For petite gymnast, burly wrestler it was a match made at the games

Associated Press
October 6

It's a marriage of grace with brawn. An unusual husband-and-wife team at the Asian Games has won gold medals in gymnastics and missed a bronze in wrestling.

Although dedicated to quite dissimilar sports, petite Oksana Chusovitina and burly Bakhodir Kurbanov of Uzbekistan say they are bound by an equally intense passion: love for each other.

Chusovitina, at 27 the oldest woman gymnast to compete at the Asian Games, finished Saturday with gold medals in individual vault and floor exercises and a silver on the balance beam. Kurbanov, 29, lost the bronze medal bout in 66-kilogram Greco-Roman wrestling and will return empty-handed.

"I am old. It is hard to win at my age but I am happy for my wife. If she wins it's good enough for me," said Kurbanov, who was at the Sajik Gymnasium on Saturday to see his wife's golden performance.

"We came together as a family. The medals belong to us both," said Chusovitina, squeezing her husband's arm during an interview Sunday at the Athletes Village.

"She loves me very seriously," added Kurbanov, who stands 18 centimeters (6 inches) taller than his 153-centimeter (5-foot) wife and outweighs her 43-kilogram (95-pound) frame by 27 kilograms (60 pounds).

Matches may be made in heaven, but theirs was made at the Asian Games. They met at the 1994 games in Hiroshima and were married in 1997. They have traveled together to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, 2000 Sydney Olympics and now to Busan. Under games' regulations, they stay in separate rooms.

Because of their intense training programs at the sports university in Tashkent, the couple had little opportunity to date before marriage, and used to steal time together during breakfast and dinner.

Chusovitina's Orthodox Christian parents opposed the match, because he was a wrestler and a Muslim.

"But I told them I love him. Anyway he was better than the other choices I had," said Chusovitina, an atheist and the more impish of the couple with a sharp sense of humor.

"I am the more serious one because I have to deal with her friends," Kurbanov deadpanned, rubbing his damaged ear, a hallmark of most wrestlers.

The couple said most people are surprised when they find out how mismatched their interests are.

"They think it is a fierce situation," Chusovitina said.

Actually it has worked well, they said.

"It is better to have two sportsmen as friends. Whenever we go through difficult times we understand each other," said Kurbanov.

They have a son who will be 3 years old next month. Asked if they want Alisher to be a gymnast or a wrestler, Chusovitina said: "Tennis! There is more money in that."

Kurbanov has four elder brothers, all wrestlers. He followed their footsteps naturally. He won the silver medal at the 1998 Asian Games and finished fifth in Sydney.

Chusovitina started gymnastics at age 7, watching her elder brother, also a gymnast. She began her international career with the 1990 Goodwill Games and won a gold in Barcelona in 1992. But her biggest success has come in Busan, and she says she has no intention of quitting despite her age. Her Chinese rivals here were as young as 16.

After retirement, they will get government pensions based on their past medals. But the money will not be enough to live on and Kurbanov plans to become a coach. He is also studying for an economics degree.

Chusovitina, a graduate from the physical education university, is studying for a doctoral degree and plans to become a sports teacher.

Asked if he wrestles her down during marital disagreements, Kurbanov joked: "No way! She is too strong," and then proceeded to lift her in his arms to pose for a photographer.