IG's John Crumlish continues his journey through the Baltic countries, this time stopping in Vilnius, where careworn facilities and limited resources are not putting a ceiling on the ambition of Lithuanian gymnasts and coaches.
Vilnius Cathedral in Cathedral Square, Old Town Vilnius
For the past 40 years most of Lithuania's top female gymnasts have been training at the Vilnius Gymnastics School, a three-story facility tucked away off a prominent thoroughfare in the country's capital.
The school's main coaches are Anna Mielko, who coached Yulia Kovalyova to a berth at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney; Irina Katiniene, who coached Olympians Jelena Zanevskaja (Beijing 2008) and Laura Svilpaite (London 2012); and Alexander Filatov, who coached Robert Tvorogal to fourth place all-around at this year's Junior European Championships. (Lithuania's male 2012 Olympian, Rokas Guscinas, trains in the city of Kaunas.)
Mielko said she and her colleagues are satisfied that they decided to remain in Lithuania, after the country's 1990 declaration of independence from Soviet rule sent many of the top coaches to more lucrative jobs abroad.
"In the Soviet Union many coaches worked for the ideal, not for the money," said Mielko, who also coached Kovalyova's younger sister, Jekaterina Koyalyova, who competed at two world championships and two European championships. "Now Irina, Alexander and I have this old school attitude from the Soviet Union. We work much more than we must. For example, we are paid for 10 hours but we work 20 hours, just for results and for the children, not for money."
Three years ago Katiniene opened the country's first private facility, Club Skrydis ("Flight"), in a new building across town from the school. Her gymnasts continue to train at the old school, as well and as needed.
"Our new gym is small, but the atmosphere is good," she said. "We have no support from the government or sport authorities. We have only gymnastics lovers."
The entrance to the three-story Vilnius Gymnastics School
When all of Lithuania's top female gymnasts are training together at the old school, its modest provisions make progress a challenge, according to the coaches. There is only one balance beam, and no tumbling track. The temperature in the gym can drop to 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter, according to Katiniene.
Mielko and Katiniene take quiet pride in the achievements of their gymnasts during and after their careers. After competing at the 2000 Olympics, Yulia Kovalyova competed for Towson University in Maryland, and now coaches in that state. Jekaterina Kovalyova is studying in St. Petersburg, Russia. Zanevskaja is coaching in Ireland. Diana Bludova, who competed at two Worlds and two Europeans, is studying at university and coaching at the school.
During rehearsals for the school's upcoming Christmas show, Svilpaite told IG she is taking five months off to heal her sore back, but plans to try for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Svilpaite did not compete at the recent Lithuanian championships, where Ana Kohiuchovaite, one of Mielko's gymnasts, placed first all-around.
Raimundas Gedgaudas, director of the school, said Lithuanian gymnastics will benefit from new facilities that are in the planning stage.
"We are standing on the line of changes," he told IG. "We expect that the city of Vilnius will build a new gym for artistic gymnastics. I hope that, after four or five years, there will be another building and another sport center. After that, I think the future of Lithuanian gymnastics will be better."
Read more on Lithuania's practical but passionate approach to gymnastics, as well as a feature on Svilpaite, in upcoming issues of International Gymnast magazine. To subscribe,click here.
Next and final stop: Riga, Latvia!