The 1996 Olympic all-around and floor Champion talked to UEG about her life after gymnastics and her special connection to Atlanta!
Lilia was the first woman to hold the European, World and Olympic all-around title at the same time, since Ludmila Tourischeva in the beginning of the seventies. Known for her artistry on floor, Lilia captured the heart of many fans worldwide.
UEG: Can you tell us what you have been doing since your retirement from gymnastics?
Podkopayeva: After the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta I set out on a tour of the United States with the John Hancock Tour of World Champions. Then I started to give master classes in different sports summer camps and I continue doing it until now. I had an opportunity to stay in USA for permanent living but decided to return to my native Ukraine and to continue coming to US each summer. You know, retirement is a crucial moment for every sportsman. When the career is finished it is rather hard to find something that would replace sports and engage you in the same way. I faced the same problem. Of course, gymnastics will always be in my life, but after my retirement there is much less of it than before. The support of friends and family helped me to start new activities.
In 2001 I organized the Golden Lilia International Sports Festival to encourage young people to go in for sports and to inspire them for achievements. The festival soon became a major sports event of the year in Ukraine. We invited Olympic champions, famous gymnasts, ballet dancers, circus artists, sports teams from all over the world. Their performances were very bright, amazingly beautiful, very difficult and sometimes even scary. The festival took place each year till 2009.
At the same time I started to appear on TV. I was invited to take part in the Ukrainian “Dancing with the stars”. I love to dance and enjoyed the show very much. With my partner Sergey Kostetskiy we won the second season. Then we performed in Eurovision Dancing Contest in 2008 and won the third place. Later in 2011 I hosted the entertainment sports show “I am the hero”. And in spring 2015 I became a host of a radio program about healthy lifestyle the aim of which is to inspire people to make their life healthier, to go in for sports and to eat healthy food. The program was broadcasted on one of Kiev radio station.
Besides I used to be United Nations Goodwill Ambassador on HIV/AIDS in Ukraine and Ambassador of Council of Europe for Sport, Tolerance and Fair Play.
UEG: Are you still involved in gymnastics? Do you stay in touch with your former teammates and rivals?
Podkopayeva: Gymnastics for me is forever! Each summer I spend in sports summer camps in USA giving master classes, training, sometimes giving awards for the kids and judging competitions (since I have been certified as an international judge). I stay in touch with some gymnasts. For example, Olga Teslenko, Rustam Sharipov, Igor Korobchinski, Anna Morgorodskaya, Valeriy Honcharov. We have much to remember together.
UEG: What’s your best memory from gymnastics?
Podkopayeva: There two special moments connected with gymnastics for me. The first memory is the day when I saw the gym first time in my life. It was a sunny day, I was five and my granny took me to the Sports Palace in Donetsk. When we came she told the trainer that this girl has come here not just for health but for results. Since that time those words have been a special orientation for success. But of course, the best memory is the victory in the Olympics in 1996. Since my first participation in some local championship I was dreaming to stand on the first step of the podium. I will never forget that day when I won the Olympic gold. For each sportsman the Olympics is the main point in the whole career. I understood that I had been training for 13 years just to get prepared to this moment. Before my performance it was hard to pull myself up. I felt responsibility for the hard work of my trainers and for the whole country which believed in our team. Besides just a month before the Olympics I had lost my beloved granny who took me to the gym. It was a big loss and I decided to do my best to equal her hopes. When the results were announced it was a moment of some unbelievable happiness combined with pain, tiredness and pride. Pride for all my country and for that my efforts and the efforts of my trainers Galina Lossinskaya, Oleg Ostapenko and choreographer Svetlana Dubova were justified. I started to cry, and that were not only the tears of happiness, but the tears of sorrow that my granny could not be with me at that moment.
UEG: Has gymnastics changed much since your competitive days?
Podkopayeva: Yes, it has changed dramatically. The gymnastics has become more powerful and intense but less graceful. Now more attention is paid to skills and tricks but not to choreography. At the days of my active career there were more ballet and dancing lessons which made our performances more artistic than now. At the same time difficulty level has stayed the same.
UEG: You were back in Atlanta recently. How did that feel?
Podkopayeva: I always look forward to coming back to Atlanta. This place is special for me because my biggest dream came true here. The city still remembers those Olympics in 1996 and when I come here many places remind me how it was. Partly Atlanta makes me feel incredibly happy and reminds the feeling of victory. But besides, now I have many friends and close people in this city. So now it is not only the Olympics, but a part of my life — friendly people around, my friends and the camp where I train.
UEG: If you were still competing which skill would you love to perform?
Podkopayeva: I would love to perform my eponymous skill — double front somersault with a 1/2 twist and floor exercises which I love most of all. Since my childhood I like to dance very much. And floor exercises for me are a moment when you can show not only all your power and skill but the maximum of gracefulness as well.
UEG: Who are your favorite gymnasts at the moment?
Podkopayeva: If to talk about gymnasts who perform now I think it’s Simone Biles. Her skill level is high. I doubt that someone of young gymnasts will excel her in the nearest future.
UEG: Who would you like to see winning at the Rio Olympics?
Podkopayeva: I always say may the best win! Of course, I will support the Ukrainian team. Among our gymnasts I think Oleh Vernyayev has a good chance to become a champion.
UEG: What’s the most useful advice you ever received? What would you say to young gymnasts?
Podkopayeva: Many years ago Larisa Latynina told me: “Lilia, never give up and never lose your balance”. These words helped me many times, and not only in sports. Standing on a beam or facing life difficulties, never lose your balance and always do your best.
My advice to young gymnasts would be to win a victory over yourselves, first of all. We ourselves are our greatest enemies. If you can conquer your own feelings, laziness, pain and fatigue, you will achieve the best results.