The Story Of Rio Gymnast Oksana Who Kept Competing To Cure Her Son’s Leukaemia
‘My son’s leukaemia drove me on’: Extraordinary story behind age-defying Rio gymnast Oksana, 41, who kept competing to raise money for life-saving treatment.
-The 41-year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan is at her seventh Olympics
-Sportswoman’s 17-year-old son Alisher is same age as her competitors
-She has revealed that Alisher was diagnosed with leukaemia aged three
-Gymnast was forced to sell her home and raise money for his treatment
-She says that her son’s recovery from the disease drives her to success
The traumatic story behind age-defying gymnast Oksana Chusovitina – a 41- year-old mother – makes her achievement even more remarkable in reaching Rio and competing in every Olympics since 1992.
In Brazil, the Uzbekistan sportswoman is up against competitors more akin in age to her 17-year-old son Alisher than herself.
And yet it was his diagnosis of leukaemia from the age of three that drove her to her incredible success.
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Oksana Chusovitina, pictured with her now-healthy 17-year-old son, moved to Germany to compete there and raise money for his life-saving treatment
Alisher was just three years old when he fell ill and suddenly coughed up blood, leading doctors to diagnose him with leukaemia.
Alisher, pictured with his mother, was diagnosed with the disease in 2002 and need treatment in Germany costing £90,000
Gymnast Oskana Chusovitina, who at the age of 41 is competing in her seventh Olympic Games in Rio
As she says, if she had got injured, she would not have been able to raise the money she needed for his treatment. And it was his struggle against death that drove her on.
Today Alisher is thankfully ‘cured’, due in no small measure to her superhuman efforts in going abroad to find the best doctors for him, and then moving heaven and earth to raise the money to pay huge medical bills.
Even so, for years it was touch and go, making the applause she won in Rio this year even more meaningful .
It was in 2002 that Oksana was on her way back from Busan, where she and wrestler husband Bakhtier Kurbanov, now 43, had performed in the Asian Games, that she took a phone call from her mother Nadezhda who was caring for then three-year-old Alisher.
To afford the treatment to save her son’s life, Oksana agreed to move and compete for Germany and sell her home in Uzbekistan
At first Uzbekistan officials blocked Okasana’s move to represent Germany, but she went to the capital Tashkent and begged them to allow her for the sake of her son
She heard how her son had suddenly coughed up blood, and he was rushed away by ambulance with suspected pneumonia.
While his stunned parents flew home, the doctors diagnosed something more serious – leukaemia.
She was told that failure to start chemotherapy within a month would lead to the child’s death.
In the Uzbek clinic, Alisher was competing for the sole catheter with all other patients.
Oksana knew immediately that she would not be able to save her son here in her homeland.
She was recommended a hospital in Cologne, but here the treatment cost more than £90,000.
She explained: ‘The doctors in Cologne agreed to treat Alisher, but on condition that there was a guarantee I paid for the treatment.
‘We did not have a penny.’
Oksana and husband Bakhtier sold their three-bedroom apartment in Tashkent and two cars, but this did not cover even half of the cost of the treatment.
A sports club in Cologne – where she moved – agreed to guarantee £23,000. There were other donations as the International Gymnastics Federation gave £4,250 and wo Uzbek factories helped raise another £23,000.
She added: ‘It was then I realised that there are more good people than bad. Many people helped.
‘A close friend of my husband, a businessman, had just brought in his harvest. He had not got money for it yet but he gave us a wagon of grain.’
Still there was not enough money, so Oksana agreed to compete for Germany. The rest of the money was paid by the German sporting authorities.
At first Uzbekistan officials blocked her move to represent Germany, but she went to Tashkent and begged them to allow her for the sake of her son.
She explained: ‘I agreed to it only because of my son.
Oksana proudly hold up a medal alongside her son Alisher, mother Nadezhda Chusovitina and husband Bakhtier Kurbanov
Oksana pictured with her mother Nadezhda, and her husband Bakhtier Kurbanov, who was a professional wrestler in Uzbekistan
‘I know this is such a disease that he can feel well now, and in a year it can resume once again.
‘I had been thinking about my son constantly.
‘Gymnastics is a sport that, when you come to the apparatus, you should not have any extraneous thoughts, otherwise everything ends very badly.
‘But even then, I could not stop thinking about Alisher. In fact, if I had been injured, my son could not be treated.’
Explaining her turmoil, she added: ‘You cannot go into your own grief, because all children can see and feel this.
‘Even if there is no hope, let the child remember not the sobs but something positive.
‘I left all my negativity in the gym and each time came to Alisher encouraged.
‘After a while I got a German work visa, and my son could be treated under insurance. Some money remained on the charity account.
The mother of one in training as she practices her beam routine. She briefly represented Germany following her son’s illness
Now at her seventh Olympic Games, Oksana has returned to representing her home country Uzbekistan
‘I was told to keep it for Alisher, but I decided that because it was collected for treatment, let it help someone else.’
Amazingly, by the age of five her son took an interest in gymnastics.
At eight, he won the championship in Cologne in his age group, but then after winning the cup, he switched his attention to football.
By 2012, when Alisher was 12, Oksana said of her son: ‘He loves to study. For him, the greatest punishment is – ‘you do not go to school’.
‘I’m still in shock. And there is always perfect order in his room.
‘Well, he was raised in Germany, he considers himself a German and German-thinking.
‘His dream is to become a banker, and before that a couple of years to work as a trucker.
The 41-year-old rests on the beam during a break in training. She has revealed that she was asked to represent Russia but refused as she wants to compete for her home country
Oksana is nine years older than her nearest rival in Rio, and – as she was described to cheers in the arena – is a ‘living legend’.
‘He is a very independent young man. He shares everything with me.
‘He told me the first time he kissed a girl in a summer camp. And he always tells the truth. He knows that I cannot stand lies.’
Alisher is now finishing school in Germany, while Oksana and Bakhodir split their lives between two countries – Uzbekistan and Germany.
And Oksana has now switched back to representing Uzbekistan, where it is her dream to win a medal for the ‘country where I was born and grew up.’
She said: ‘If it was not for Alisher’s disease, if my son did not need life-saving treatment in Germany, I would never have gone anywhere.
‘As soon as I was told that Alisher was completely healthy, and his life will never again be associated with disease, medical tests or hospital, the first thing I thought was this – I can finally return to Uzbekistan.
‘And with that thought came the idea to regain my former sporting nationality.
‘It is strange indeed: in Uzbekistan, I do not have anyone but my husband. All my relatives moved to Russia long ago.
‘But I come to Tashkent and every time I feel that it is – mine. My land, my city.’
Oksana has also had calls to represent Russia, but turned them down.
Her parents – who are not sportspeople – moved long ago to Siberia and settled in oil town Khanty-Mansiysk, where her mother worked as a cook.
‘I got proposals from Russia, but why should I be the fifth or seventh in the team, if I can be first in Uzbekistan?’, she said
‘Besides, I know a lot of girls who could train so far, but they were forced to finish.
‘It is very hard when you’re constantly told that it is time to leave. Sooner or later you will start to feel old.’
She says she is as young as she feels although ‘when I compete… if they gave a few more marks for age it would have been great!’
In fact, most of her rivals in Rio – where she qualified for the for the eight-woman vault final – were not even born when she began her Olympic career as a member of the triumphant Unified Team, representing former Soviet republics, in 1992.
As a sportswoman she has competed for the USSR, the Unifed Team, Uzbekistan, Germany, and again Uzbekistan.
After having competed in every Olympics since Barcelona in 1992, Oksana has qualified for the women’s vault final on Sunday
The 1996 Olympic champion Kerri Strug, three years Oksana’s junior, said it was ‘unbelievable’ that one of her contemporaries was still going strong
She is nine years older than her nearest rival in Rio, and – as she was described to cheers in the arena – is a ‘living legend’.
‘I really love the sport, I love to give pleasure to the public. I love to come out and perform for the public and for the fans,’ she said.
The 1996 Olympic champion Kerri Strug, three years Oksana’s junior, said it was ‘unbelievable’ that one of her contemporaries was still going strong.
‘Kudos to her for being so disciplined with her diet, staying lean and mean at that age. It only gets harder to compete with these youngsters but she’s doing it, said the American.
‘She’s had a child, and to keep getting into a leotard and stay in such phenomenal shape. To be able to bear all that pounding over the years, I don’t know how she does it.
‘In gymnastics, it usually one or two Olympics but seven? It’s just crazy.’
**All Image Credit to DailyMail