The Arrival of Anastasia Motak

Consider this article an apology. Six weeks ago I wrote an article previewing the 2020 European Championships and focused on Ukraine’s medal prospects and not once did I mention Anastasia Motak. I’d like to say “like everyone else, I didn’t see Motak coming” but that would be inaccurate. Shortly before I wrote that preview I had noticed the rise of Motak as she seemed to be getting mentioned more and more in cyrillic-language news sites/social media.

If this were any other gymnast I wouldn’t be kicking myself like this, but this was a gymnast I had specifically noticed and still excluded her anyway. I even wrote a second article on the history of Ukrainian gymnastics where I doubled down on Anastasia Bachynska and Diana Varinska, hailing them as the gymnasts who would carry Ukraine for the foreseeable future.

The 2020 European Championships came and the 2020 European Championships went, but it is not Varinska or Bachynska who delivered medals for Ukraine. They combined for only two appearances in Event Finals and neither won a medal. Meanwhile Anastasia Motak single-handedly appeared in three event finals, and won medals in two of them. How would Motak have fared had there been an All-Around finals? Looking at the qualification scores, Motak would have been the #3 gymnast behind a pair of Romanians after country limits are applied. Not only did Motak put up the higher qualification score than Bachynska, she had the highest Ukrainian score on vault and bars as well as the second highest score on beam.

Even with all that in mind, I would still exercise caution before proclaiming Motak as the new leader of the Ukrainian program. Varinska had a recent COVID-19 diagnosis and it is not unreasonable to assume it significantly impacted her performance. And as recent events in the Romanian program (Larisa Iordache and Denisa Golgota) have demonstrated, just because a young first-year senior achieved breakout success at the European Championships by winning two medals, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is the gymnast of the future.

But at the very least, Anastasia Motak has already proven that she is special. She carried herself well as seen by the number of medals she won. But Motak also carried herself well even as things didn’t go her way. During Team Finals Motak did not achieve the same level of success she had enjoyed during the qualification round. Most notably, she recorded a fall on the balance beam.

As the result was announced, Motak had a camera stuck in her face as the television broadcasters tried to capture her reaction to the disappointing score. On one hand, it is important for the media to capture the mood of every routine, but it can also be cruel to the gymnasts in the aftermath of a bad routine. Motak was stuck in a lose-lose situation. It would be inappropriate for Motak to smile and wave at the camera as she had just scored a 11.833 and there was nothing to celebrate. But to openly sulk in front of the camera is unsportsmanlike and unbecoming of a role model.

As the seconds ticked by, the moment only became more awkward for Motak as she had to quickly figure out what to do. In a sport that frequently puts athletes in stressful situations and in a competition that was coming down to the wire between two iconic programs, the camera situation was just one more problem for a gymnast who was already dealing with so much.

All of this is happening to a gymnast who is a first-year senior, one month past her 16th birthday, and is the youngest athlete in the entire competition. And yet Motak conducted herself like a seasoned veteran. Giving only the smallest acknowledgment to the camera as she walked first to the left and then to the right. Her subtle way of communicating to the camera operator “please leave me alone.”

Motak working to intentionally conduct herself in this way demonstrates that this is a young gymnast who understands she is in the limelight. She cares about her image and the way it is projected. What this particular moment has proven is that Anastasia Motak is a gymnast fans can be proud of for how she conducts herself both on and off the apparatus.

But more importantly than that, Anastasia Motak was in the middle of a devastating moment and at no point did she appear to be unraveled by it. When a young gymnast commits a critical error for the first time on the world stage, it is one of the most important moments of her career. This is the point in which they are most likely to start doubting themselves, lose confidence, and the idea starts to formulate that maybe they aren’t cut out for the senior level.

Every successful gymnast will experience it, what is important is how quickly they can get past it. For as unpleasant as having a camera stuck in your face must feel for a gymnast who just scored an 11.833, it wasn’t in vain. It showed a 16 year old girl who wanted nothing more than to be invisible, but it also showed a gymnast who was in complete control of her surroundings.

It is not unusual to see first-year seniors deployed in a high-stakes competition for the first time come off looking like a deer caught in the headlights. They usually exhibit signs of nervousness while giving off the uneasy feeling that maybe they don’t belong in this competition hall. Anastasia Motak was the opposite. Anytime she was captured on camera during the 2020 European Championships, Motak appeared calm and collected. When Motak fell on beam, the next thing she did was put it behind her and only looked forward. And look forward she did.

Motak’s brilliant performance in Event Finals looks even more impressive considering the mental composure that had gone along with it. Anastasia had completely brushed away the events from the day prior as if they had never occurred. One of her medals came in the very event she fell on during Team Finals. Anastasia Motak is a gymnast who bounces back.

Before the 2020 European Championships, “Anastasia Motak” was a name that was almost nowhere to be found on the English-speaking Gymternet. Now that the 2020 European Championships are over, everyone is talking about her. Anastasia Motak isn’t just a winner, she wins with style.

If the 2020 European Championships marked the arrival of Anastasia Motak as a household name to members of the Gymternet, it was also the competition where fans first became aware of Anastasia’s peculiar habit. On balance beam she takes unusually long pauses right before she commits herself to a series.

Many fans have found these pauses delightful as Motak’s beam pauses are a reminder to past days when beam routines had more emphasis on choreography and graceful body movement. As opposed to the modern era where choreography is frequently sacrificed in favor of using that time to increase a D-Score. But other fans have found it difficult to comprehend the pauses without going into a panic over the time limit.

But what everyone seems to agree on, it seems to add a comical edge to Motak’s gymnastics. It is a matter of “when” not “if” someone on YouTube compiles every one of Motak’s pauses into a ten minute video. In a sport that is built around repetition and doing the exact same thing over and over again, Motak is the unusual example of a gymnast who fans don’t know what to expect. Fans watching a Motak beam routine are going to constantly be asking themselves, “how many seconds will she take” as Anastasia performs another one of her trademark pauses.

Anastasia Motak is a throwback to another style of gymnastics that has since fallen out of favor. Not only was Motak the youngest gymnast competing at the 2020 European Championships, she was noticeably smaller than everyone else. In a sport where young athletes and small athletes are frequently singled out and given extra attention, Motak is both. It is another dimension to her story that will shape how Anastasia is perceived by fans and judges, while also adding to the pressure that is placed on her.

Part of that pressure includes being the possible new leader of the Ukrainian program. Based on the results of the most recent competition, it is a fair to call her the new leader of Ukrainian gymnastics. But based on what we saw with Larisa Iordache and Denisa Golgota, perhaps it is better to wait and see before bestowing such a title on a 16 year old and adding to the pressure being placed on her.

There are many things to like about Motak. Her talent, her unique style, the way she composes herself, and her unexpected rise. She even has a name that makes things easy for the Gymternet. The cyrillic version of Motak is Мотак, making it rather easy to identify her in Ukrainian/Russian news sources.

Before the 2020 European Championships, Anastasia Motak was an overlooked gymnast. The gymnast who had finished 4th on vault at the 2019 Junior World Championships and remained relatively obscure is the breakout star of the 2020 European Championships. Motak has officially arrived and fans are going to continue talking about her as the next European Championships are just four months away. But regardless of where her career leads, the December 19, 2020 creation date of Motak’s Wikipedia page will forever mark the 2020 European Championships as the moment Anastasia Motak arrived.

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