I am pleased to introduce Iana Vroublevskaia - former Russian rhythmic gymnast and currently coach in Mauritius running the very first RG school on the island. Iana is going to share with us her fascinating story from the days when she competed in Russia, to present day challenges of developing RG on an African island. For the past 20 years, Iana has worked abroad not only as an RG coach, but also in choreography, fitness, modelling and performance shows. In this interview, she will tell us what it was like to train in Russia, how the sport has evolved since her competitive days, how she set up her own school on a remote island off the African coast, her ambitions and dreams.
Iana Vroublevskaia was born in 1976 in St Petersburg, Russia (then Leningrad, USSR) to Ukrainian parents with Polish ancestry, hence her surname is Polish. She started training RG at the age of 5 and earned the rank ‘Master of Sport RG’ in 1992. She studied in a French high-school and considered pursuing linguistics, but she decided to dedicate herself to rhythmic gymnastics. Iana started competing in group with the Lesgaft University team, St Petersburg and became champion of Russia in 1993 and 1994. She ended her competitive career due to a back injury, after which she spent a year coaching RG in Italy. She lived in Dubai for 10 years, when she had her two sons, and moved to Mauritius in 2012. Mauritius is a holiday island located in the Indian Ocean, 1100km from Madagascar (Africa). Starting from scratch, Iana established her own RG school on the island and 9 years later, she now has more than 100 pupils, and is teaching a second generation of rhythmic gymnasts. Her efforts to develop the sport have not been unnoticed, and Iana won the award of Africa's Most influential Women in Business and Government Country - Sports Sector, in three consecutive years: 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Interview with Iana Vroublevskaia
1. What was it like training RG in Russia?
There is a massive amount of girls doing rhythmic gymnastics in Russia. Achieving high results does not depend only on your skills, but being at the right time, in the right place, with the right coach, in a good shape (with no traumas) and so on, it’s a puzzle that comes together one day.
My luck was to be introduced to a very good coach (Inna Bystrova) who was composing a new group and I was selected to join. I admire her talent and the work she has done over the years with team Japan, bringing them from average level to world-top contestants. I am also grateful to all my other coaches/choreographers and dance professionals that I met and had an opportunity to work with.
After our Lesgaft University team became champion of Russia, several girls from the top teams could go through selections to be in one of the teams to represent Russia. However, my objective was to finish my studies, and in any case, I could not fit to the new standard for the groups - height around 175cm and extreme flexibility. I [also] had a back trauma during diving exams in University and my coach proposed me to have my post rehabilitation time to spend in Italy, coaching at the gym school. This is how I ended my RG career as a gymnast, went into coaching /composing/shows and had contracts ready for me before I even ended my studies. I left Russia in 1999 for an international contract the day after I received my Magister’s [Master’s] diploma. Ever since, I only go back for holidays to see my parents and meet up with old friends.
2. How do you think competitive RG has changed since the 1990s?
It’s changed a lot. It sounds unbelievable but I still remember when we were competing with live music (accompaniment was by a pianist). Judges had manual scoring boards for up to 10.00 and had to display a note after each performance. Leotards had no sparkles and could feature max 3 colors.
The ambiance at competitions was different, the spectators - a lot more receptive and supportive to any nation, we had a different “energy”. Talented gymnasts and coaches we always had, but rules have changed, so the RG adapted to the imposed rules, the judging got way more complicated and this is one of the reasons we lost spectators.
Somehow watching RG today, you get more stress than enjoying their performance. I am for progress, RG is still a young sport, but I find it’s losing its soul and drifting from [its] origins. It is stuffed with difficulties leaving no room for choreography, expression, and flow with the music. I hope that the new rules would help to find a right balance.
3. How did you decide to move to Mauritius and coach RG there?
Before coming to Mauritius, I was in Dubai and could not work in my field. I also became a full-time mum of two boys. Due to family reasons we moved to Mauritius. My personal life was not working the way I have imagined it and I was losing myself as a person. It was long overdue to get back to myself and decide to live differently.
4. What was the process of setting up your own RG school in Mauritius?
There was no gymnastics federation in Mauritius and rhythmic gymnastics was not known at all. Only a couple of clubs with a mix of artistic, tumbling and school-type gymnastics existed on the island. With the help of a friend and a ‘Non-objection letter to develop gymnastics in a country’ from the Ministry of Sports, I opened SportDance Ltd - a private school to launch and promote RG in Mauritius.
5. What were some of the challenges of opening your own school?
You should ask what challenges I did not have! There would be no short answer. The start was not an easy one. No federation, no dedicated halls to practice, no equipment for RG in a country, no knowledge among local population about the RG sport, no other coaches.
My first rented halls were small dance studios. Then we converted a car showroom into a gym to have a higher ceiling. My first recruitments and RG advertising were done in a promotional area of supermarkets! I was [also] performing on stage during cultural shows, participating in photoshoots to raise awareness and attention to a new sport on the island. After I had the first group registered it went fast with “word of mouth” advertising. The girls were doing their first RG displays in schools and bringing many friends.
A few years later I had 100 gymnasts and I was still alone as an RG coach. At the same time, I had a difficult and long divorce procedure. At some point I detected a few gymnasts with potential, I started selection and created the team for competitive training. I had to adapt my [coaching] practice and raise the bar gradually. If I used our Russian system right away, I bet I would not have anyone survived in my school! Luckily, I already had experience in other countries and could find a different approach.
In December 2019 we had our first Mauritian RG gymnast to participate in Dubai International competition - DuGym Cup. She won the first place in her category and it motivated many Mauritian gymnasts.
When you start a project from zero in a foreign country, your qualifications and love for sport is not enough, you have to take into consideration its cultural background, people, their interests and their lifestyle, meet the right people etc., [It requires] lots of patience and persistence. Rhythmic Gymnastics in Mauritius is still a challenging project to run. There is still no recognized Gymnastics Federation in the country.
6. How do you find the RG community in south-east Africa?
Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean and island life is very different from European [life]. I established relationships with neighbors - Reunion island (France), where RG started just a year earlier than in Mauritius. For three years we had sport camps and competitions together.
There is an African Union for Gymnastics in the region and few very strong, developed federations. I have many personal contacts with the coaches and hopefully when Mauritius will have a recognized Federation, we could do a lot of exchanges with the African Zone.
7. Do you feel supported in what you do?
I have a lot of support from the parents of my gymnasts, my family, and friends. We have very little, occasional support from the authorities. Thanks to relationships built over years we now have an excellent infrastructure to advance and hope that our ‘stumbling block’ (absence of recognized [gymnastics] federation) will be finally sorted out this year.
8. What inspires you the most in your job as an RG coach in Mauritius?
If to answer shortly - children. We have a multicultural community with a mix of Chinese, Indian, Creole, European origins.
9. How important do you think is artistry in rhythmic gymnastics? Why?
Artistry is the first point why many of us fell in love with this sport. Losing it is like a Cinderella story at midnight: beauty is gone, and the princess becomes a working girl. My experience with dancing and shows, and working with photo and video professionals, made me understand how differently ‘regular people’ see RG. The visual effects of a simple but extremely well executed elements with ‘easy’ RG apparatus work and body expression can impress people a lot more than [elements] invented to raise scores, multiple risks, and limitless AD. RG has to remain beautiful, graceful and refined, and also human. True beauty cannot be rushed!
10. What is your ambition/dream as a coach developing RG in Mauritius?
I had different work proposals to coach abroad, but I have invested so much into Mauritius that it’s too early to leave. In 2020, after 8 years without proper training facilities, we finally got two beautiful international-standard halls to train in. I have a second generation of gymnasts and some of my first students are showing interest in coaching and helping in a gym.
My aim as a coach is to bring Mauritian gymnasts to the African Zone, Commonwealth countries events and to participate at international events. Overall, I intend to put a small island country on the map of RG world. My biggest dream would be to develop an international-standard Rhythmic Gymnastics Academy in our holiday-like destination to invite other countries for competitions, seminars, masterclasses, sport camps, judges’ practice.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. See below links to Iana’s RG school SportDance Ltd. website and Facebook page. If you would like to see more interviews on this blog in the future, press the little heart icon at the end, so I know that you’ve liked it. Thank you for reading.
See you next time,
Photographs are provided by Iana Vroublevskaia - personal archive.