Russia’s women’s gymnastics program is known for producing very talented gymnasts who achieve remarkable fanfare amongst gymnastics fans, but it is also a program dominated by youngsters. Of the 14 gymnasts on Russia’s main national team, 11 of them have not yet celebrated their 19th birthday.
Even when the program produces examples of older gymnasts maintaining their places in the Russian program, it is usually gymnasts like Angelina Melnikova and Anastasia Ilyankova. Olympic veterans who have past success in major, international competition and are strong candidates for future team assignments.
Yulia Biryulya is a major exception to all of this. She has become a fascinating gymnast to watch not because she is one of the leaders of the Russian program, but her reluctance to be pushed out it. Biryulya is the gymnast who continues to compete even while most of the gymnasts from her generation have left the sport. It is not Yulia’s age which makes her story so compelling, but that for most gymnasts who have had a career like Biryulya’s, they would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.
Gymnasts retire for a wide variety of reasons. Much of the time it is injury, fatigue and physical exhaustion. But often times it is because they realize their career has flatlined. That major team assignments like the World Championships or Olympics are now out of reach, and the only future they have in the sport is spending their days watching younger gymnasts enjoy the spotlight. For many gymnasts, they are facing these prospects while they are in their early 20s and timing is right for them to venture into something new. Not cling to life in an athletic career that is going in the wrong direction.
Yet more than anyone, Yulia Biryulya has defied that.
When Yulia Biryulya made her first appearance as a Junior at the Russian National Championships, Anna Pavlova was still competing for the Russian program. When Biryulya joined the Russian ranks as a senior-eligible gymnast a few years later, Ksenia Afanasyeva was still competing for Russia at the World Championships.
For 12 years Yulia has been a regular attendee at the major Russian domestic competitions. In that time she has never competed in an Olympic Games, World Championships, European Championships or World Cup. Biryulya was sent to compete in a notable competition outside of Russia on just one occasion, a competition in Tbilisi, Georgia that was only attended by countries that were former members of the Soviet Union.
But even then, Biryulya was not allowed to represent Russia at this competition. Russia had already reached the maximum number of gymnasts per program, so Yulia competed under the name of her city and did not wear Russian warmups during her medal ceremony. On only a handful of occasions have Russian coaches considered her for a spot on the National Team. And lastly, in the individual events Yulia Biryulya has never won gold or even a silver medal at the national level competitions that Russian gymnasts compete in.
In spite of all of that, Yulia has proven one thing. That nothing will stop her from trying. Ever since her first appearance at the Junior Russian Championships back in 2012, Biryulya has competed in nearly every Russian Cup and Russian Championships since then.
It should be noted that Biryulya was not the oldest gymnast competing at the 2023 Russian Championships. For the second year in a row she won a bronze medal on vault while the silver medalist was the same gymnast who happens to be even older than her. The gymnast in question was Eleonora Afanasyeva-Goryunova, who is three years older, but also has two children. Eleonora gave birth to her second child in 2021 only to win medals at the National Championships in 2022 and 2023.
Eleonora Afanasyeva-Goryunova and Yulia Biryulya are impressive examples of longevity, but showcase it in very different ways. Eleonora is the recent feel good story who has achieved unexpected success in the past two years. Yulia Biryulya is the gymnast who year after year, I expect her to fade away because that’s what gymnasts in her situation usually do. Then year after year Yulia comes back.
Even though Eleonora is older than Yulia, it is Yulia who has significantly more appearances in Russian domestic competition. Because Yulia Biryulya is as persistent as they come and rarely misses a competition, and she has maintained that consistency for the entirety of her career. From her senior debut in 2015 to 2023, Yulia Biryulya has participated in every Russian Championships and Russian Cup with the exception of 2017. Attending 14 of 16 possible competitions in the process.
Although it should be noted that 2017 was hardly a bad year for Biryulya. Instead, she dominated the regional Russian Championships and it was in 2017 that she was able to compete in Georgia. The closest competition she has ever earned to an international assignment. Yulia was also highly active as a junior, frequently attending the junior division of these top competitions from 2012 to 2014.
For the Olympic Games the presence of Oksana Chusovitina is as certain as death and taxes. But for major Russian domestic events, it is death, taxes, and Yulia Biryulya.
What Biryulya has accomplished is remarkable. Her ability to consistently appear in both junior and senior competition eluded her contemporary Eleonora Afanasyeva-Goryunova. And considering the sheer number of gymnasts who earned prestigious international assignments but decided enough was enough and they couldn’t go on, Yulia Biryulya never earned such an assignment and for 12 years she has never allowed that to discourage her.
Yulia Biryulya is very much unlike that of Eleonora Afanasyeva-Goryunova. Eleonora is similar in nature to Oksana Chusovitina, a gymnast who intentionally made the decision that her time had come to retire, but after spending time on the sideline decided she wanted to come back. Yulia Biryulya in contrast never went that route. Biryulya is the example of a gymnast who has the truest Olympic spirt and such the heart of a competitor, she refuses to walk away from the sport. Not even for a brief moment.
None of this is to make Yulia Biryulya come off as a glorified participant. Previously I said that Yulia never won a silver or gold in the individual events. But she has won a bronze medal on five different occasions. She is a standout on vault and is so good on this apparatus that Biryulya has not missed a vault finals of any kind since 2016. But the craziest part of this story is that Biryulya appears to be getting better with age.
In her last five appearances in vault finals she has won a bronze medal on four different occasions in a streak that goes all the way back to the beginning of 2021. From 2019 to 2023 she has eight appearances in vault finals and finished 4th or better 75% of the time. At a time when Yulia Biryulya’s career was supposed to be fading, she is starting to hit her stride. Which makes her career reminiscent of another Russian gymnast.
Lilia Akhaimova spent five years as a lower ranking member of the Russian program before suddenly exploding onto the scene with two appearances at the World Championships and later became an Olympic gold medalist. There is also the career of Tatiana Tuzhikova, a Russian gymnast from the 1980s who competed for what was then the Soviet Union.
Tuzhikova recorded 15 total appearances at the USSR Championships, USSR Cup, and the Russian Championships. The events that were the predecessor to the modern-day Russian Cup and Russian Championships. Tuzhikova competed at these competitions more often than any other Soviet gymnast of the 1980s. Tatiana did so while never earning any kind of international assignment, and unlike even Yulia Biryulya, Tatiana Tuzhikova never won an individual medal in national-level domestic competition.
Tuzhikova was the low ranking Soviet gymnast until she suddenly wasn’t. Tatiana went on a surprise run in 1987 where she made the Soviet World Championships team. Her placement in the Soviet starting lineup earned her a silver medal in the team competition, but the real success was Tuzhikova successfully entered her name into the Code of Points. Today Tuzhikova’s legacy lives on by being the namesake of one of the most difficult skills on floor.
While I don’t feel it is fair to say Yulia Biryulya is going to be the next Lilia Akhaimova or Tatiana Tuzhikova, their stories are perhaps an answer as to what possibly motivates Biryulya. That no matter how small their chance may be, there is always a possibility a gymnast can achieve her dream if she never stops trying.
But ultimately, what makes Yulia Biryulya so commendable and makes me respect her so much is her willingness to remain at this level after all these years. To be an Olympian a gymnast must truly love the sport. But then you get examples like Yulia Biryulya who is clearly so passionate about competing and giving the sport everything she has, that her heart embodies the Olympic spirit more than even the Olympians themselves.
Yulia Biryulya is an unusual gymnast caught up in the midst of an era that is anything but normal. The current time period is defined by the tragedy of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and resulting war. It is an era where Russian gymnasts are “suffering” under the weight of a ban from international sporting events, their “suffering” is trivial compared to what Ukrainians are experiencing who can tell their Russian counterparts what “real” suffering is.
The war has brought an uncomfortable truth to the forefront. That Russia’s Olympic sports are used as propaganda tools by Vladimir Putin, and every medal Russia wins plus the more popular Russian gymnasts become to non-Russian audiences, it only empowers the propaganda value associated with the program.
Even without making the connection between Putin, propaganda, and the Olympic sports, there is still an uneasy feeling to be had when one watches Russian gymnasts compete. It means watching gymnasts perform knowing they are working on routines and upgrades that may never be scored in an international setting. Or as individuals, some are in the best years of their careers in what will ultimately be treated as “lost” years. This all casts a dark cloud around every Russian gymnast when she competes in domestic competition.
But Yulia Biryulya is different. Because her success and impact has been limited to domestic competition, she is the one gymnast in the entire program who is able to continue on as if her career is unaffected. Yulia was at the pinnacle of her success before the ban went into effect, and is continuing to experience it even after the ban was implemented. Unlike other leading Russian gymnasts, Yulia competes without that dark cloud following her around.
With Yulia Biryulya, she’s one of the last remaining Russian gymnasts where it is still enjoyable to watch her perform. It doesn’t come with the thought that her career is currently being ruined by a (well justified) ban on Russian athletes. As a perennial one-event bronze medalist at the Russian Championships, she hardly registers as a leading sports figure that invokes questions as to whether her success is a propaganda win for Putin. And despite her being one of the most active Russian gymnasts on social media, I’ve never seen Yulia publicly link herself to pro-war symbolism which has been an issue for many of Russia’s top gymnasts.
Yulia Biryulya is such a low profile gymnast that when she competes at the major Russian domestic championships, at one point she went five consecutive years while using the same two leotards for her appearances in non-team events.
But most importantly, she’s one of those athletes who appears to love the sport more than anyone, which makes me appreciate her as an athlete. How else do you explain a gymnast who continues to stick around despite being relegated to the lowest tier of the Russian national program? The athletes with true heart are the ones I love following the most and Yulia Biryulya certainly qualifies.
During the 2023 Russian Championships a video of Yulia Biryulya’s medal winning vault achieved 6K views on Twitter. While that hardly registers as going viral, for a gymnast like Yulia she hadn’t really seen such attention like that before. The commentary was overwhelmingly positive with fans arguing she had been underscored. For once, fans were starting to take notice of her even if it was just a tiny bit of recognition. After giving the sport her full dedication for 12 years, this kind of attention was long overdue.