His body hangs motionless as an anticipated silence hushes the crowd. For a brief second he draws a breath, and then suddenly every muscle in his body contracts as he lifts himself up so he’s parallel to the ground. With a release of tension his body swings around and then halts upside down in midair. His arms grip two rings while his body stands perfectly straight as he looks down at the mat, 5.75 metres below him.
Although there is no tackling, dribbling, or fancy footwork, this sport requires just as much strength, passion, and practice. It is the perfect blend of masculine grace and power. It is men’s gymnastics.
“It is a sport of force, resistance, flexibility, and coordination. Here in Argentina a lot of people don’t know about it because we put great importance on team sports like football, hockey, and basketball. However, I think it is an excellent sport that can only add to your ability in other sports. Gymnastics prepares you for everything. It is hard, but a lot of fun” says Argentine gymnast Federico Molinari.
From a young age Molinari has been swinging around bars, tumbling across mats, and hanging from rings. But now for the first time in his career he will get the chance to perform on the world’s biggest stage, the London 2012 Summer Olympics.
“It is a great honour but at the same time a large responsibility as I will be joining all the other athletes who are representing their countries,” says Molinari. “But more than anything it is an honour.”
The 28-year-old gymnast competed at the Pre-Olympic qualifiers back in January of 2012 and ranked high enough to earn a ticket to the Olympics. Molinari says “everything became a blur” as he stepped off the mat knowing he’d accomplished his goal. He remembers only individual scenes, running over to hug his long-time girlfriend Paula and coach Vladimir Makarian. In a state of shock he says it was like watching a movie playing in his head: “It is a life-long dream fulfilled.”
Born in San Jorge, Santa Fe, Molinari was immediately thrown into the world of gymnastics as both his parents are coaches. “Because both my parents are coaches I spent all my time in the local Club Atlético, playing football, basketball, and tennis. When I was nine my father told me I had to choose between gymnastics and the other sports,” he says.
For Molinari the choice was simple. “I left the other sports to focus on gymnastics so I could get to a higher level,” he remembers. “In San Jorge gymnastics is a big sport. We have always had a lot of good gymnasts and there isn’t this stereotype of gymnastics being a girls only sport.”
From then on he focused on gymnastics as he traveled around the world with his father practising and competing. “My dad was a very good coach. Currently he continues to be my coach not here in Buenos Aires, he lives in San Jorge, but he helps me with all the planning. We were like a team, always aware of working together. We had many conflicts also, but things like that I think are normal. He is a very good coach.”
In 1997, Molinari won his first international medal at the South American Championships in Santiago, Chile. He won three bronze medals and picked up a silver in the rings, which would quickly become his strongest event. “I like other apparatuses like the parallel bars, but the rings are perfect for me physically. It is where my body excels the most,” he says.
In 2002, he moved to Buenos Aires to enroll in the National Centre for High Performance Sports where he met his new coach Vladimir Makarian. “He is 74 years old and has plenty of experience but he also understands modern gymnastics. I have learned many things from him. He is a person of few words but what he says means a lot.”
Although the training was much more intense, Molinari quickly adapted and in 2003 attended his first Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic. Traveling the world allowed him to see and experience many different cultures, but Molinari says there were times when he missed his family. “When I would travel for more than a couple of weeks I found I missed my girlfriend, family, and friends,” says Molinari. However, it wasn’t until 2005 that he would realise just how important the love and support of his family really was.
“I had to have an operation on my shoulder and after three months of rehabilitation it was still not better,” he says. Molinari needed a second operation after the first did not successfully heal a lesion in his right shoulder. But months after the second operation and with hundreds of pesos spent on rehabilitation with no results, Molinari was on the verge of leaving gymnastics forever.
“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” he says. “At that moment I did not have the motivation to keep going. I had tried rehabilitation, training, and nothing worked, I was depressed. I lost my love for gymnastics. It’s funny how lost you can become.”
Then unexpectedly, he met Paula who, along with his parents, helped him recover. “Thanks to her and my parents I recovered and returned to gymnastics. My family has always been there for me, even financially. If it was not for my family I would have had to leave gymnastics a long time ago to find a job which pays more. But they have also been there for me emotionally. My family and Paula are the biggest reason I recovered.”
Paula will soon be his wife after seven years of dating. Although it was not without more injury and difficulty, Molinari worked his way back onto the international scale and slowly chipped away at his goal of someday being an Olympic athlete.
In 2008, Molinari came very close to making it to the Beijing Olympics, but an injury to his leg stopped him just short of his goal. “I hurt a ligament in my knee more or less a month before the Olympics. The doctors told me I couldn’t compete equally with the injured knee so that was the end. Although it still bothers me a bit I knew this year when I went to the qualifications that I had the experience and I could make it.”
With grim determination he pushed through and has been rewarded today with a spot on the roster of athletes representing Argentina in London, England. “Right now I am trying to keep calm and maintain my confidence,” says Molinari, who is coming off of a gold medal at the 2012 Pan-American Championships in Medellín, Colombia. “It is all very mental so I am concentrating on my confidence. I am not thinking at all about what has happened in the past but instead I am thinking about what I see happening in the future.”
For the past few months he has been training from 9.00am to 12.30pm from Monday to Saturday, using the afternoons to recuperate and rest mentally as well as physically. On the 16th July he flew across the Atlantic Ocean landing in Spain for the final stage of training. Once adjusted to the time difference he hopped on board a quick flight over to England on the 24th July.
Soon he will don the blue and white uniform as he walks into a stadium of thousands of cheering fans, with millions more watching on TV, as part of the parade of athletes in the 27th July opening ceremony. Then, less than 24 hours later, at 11:00 am he will swing onto the rings to compete. “The best eight move onto the finals [on 6th August],” says Molinari. “If I get a medal after that it would be incredible, a very very very important moment for me and everyone who’s ever supported me. It would be just absolutely incredible.”