughing). Not the ones connected to gymnastics. Gymnastics has been a huge part of my life, and it will stay part of my life, forever… but that’s enough.
I have one tattoo, and it represents the dream I achieved, and I don’t regret getting it. In total I have five tattoos – only one is dedicated to gymnastics, and that’s okay. I believe every person can have a lot of interests and hobbies, and life in general is more than just about one thing.
You went to the Olympics twice, but Rio 2016 wasn’t as successful as London, you came in fourth. Was it difficult to go through that? In what way?
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games were a difficult moment, mostly because I lost my grandmother the same day I arrived at the Olympic village . . . My grandmother was a very important person in my life. I really struggled to stay focused.
I was also the Captain, and I couldn’t relax – the responsibility when you are a Captain is way bigger. I couldn’t cry or let myself down. The fact that I was busy with all of this helped me to overcome the loss.
Thanks to gymnastics I found strength to go on and compete. I have wonderful memories about Rio in the end – I competed thinking of my grandmother, thinking that I have to do it for her as well.
It was my last competition, so I feel proud of myself when I think of that difficult moment, which I will never forget. Back then, I knew it was my very last competition, because I wanted to keep moving on with my life, dedicating it to many other interesting things.
You were a Captain of the team in Rio, how is it different from competing?
The Captain in a rhythmic gymnastics team doesn’t have a technical role, you have more of an ethical and spiritual role. The captain’s role is to motivate, to see the best in every teammate and to keep the team together, united and inspired. It’s a very hard role – the Captain must be an example, and it can be very hard to be a role model for the others, to be someone who always does the right thing.
It’s not an option to abandon yourself to your weaknesses, because you must always be there for your teammates, trying to your share mental strength and power with them.
Being the Captain sounds like a leadership role to me. Nowadays women get more and more opportunities to take on leadership roles. What do you think about it?
I think it’s a shame that we still must fight for women’s rights. There is no reason why women should be considered less than men. It’s just normal for me that women are leaders. It’s just a shame they weren’t given so many opportunities in the past.
I absolutely agree when women are being appointed for leadership positions and given adequate platforms to be who they are, to express themselves, to chase their ambitions. Women can handle it, sometimes better than men.
What changes have you witnessed in the world of rhythmic gymnastics since you left the sport?
The rhythmic gymnastics world evolves, it keeps moving and developing, it never stops. I could go into technical explanations, but I can just say that it’s not the kind of sport that will stay the same. Every year there are new changes, and that’s the beauty of it – because it’s not just a sport to me, it’s truly an art.
How did your life change after retiring? What are the best and the worst parts about it?
I’ve changed a lot since I stopped practising gymnastics; and to be honest, I am enjoying it a lot. I remember I wanted to quit very much, not because I didn’t like gymnastics anymore, but because I felt the urge to do something else with my life.
I wanted to find myself as a person, to feel that I could be talented somewhere else, not only within the scope of rhythmic gymnastics, not only within the sports field. My life after it changed, it’s true.
The difficult part is that you lose your focus. Before, I used to wake up, thinking that I must train very hard each day, that I had a goal to reach – to compete at the Olympics, and this goal had a very specific deadline.
And now it’s not like that anymore. Of course, I still have goals, but it’s very different because some of them don’t have a deadline. I know I will work, and maybe I even change my job, but it’s all very different and new to me. It’s also the best part – to have this new life, and I am getting used to it.
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What is your favourite memory from your gymnastics career?
I have so many favourites, but it’s probably in 2013, my first World Championships, when I first became the captain of a team. It was just a year after the Olympic Games in London 2012 and I remember we won the silver medal, which was hard at the time.
We had a completely new team, and it was difficult to keep the team on a high level, to keep them together. But we did it, and I have some incredible memories from that.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been postponed to 2021. Let’s imagine it all happens in 2021. What are you most excited about?
I am very excited, first for my team. I want them to reach the first place, because they really deserve it. I hope to be there, too, to watch the Games and to relive them, but in a different way, not as a participant but as a spectator. It’s a magical event, but experiencing it with a little less stress would be better.
What are you doing now, and what is your biggest goal (dream) for the future?
I don’t want to stop. My job is my life right now. I work in a communications agency. I manage the athletes’ careers, their contracts with sponsors, I bring them to different sports events. I love it because it still has a big link to sports, to the athletes. I meet so many interesting people from the world of sports, which is great.
My job is always on the move. For example, last summer I worked in the Universiade event in Naples, and it was one of the best experiences I have had, professionally speaking. It made me realize how much I love working for big events.
Hopefully, in the future, I can work for the Olympic Games, or World Championships or any other multi-sports events. I want to learn something new every day. And I want to enjoy what I am doing, because I felt a little trapped in the gymnastics world; and now, I discover all the things around it. I hope I can enjoy it more and more every year, and that’s the most important thing.
How do you cope in Italy with everything that’s going on in the world now? What advice can you give people who stay at home?
The situation in my country is really bad, but I am proud of how we are handling it. I hope everything will pass soon. We can’t give up, because from the worst moments come the best lessons!
Photos: From the Archive of Marta Pagnini / Title photo: Shutterstock
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