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Female gymnast makes Olympic history with seventh games

Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina could make history in Rio as the oldest Olympic female gymnast to compete.

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    Gymnast Oksana Chusovitina performs on the balance beam during the women's qualification rounds at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Chusovitina will compete at her seventh Olympics when she goes to Rio de Janeiro, becoming the oldest Olympic female gymnast in history at age 41.
    Julie Jacobson/AP/File
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Oksana Chusovitina, the only gymnast ever to compete in seven consecutive Olympic Games, told the BBC "I know I can still do more."

At age 41, she will also be the oldest female gymnast ever to compete in the Olympics. 

"I think she's just a miracle," Ms. Chusovitina's coach Ulla Koch told The New York Times. But Chusovitina may not be a complete outlier. Other Olympic athletes, such as Michael Phelps, are gaining the spotlight because of their ability to keep qualifying as an Olympian.

While these athletes share athletic strength, what binds them as a group is their mental power and tenacity.

"Things don't come easily," Chusovitina told the BBC. "The rules always change. Some things are very hard to learn. Now, I train more with my head. Every four years we have new rules, new moves. So every four years you try something new."

Chusovitina will also be one of the few gymnasts to compete after having a child. Her teenage son is one year older than most of her competitors, the average age of which is 16, the youngest they can be to compete.

Unlike many athletes, when Chusovitina had her son, she went straight back into the gym. When Chusovitina's former teammate and current coach, Svetlana Boginskaya saw her friend competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she thought, "My daughter was born in '99 and her son was born in '99. How is it possible?" she recalls. "I'm not even thinking of competing and working out and she was there as an athlete," she told Elle Magazine. 

"There was no motivation. I stepped into the gym to work out a little bit, to get my body back in shape," Chusovitina told Elle.

Other athletes who challenge assumptions about age and performance in the Olympics have a similar story.

Ethiopian Olympic runner Haile Gebrselassie, for example, says "a day without running is not a good day." Mr. Gebrselassie broke the world record for the fastest marathon at age 35, a sport whose so-called "peak" age is 25.4 years old. At age 43, he continues to run with the same vigor.

Michael Phelps was in headlines in late June when he qualified for the Olympics for the fifth time, making him the first American male swimmer to qualify for five Olympics.

"Am I old? I don't feel old," Chusovitina told The New York Times in a 2012 article celebrating her sixth Olympic championship, a female gymnastics record. She added, "Gymnastics keeps me young."

Chusovitina even says it may be easier for her to compete now. She knows the drill. "To make the Olympics for the Soviet Union was really hard because they had so many good girls who could've made the team," she told the Times. "Now, it's easier because there are fewer girls, and I'm thinking like an adult now. I'm smarter. I know how to push myself."

She previously competed for the Soviet Union, the Unified Team, and Germany before joining her home team of Uzbekistan. "I have only one dream. It is to win a medal for my homeland, Uzbekistan," Chusovitina told the BBC.

The women's gymnastics competition begins on Saturday, Aug. 7.

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