Former USA rhythmic gymnast discusses mental health in sport

March 23, 2022
Belicia Tang

Anfisa Kupriyanova is a former rhythmic gymnast. She devoted 12 years to the sport and was a member of the USA national team. Now three years out of gymnastics, Anfisa reflects on her competitive career and the highlights and struggles she faced during and after her time as a gymnast.

Anfisa was introduced to rhythmic gymnastics at age seven by her mother, who was a gymnast in Ukraine. Anfisa and her parents moved from Russia to the United States when she was 3. They settled in the Bay Area, where Anfisa trained for most of her gymnastics career. Towards the end of her career, she moved to Chicago to train at the North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics Center, home to many current and former national team members and Olympians. After seven months in Chicago, Anfisa competed at the Rhythmic Challenge, the annual competition that determines placement on the national team. Despite battling a severe hip injury and ongoing eating disorder, she competed well and secured her spot on the team.

“The highlight of my career really was making the national team. Because after that many years of being really injured, and just the amount of mental health issues I struggled with throughout my career, being able to get a title like that is cool.”

Ten days after making the national team, Anfisa officially announced her retirement from gymnastics. Her hip injury, which she had been dealing with since the age of 16, made it difficult for her to keep up with the rest of the team. “The tendons in my hips and abductor areas ripped off chunks of my growth plate in my pubic bone. I was supposed to get hip surgery, but the procedure was expensive and invasive, and there was a chance it wouldn’t work. So I decided not to get it.” She attributes the injury largely to being forcefully and dangerously stretched by her coach. “There was a day [when I was 16] when my coach sat on me in oversplits. I got back from that incident and competed at national qualifiers, but could not do splits because literally my legs wouldn’t open.”

In addition to her injury, Anfisa struggled with anorexia and bulimia on and off for eight years. Unfortunately, in an aesthetic sport like rhythmic gymnastics, girls face an immense amount of pressure to fit a certain body type– long-limbed, sinewy, and very thin, like a ballerina. “Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are normalized in this sport,” says Anfisa. “It would be amazing for me to say, ‘it shouldn’t matter how you look on the carpet.’ But it’s also unrealistic to say that, because when you compete at the highest level internationally, all of the national team members in almost every country are incredibly thin. There’s just a ridiculous amount of pressure [to stay thin]. If you don’t keep a certain weight, you get kicked off the team. If I wanted to go to compete, I’d need to lose a few pounds.”

The eating disorder took a large toll on Anfisa’s physical and mental health. “Health-wise I don’t think my body was able to keep up with [the eating disorder], on top of the injury. Because of [bulimia], I had acid reflux, and I needed to put a pillow under my mattress because I couldn’t just lay down, or the food would come up all the time. I also had an irregular heartbeat because of the electrolyte imbalance. Recovering from that was not easy, and while I was training I had trouble keeping my weight down.”

The injury and eating disorder were two major factors that led to Anfisa’s decision to retire on March 21, 2017– two days after her 19th birthday. Anfisa often wonders if, given the amount of abuse and mental health struggles she endured as a gymnast, she would have been happier had she left the sport earlier.

“Unfortunately I’ve had coaches before who were physically and verbally abusive. I’ve been beaten with clubs on the head, had things thrown at me, or been dehydrated to the point of almost fainting. My CD’s have been broken right before competition since that person was so angry, and my phone has been broken. It was crazy. That person honestly had problems. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have treated a 12-year-old that way. That definitely doesn’t need to happen.”

In addition to abuse at the hands of coaches, Anfisa faced enormous pressure from her mother to do gymnastics, long after her own passion for the sport had faded. “I was pressured by my mother to continue training. I did not want to. There would be many arguments between me and my mother about me not wanting to go to practice. I hated the sport. I would so much rather have been out playing lacrosse or hockey. I’m a very competitive person, but I like to be fast and aggressive, not nice and pretty and dainty like a rhythmic gymnast. It’s just not my style, as a person. So really, I was motivated to train out of fear. My mom really wanted me to do the sport, and it was like if I didn’t try to be the best, there would be consequences. Eventually I was doing it because I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I just shoved all my feelings away like a robot.”

Resenting gymnastics, but pressured out of fear to continue, Anfisa sacrificed a normal childhood and adolescence for her sport. “I would train nearly every day of the week, twice a day. Monday would be ballet in the morning for two to three hours, followed by gymnastics training for four hours. The next day I would have a private lesson, then team training. And it would alternate between the two. Before level 10, I wouldn’t have any breaks, ever. Even when I was sick, my mom would still take me to practice.”



As for school, Anfisa did independent study in high school to devote more time to gymnastics. “I did independent study, where you have a teacher but only see them once a week. They’ll give you assignments and they grade the stuff you did that week– but it’s basically like being homeschooled. I graduated high school in three years instead of four, so I could focus more on gymnastics.”

Looking back, Anfisa wishes she had been given the chance to attend normal school and live a more balanced life. “Some people really like [homeschooling], but I’m a very social person so for me it wasn’t great to be so isolated as an extrovert. I didn’t like how sheltered it made me. My mom wanted me to be homeschooled. I was so socially isolated during my most critical years of development. I think that’s what contributed to me developing severe eating disorders. I think it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had more support and balance in life. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared as much about being at the top in gymnastics.”

To this day, Anfisa wonders if it was worth it to have sacrificed so much– health, happiness, life balance– for gymnastics. Granted, there were some aspects of the sport Anfisa enjoyed. “I really loved the apparatus, and I liked being able to do really cool tricks with equipment. I liked the creative part of it, like making routine and masteries. I enjoyed traveling for competitions. I loved being with my teammates.”

She concludes, “I want to say I regret the abuse I faced because of the amount of suffering I could have avoided if I had left sooner. But at the same time, I ended up making the national team. That’s a big deal. For that reason maybe it was worth it. But if it didn’t happen, then I probably would have had regrets about staying in gymnastics for as long as I did.”

For Anfisa, leaving the sport presented an opportunity to build a new life from scratch– a process that’s posed immense challenges, but also freedom to explore life beyond gymnastics. “Towards the end of my career, I was incredibly depressed, like really really really depressed. I gave myself one last chance. I told myself, ‘Okay, maybe life isn’t actually as bad as I think it is, I just need to get out of the sport.’ When I left gymnastics, I pretty much ran away from home. I left in the middle of the night without telling my mom, and booked a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to SFO. There are reasons why I did it. My team was going to Europe [for a competition]. I got left behind– my guess is because I was bigger and needed to lose some weight, and maybe because of the injury. I didn’t tell my mom why I didn’t get picked to go. The day I left was the day my team would be going to Europe, so I took off to go to California, to sort of avoid that conversation with my mom. If I didn’t leave, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Anfisa has been living alone in the Bay Area for the past three years. Supporting herself financially and putting herself through school has not been easy. “I’ve had to switch jobs a lot based on places I lived, and I don’t have a car so it was really hard. I recently faced homelessness for a week, and it was really tricky figuring out what to do. Luckily it was only for a week, and I found a new place very quickly. But during a pandemic, being unemployed and homeless sucks.”

Though challenging, life after gymnastics has afforded Anfisa the opportunity to explore all the things she wasn’t able to do as a gymnast. “It’s been crazy. In the beginning, I felt like after leaving the sport, I needed to catch up on all of life I missed as a teenager. Everything was new, I wanted to do everything, I wanted to travel, and I met a lot of cool people. It was fun. Now, I feel like I’ve caught up, and I feel better about where I am. I live with roommates, and I go to West Valley College studying design and digital media. I’m getting ready to transfer next year.”

Anfisa has also found joy in living a more balanced life with various hobbies. “I love painting– I’m an artist. I like writing and cooking. I like learning new things and reading books. I also do powerlifting, which is really fun. Staying strong is super important to me.”

She now coaches at Bravo Rhythmics in Santa Clara, CA, and uses her personal experiences as a gymnast to shape her coaching philosophy.

“I will never ever sit on a gymnast or stretch them to the point where they’re in excruciating pain. It’s not necessary and absolutely crazy. Gentle stretching, like 30 seconds of light pushing, is okay. The way that I was stretched was not necessary. You don’t even need to be that flexible. Of course it’s nice if you have split over 180 degrees. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. The lines are nice, but you don’t need to be that flexible in order for the elements to count.”

Regarding abuse in gymnastics, Anfisa says, “For me personally, the verbal and physical abuse I went through had a lot to do with my weight. I was either eating too much, or I was fat. [The abuse] was a way of discipline, a way to instill fear in me so I’d continue to train. I think everyone has their own stories. I know there are some other girls I competed with who also went through abuse, either from parents or coaches.”

When asked whether it is possible to have a positive experience as a gymnast competing at the elite level, Anfisa says, “To think that you can’t have a positive experience while competing at the highest level is absolutely ridiculous. It is possible, and I have been able to experience that with one of my coaches. Unfortunately she wasn’t my main coach, but Stella Angelova was incredibly positive. Honestly she shaped who I am today and my character now. And that was one of my best years. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have been able to make the team and move to Chicago. And also my main coach in Chicago, Margarita Mamzina was incredible. She was super awesome and really positive, and she was also training national team members. So it is definitely possible.”

During her time as an athlete, Anfisa struggled to seek help for her eating disorder. “For me, I was scared to talk about [my eating disorder] because I wanted to be taken seriously. If I said I was going through something difficult, I was scared that if I opened up to someone, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I was terrified that was going to happen, so I never talked about it. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘dramatic’, ‘faking it’, or asking for ‘pity’. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to draw attention to myself, or that I was being selfish.”

She attributes her fear of seeking help to the prominent mental health stigma that permeates USA Gymnastics culture. “The stigma needs to be removed. There should be an opportunity for open discussion about mental illness. I don’t think it should be so much of a secret. I had to hide all my symptoms and everything. There should be more resources available for athletes to have therapy. USAG needs to have a psychology team on board for everybody, not just the national team. National team has some resources that are good– still not enough, by the way. Younger kids need to have resources available where they can talk openly and confidentially about anything they’re going through.”

Anfisa’s struggles with bulimia continued even after she retired from gymnastics. In 2018, one year after leaving gymnastics, Anfisa relapsed and lost a little over 25 pounds in less than a year. “I remember my close friends were very concerned about me. One day a couple of friends caught on and tried to stop me [from purging] and I just slammed the door on their faces. It was so unlike me and very scary. But my friends were super supportive and caring.”

When asked how she copes with her eating disorder today, Anfisa says, “I think learning to lift and getting into powerlifting is what made me change my focus. Instead of feeling weak and unmotivated to eat or feeling so guilty that I would throw up, I now focus on strength and lifting more weight. In lifting it’s different. If you don’t eat a lot, you won’t be able to lift the next day. And to me lifting heavier is more important. This motivated me to eat and I developed healthier eating habits because of it. Of course sometimes it’s hard, and I have thoughts to restrict or purge, but with therapy, I’ve found better ways of coping.”

As for her relationship with her mother, Anfisa says, “You could imagine how a mother would feel when her kid runs away from home and leaves a note saying, ‘Don’t come looking for me, I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.’ After all those years you spent training and traveling with her, and she just runs away. My mom was heartbroken that I did that.”

She continues, “Gymnastics definitely negatively impacted my relationship with my mom. My mom was a gymnast herself. She’s really into achievements, and she finds a lot of worth in herself through achievements. She was a physicist, and she is a really smart woman. She found some satisfaction in having me be her ‘trophy’. Maybe it was because she wanted to live the dreams she never ended up achieving, through me. I wish my mom was just a supportive mom. That was her job. That’s it. But unfortunately it wasn’t that way. She was like my coach and yelled at me a lot for being fat. I don’t think I had a good motherly relationship with her.”

When asked why her mother did not intervene when she witnessed the abuse Anfisa was facing at the hands of coaches, Anfisa says, “Sometimes, the person you would expect to be supportive of a child going through something like that, may be participants in the [abuse] as well. Maybe she thought that’s how it’s done, that’s just how [sports] is. Maybe the parent just wants it more than the kid.”

In spite of everything, Anfisa learned a great deal from her time as a gymnast. “I came out a lot wiser than my age. I feel like I’ve lived a lot for someone who’s only 22 years old. I walked away from gymnastics with a greater understanding of my purpose in life– which is just to enjoy it, nothing more than that. When disaster does happen– I faced homelessness literally a couple months ago– I know I’ll be fine, and that I’ll be prepared to do whatever I can to get on my feet. The sport taught me to have that resilience, to keep fighting and never give up in life, so that’s a good lesson I learned from gymnastics. But still, I think I would enjoy life a bit more if I were more ‘innocent’, just slightly.”

When asked what advice she would offer competitive gymnasts, Anfisa says, “Take care of yourself and your health. If something is going on, it’s good to talk about it, whether it’s with a therapist or parent, or someone you can trust. Sport is sport. Once you’re done, all you have is your health. Don’t ruin your mental or physical health, because it’s not worth it. It’s also important to remember that gymnastics isn’t everything, and that there really is a whole world out there outside the sport.”



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