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by Athlete Voices Podcast

Polina Volchek, also known as Pink Puma, has inhabited the brutal environment of sport and show business industries for over 25 years. Her resume includes various sports, dance styles, performances and even martial arts.

At the age of 17, Polina gained the title of “Master of Sports at the International Level”. Throughout her career, Polina became 3x Champion of Russia in Rhythmic Gymnastics, 4x World Pole Sport and Artistic Pole Champion, was a multiple-time winner of national and international competitions in Pole Sports, Dance, Art, and Fitness in USA, Russia, and all around the world. Polina is an ex-soloist at Cirque du Soleil and producer of the international performance project, “Vertical.Show”. She is also the founder of the American Pole League and Federation of Pole Sports and Aerial Gymnastics of Russia. She is was rewarded the “Lifetime Achievement 2018” award by the International Pole Sports Federation, “Producer of Theatrical and Performance Arts” and “Master of Sports Governance” degrees. Currently she is an in-demand online coach and world renowned expert in pole, aerial sports and performance arts.

Q: I know you had a rhythmic gymnastics background before circus, right?

A: That is correct. I started [rhythmic gymnastics] when I was seven years old. I spent about 10 years in professional sports and made the national team. I did both individual and group [rhythmic], but I was more successful in group. We won the Russian national competitions three times.

Q: So you did rhythmic for 10 years, and then you switched to circus arts?

A: Yeah, it happened mostly accidentally, after I finished my professional sports career. I was guessing where should I move to, what should I do, and what skills I needed to develop in order to continue pushing myself to new heights. I was expecting myself to be a coach for gymnastics, and that was my main direction after [rhythmic]. But somehow, things brought me into dance first, and the dance team that I was a part of was basically circus. So I started to see a lot of circus performers and I met many artists and was so inspired by what they do and how they perform. I wanted to develop myself into a good dancer, but most of all, I wanted to develop myself into a great artist. 

Q: Tell me about how your rhythmic gymnastics background helped you in circus. 

A: That helps a lot pretty much everywhere, even in regular daily life, because of posture, flexibility, grace, everything that comes with this type of sport. It is amazing for fundamentals. The transition to circus was only complicated because I was missing the upper body strength. 

Q: So when you were training for circus, did you go to a circus school? Or did you take classes by yourself?

A: I was lucky enough to be trained by the best artists with whom I was in the show as a dancer, at that time. So many talented people helped me throughout my performance career or in the circus type shows. Lots of them helped me to build up my upper body strength. Again, even some tricks that I still perform these days, I was taught by these people over 15 years ago already.

Q: What was your original circus speciality?

A: My original specialty was actually hula hoops, and this is still one of the acts that I do and am pretty strong at. It has a mix of traditional circus and gymnastics. 

Q: How many hoops could you juggle on your body?

A: I usually do four on my arms at the same time, and throughout my body would be about four. So it would be eight in total. But when we’re talking about the whole bunch, it would be over 30 of them at the same time. That’s usually the final trick that you see. We can open it up like a beautiful butterfly, and then you spin it for about 15 seconds or so.

Q: What was your rhythmic gymnastics training like?

A: We trained for pretty much the full day. The morning hours were left for studying at school. From 2pm to 7pm, sometimes till 8pm, we were busy at the gym, for six days per week. When we were getting ready for the national competitions, we had to study remotely and switched into two trainings per day. We did morning training from 9am, sometimes from 8am, until around 1pm or 2pm, and then we had about a one hour break, and then we continued until 8pm with a second rehearsal. It was very tough, very intense. I remember we had to do 10 clean run throughs without losing [the apparatus]. Sometimes it was barely possible because if you lose the ball somewhere on the way, you still have to finish the routine, but you know that [that routine] was not gonna be rewarded. So I remember days when we had to go over 30 run throughs just to get it. 

Q: There’s a stereotype of Eastern European training. It’s very harsh, and the coaches are yelling a lot. Was that your experience?

A: Absolutely, 100%. Yes, it was actually very harsh. And I strongly believe that Russian school, whether in ballet, circus or gymnastics, is the best in the world just because of their approach. We have a very high level of professionalism within these fields. Whenever you get to this level, you have to make sure you do your best, or maybe even more than you can do, because most of the time we are on the border of things we think we are capable of. But we still have to keep on going, because every time you push the envelope, you see that you can go further and further. I would say that besides being a really good school of sport, it is a really good school of life.

Q: How long were you performing with the dance group after rhythmic?

A: Probably in total for around seven years or so. So I started the first contract, which was about six months. I figured that I had to be open to opportunities, just to keep exploring, keep enjoying what I do. I was able to stay in the theater for hours before and after the show to practice the things that I needed to work on. 

Q: When did you start pole sport? 

A: That was years and years later. I started in 2011, and I was about 25 years old. I started competing in pole pretty much right away. I knew that I was gonna go for something serious in the sport, so I didn’t take a chance to mess around with it. From the very first training, I decided that I had to go for the World Championships no matter what. So I really worked hard. Within a couple of months, I was attending the first competition, and this was a European Championships, and I got third place. In the year of 2012, I was getting more and more medals. I was winning or placed in every championship that I attended. In 2012, I competed in about 10 or 12 competitions. And I kept competing pretty much until the pandemic started. 

Q: Who trained you for pole?

A: For pole I had to train on my own. I watched videos, but most of all I learned as I tried. And since I already had a big movement vocabulary, I was able to create something that works for my body and unique, interesting transitions into certain moves. 

Q: How do you deal with nerves before a big show or a competition? 

A: My best advice is, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you feel anxiety before you go on stage, start doing it as your daily practice. Sign up for more competitions, do more live performances. So the next time you go on the stage, you do not feel a thing because you’ve already been to over tens or hundreds or thousands of the same type of performances. Otherwise, you would never gain the skill that would help you to go through your nerves. 

Q: How young do people around the world start pole sport training? 

A: I would say around the world, they start from six years old. It’s very important to bring it to the American audience as well, so we’re really trying to grow some novice athletes in the States, too. It’s important to start doing these things when kids are young, when they have all the abilities to learn and explore their body limits. It’s pretty much like kids doing gymnastics or acrobatics. We’re really trying to switch the perspectives in people’s minds about pole as a sport. Our goal is to make sure people are comfortable with kids doing pole sport, because it’s very healthy, it makes the body strong, it helps to develop flexibility, coordination, and it’s very good for artistic skills like acting. It has it all. 

Q: I talked to one pole teacher, and she said that it’s common, at least in America, for people to start pole later because of pole dance’s connotation of being for women, rather than girls. 

A: These are stereotypes, and that’s something that we’re really trying to fight in the United States, because all other kids all around the world have been doing pole very successfully from six years old and up. 

Q: What is your goal with pole and circus? 

A: The goal is to enjoy whatever I’m doing with my body, as long as I can do it. I love performing so I want to do it as long as I’m capable and enjoying the process. The interaction with the audience is priceless. And that’s the best when you are actually on the stage, not behind the stage. These days, I do a lot of organizational work, so I compete less than before, but I bring more opportunities for people to compete and to qualify for international events. So that’s the goal. 

Q: I just turned 25 yesterday. It’s not too late for me to try pole, right? 

A: I started when I was 25. So it’s not, it’s never too late. As I said, I know amazing athletes that started in their 60s. And they are now the best in the world in their age categories.

Q: What advice would you say the younger generation of pole sport athletes?

A: Try something new. Do not be afraid to go to something unknown. Keep trying. And in order to support young athletes and the best athletes of pole in the States, we have Federations and leagues. So I invite everyone into the American Pole League. All together, we’re gonna train, compete, and attend huge international tournaments, just to bring the sport of pole and our athletes into totally different level. So that’s my advice. Do not be afraid. Keep trying, and bring your friends and kids into the sport, because it’s amazing.