For Uzebkistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, age is just a number.
The usual lifespan is one or two Olympics for most Olympic gymnasts. The lucky ones sometimes get a third shot, but this 41-year-old gymnast, who is also a mother to a 17-year-old, has pushed the limits of human comprehension (not to mention, her body) to compete for a record seventh time in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Most of Chusovitina’s competitors are around half her age and her son Alisher is several months older than the youngest member of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics squad, Laurie Hernandez.
Although she is not the oldest Olympian, a sport like gymnastics places an unimaginable stress on the body of a teenager, not to mention a woman who is past her early days of youth.
“How can someone her age dare to do that to their body?” joked the legendary Nadia Comaneci, who won three gold medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal at the age of 14 — and then retired at 19.
It was not Chusovitina’s original plan to compete in her 40s, but in a cruel twist of fate, her young son was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002. Chusovitina, who first represented the Unified Team in 1992 and later her native country Uzbekistan, was forced to go to Germany to seek treatment for her son and later thanked the country for saving her son’s life by competing for the country in 2006.
After she landed a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, all thoughts of quitting fled her mind and she resumed her representation of Uzbekistan.
But how exactly does a 41-year-old manage to accomplish these stunning feats that are demanding even for women half her age?
“I do a lot of mental training. I have muscle memory that my body has developed over the years. I typically put in two to two-and-a-half hours in the gym...then I visualize exactly how the skill needs to be done,” Chusovitina told ESPN.
“I am feeling good. 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,” she said. “But it's a pity there are no points for age.”
Competing for the seventh time in Olympic Games is not her only record; she has also won nine world medals on the vault. What makes her truly an inspiration is that the 41-year-old Chusovitina is still competing in high-level gymnastics where 22-year-old Aly Raisman is dubbed “Grandma.”