‘The most beautiful and the most useful habit is discipline.’ Anastasia Ermakova – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 100
Anastasia Ermakova, a 4-time Olympic Champion, 9-time World Champion, and Swimming Hall of Famer shares how she has been competing for her entire career with shoulder pain, and why she avoided a shoulder surgery. Anastasia reveals the secret behind the Russian synchronized swimming success.
Furthermore, we discuss
- What the sport of synchronized swimming is
- How the Russian Synchronized Swimming team has swept all gold medals in five consecutive Olympic Games
- Her darkest moment
- How she trained with pain through her entire career
- Her best moment
- Her sweetest Olympic gold medal
- Her advice to a younger Anastasia Ermakova
- The moment she realized she will be a champion
- Her success habits
- Why discipline equals freedom
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How the preparation changed over the years during her career
- How to overcome setbacks
- Her role model
- The best advice she has received
- A typical training day in the life of a Synchronized Swimmer
- Her motivation to write the book “Dancing in the Water.”
- Her interview nomination
- What’s going on in your life of Anastasia Ermakova at this moment in time
- The minimum effective dose of yoga to see the benefits for athletes
- Where can you find Anastasia Ermakova
Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Anastasia Ermakova. Anastasia is a four-time Olympic Champion, nine-time World Champion, seven times European Champion, and has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2015.
Anastasia: Thank you very much for this introduction. It’s a pleasure for me to be here.
What is synchronized swimming
Christian: Anastasia, can you explain in a few words what the sport of synchronized swimming is that you’re so passionate about?
Anastasia: Synchronized swimming is difficult to explain in just a few words. It’s a very complicated sport and I believe that it’s one of the most difficult sports that exists.
When I started the sport, it was very easy to explain. It was ballet in the water. Now it’s very difficult, but also it’s still a very beautiful sport, but for very strong people.
Christian: What most people don’t know, it requires a lot of training hours in a day. It’s one of the sports similar to ballet where you have long, long training days, right?
Anastasia: Yes, because it’s a very complicated sport and it includes a lot of different kinds of preparation. Apart from synchronized swimming, we have a lot of athletic and gymnastic preparation and acrobatic ballet.
It’s a very complicated sport and one of the most difficult sports that exists. We need to spend at least 6 to 7 hours per day in the water, but as a national team, we spend 10 hours a day in the water.
There is also normal sports swimming and other kinds of preparation for synchronized swimming. So because of these, we need to spend at least six to seven hours per day in the water, but as a national team, we spend 10 hours a day in the water.
How the Russian Synchronized Swimming team has swept all gold medals in five consecutive Olympic Games
Christian: That leads almost perfectly into the next question. Since 2000, the Russian team has swept all gold medals in five consecutive Olympic Games. How can you explain that? What happened after the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996?
Anastasia: I think that the Russian people are very motivated people and, the Russian synchronized swimming entered the international scene very late. So that’s why for a long period, the Russians worked a lot to get enough knowledge and good athletes to be able to compete in an international competition at the highest level.
But as I said, the Russian people are very motivated and very hard workers. And for the beginning years, we Russians tried to learn as much as possible and we tried to work as much as possible to achieve this level. As soon as it happened, we did it and we continued to work a lot.
So it’s very important to understand that the Russian Olympic team and Russian synchronize swimming never gave up. So even after all these medals, even after all these victories we never think that we were the best.
We always thought that there were a lot of people, countries, and athletes in other countries that worked to achieve the same. So that’s why after every victory, the Russian team continued to work even more and even harder than it did before to be always the best and to participate at the best level.
It’s very important to understand that the Russian Olympic team after every victory, the Russian team continued to work even more and even harder than it did before to be always the best and to participate at the best level.
Christian: And is the competition inside the country more difficult or is competition inside the country higher than outside? Meaning is it easier to win the Olympics than qualifying for it?
Anastasia: We have a lot of athletes; so we have a lot of people that could replace you. For example, in a lot of countries, there are not enough people to enter into the team and so they don’t have this problem. They just work with all these athletes and that’s all.
In Russia, for every athlete, maybe 20/30 people, or even more that want to enter into the team. So of course, for the national qualification, it’s very, very difficult, but after this, it’s not less difficult because you’re now in the national team, but still you need to compete and yet still, you need to work for the medals.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your athletic life, what was your darkest moment?
Anastasia: It’s a little bit difficult because maybe I have two dark moments that come to my mind. The first one was my shoulder injury. In 2002, I got a shoulder injury and I needed to work with it. I needed to train with it for six years until I finished my career after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
It was the darkest moment because I was very motivated and I wanted it very badly. And I needed to work with it because it’s what I mentioned about the high competition at the national qualification. It’s the same for the international qualification and international competition. I could not give up.
I needed to work all these hours, but with this injury and this pain, it was really, really difficult. Sometimes I just woke up in the morning and I could not raise my arm and I needed to go to the swimming pool to train.
I got a shoulder injury and I trained with it for 6 years until I finished my career. Sometimes I just woke up in the morning and I could not raise my arm and I needed to go to the swimming pool to train. But I could not give up.
This one is the darkest moment in my athletic career because it was just very difficult and it’s not only like I’m tired. It’s something that always bothers me and bothers me in a very, very hard way. So, yes, I think this one.
How she trained with pain through her entire career
Christian: And just to get this right, I read it when I made my research, that you got the injury in 2002; you became double Olympic Champion in 2004; double Olympic Champion in 2008 and you got surgery in 2009. So that means you were forced to train with the pain and had all the successes with the pain.
Anastasia: Yes, because as I said, our sport is very complicated and very competitive, it’s very difficult to just only skip one month or take time for recovery. So I did not have enough time to get the surgery done and to recover after the surgery and continue working at the same level.
Our sport is a very complicated and very competitive, it’s very difficult to only skip one month. So I did not have enough time to get the surgery done and to recover after the surgery.
So if I had done this surgery, I would have lost a lot of time. It would have been very difficult to gain enough shape that I needed to continue to compete at the same level.
So that’s why I never tried to do it before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I just did it after I decided that I just wanted to rest. And maybe I do this surgery and after I decide if I want to return to the professional sport or I just retire.
Christian: In 2009, you had the surgery. Did you plan on coming back? Because your partner in the duet went on for one more Olympics, right?
Anastasia: Actually, I wanted to continue, but at this time it was dependent on my injury. So actually, I hoped that after the surgery, I would be able to resolve my problem and continue working towards the next Olympic games.
But after I did the surgery, I tried to get into shape, but as soon as I started training a little bit harder, the pain returned. At the time I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t have enough motivation because when you’re a young athlete, you have a lot of motivation to achieve something new and so you’ll say that you want to do it.
However, when you already have four gold medals and you just imagine that you need to work again for hours with the same pain, that you already know, it was very difficult psychologically and mentally. That’s why I decided that it was enough. Maybe it’s like a sign or a destiny that I just need to stop here and that’s all.
Her best moment
Christian: What’s your best moment?
Anastasia: The best moment was when we won our national qualification to be the number one team from Russia for the Olympics in 2004. It was my best moment because it was very difficult to get there.
In 2001, my partner and I were still juniors and we started also competing as a national duet. We were very young, 18 years old, and immediately we were sent to compete in Japan.
The Japanese duet had already won second place, the silver medal, in the previous Olympic games in 2000. We went as a guest to their country. So two young girls go to Japan to compete with the Japanese duet that everyone knows already and who is already a silver medalist in an Olympic Games.
We lost that competition. We were second, but just with little difference in the score. After this, we promised ourselves that the next year we would win the gold medal as a duet and we did.
We promised ourselves that the next year we would win the gold medal as a duet and we did.
After that, we decided that since we did this gold medal, we were going to prepare for the Olympics in 2004. And at this moment, our gold medalist from 2000, decided to return to the competition and take our place.
So this was the other dark moment I mentioned earlier because we didn’t have enough support at that moment. The other team was already an Olympic gold medalist, but they have skipped two years. And we already showed everyone that we are the best at this moment.
From that moment, we started our national qualification that it did last for almost two years. Every time we won, we were told we needed to do one more and it kept going on like that. And I couldn’t see the end of this qualification because it was never good enough what we did.
And that moment that finally we did our last competition, we won it and at that moment, we understood that finally, we did it and we will go to the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. this was the best moment in my life. Even not the Olympics at all, but just qualification for this Olympic.
Christian: What made the difference between you guys and the previous – the team that won the Olympics in 2000?
Anastasia: There was no big difference, they also worked very hard, and they were very good athletes. But the only difference was that we were younger and maybe we were more motivated because they have already achieved their gold medal.
In that moment, they were a little bit more relaxed and we actually were very motivated and we wanted it much more. I think that it was more the motivation we had as a young athlete, and we had just started our career and we just wanted to do it.
Her sweetest Olympic gold medal
Christian: Anastasia, you have four Olympic gold medals. Which one is the sweetest one?
Anastasia: It’s very difficult to say because the first two, were first and it was what we wanted. It was our goal, like our childhood’s goal. Because when I was a child, I wanted this and I achieved this goal.
- Also check out the interview ‘It’s ok to have failures, but it’s not ok to not try.’ With 1998 Olympic champion Nikki Stone, and her story how she builds herself a podium at the age of 5 years celebrating she will be an Olympic champion one day.
And the second experience at the Beijing 2008 Olympics four years later, was more of an adult experience. Just one more time to show to all the world that we are the best. And also at that moment, I was very happy because I was very, very tired from the injury and the preparation. So all of the medals are very sweet for me, but all in a different way.
Her advice to a younger Anastasia Ermakova
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 20 years, what advice would you give a younger you?
Anastasia: It’s to never give up. So never give up and always follow your dreams. Because all dreams, even very difficult dreams can come true if you work enough for them and if you believe in them.
- Also check out the interview ‘Dream big, work hard, believe you can do it.’ With double Olympic champion Mariana Pajón, who advises ‘Dream big, work hard, believe you can do it, hold it in your hands before you actually achieve it.’
And also you always need to believe in yourself. If I think back 10, 20, or 30 years back, I sometimes felt a little bit lost in myself, in my dreams, in my ideas, and in my thoughts.
You always need to believe in yourself. I sometimes felt a little bit lost in myself, in my dreams, in my ideas, and in my thoughts.
Sometimes I lost a little bit of belief in myself, and maybe some told me that I needed to believe. They said that I needed to go on and continue to work on it so that I could go forward. And so it’s the same thing that I would say to a younger me if I could meet my younger 20 or 30-year-old Anastasia.
The moment she realized she will be a champion
Christian: You started your sport at the age of five. When did you realize that you can be really, really good?
Anastasia: I think in 1998. Let me explain. I always trained a lot, but in my group in my club team, I was the youngest athlete. So for me, it was always very difficult, because I always behind all the other people who were older and bigger.
And so for me, it was very difficult. Even when I entered the youth national team, I was always just okay, but not good enough. I saw that I could, but I always saw someone in front of me.
I was always just okay, but not good enough. I always saw someone in front of me.
That’s why I thought that I needed to work more than anyone else. And I never really believed that I could be the best because there was always someone in front of me. In 1998 was the first time, I won a national competition for my age. And that year was also very special for me because the first Youth Olympic Games were held in Moscow.
It was really great experience because it was like a dream come true. I always dreamed to go to the Olympic games and they created the Olympic games for the Youth. We could participate there from the age of 15 years to 19 years, depending on the sport.
For our sport, I was 15 years old and our age started from 15 and younger. So I managed to enter the national team and to be the first solo and first duet from this team. And after that, I also managed to win everything.
So from four medals, I won four medals. And that moment was also one of the best moments in my life because I think that that moment was like a gift for me when finally, I realized that I can be the best.
From four medals, I won four medals. And that moment was like a gift for me when I finally realized that I can be the best.
Christian: Was that also the moment when you realize you can be Olympic champion because you mentioned as a kid, you have that dream, but when did this dream really become like a tangible goal?
Anastasia: I think it was that moment, I just needed this push for me to realize that I can be the best. So it was like one more appreciation and one more realization that also helped me a lot for my future end road to the Olympics, the real Olympic Games.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person and athlete?
Anastasia: It’s a discipline. If you don’t have enough discipline in your life, not only in sport, also in your life, in your thoughts, in your head, it’s impossible to reach something.
I believe that the most beautiful and the most useful habit is discipline.
And it’s impossible to be a successful person because if you’re not disciplined, if you don’t have order in your life, in your habits, in your work, it’s impossible. I believe that the most beautiful and the most useful habit is discipline and, of course, to work hard because with our hard work, we can treat anything.
Why discipline equals freedom
Christian: There’s also that saying, that discipline equals freedom, right? The more discipline you have, the more freedom you have because you are able to do anything you want to do.
Anastasia: Yes, of course. Because when you have the chaos in your life and in your head, you can’t be free because you can’t get away from it because you always have something in your head, so you can’t be free.
But when you put everything in its’ place; their own place, it’s much easier to have free time; it’s much easier to have free ideas. Fresh ideas and to have the freedom and be free from everything that can confuse you.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Anastasia: Yes. So actually the last year, it’s a little bit more difficult because of the kids. Normally, my morning routine is to wake up very early, do yoga or some exercises. I need to drink a glass of water before eating something.
I need to meditate for at least 10/15 minutes. But with the kids, for now, it’s almost impossible because even if I wake up at 6:00 AM and I put my mat on the floor to do some yoga, someone can just get up and start screaming my name. So at that moment, my morning routine is just finished.
I have this morning routine and actually, I can say that when I manage to do it, my day is absolutely different. So my day is just beautiful. And I feel very good and comfortable because I just need my time after the sport without anyone and just to focus on my day and to concentrate for my day on the things I need to do during the day.
When I manage to my morning routine, my day is absolutely different.
After this, I also feel much calmer than when I jump up because I need to run somewhere with the kids and the screaming everywhere. And I feel very imbalanced when I wake up in this way. And so, yes, the morning routine is very important for me.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Anastasia: With little meditation, but not only like ordinary meditation. Ordinary meditation is too calming to me. I need to think about the moment, what I need to do and just to focus on it.
And I need to be a little bit alone, just for this focusing moment and I need to be very, very calm and that’s all because I never prepared myself with some strange things. The best preparation is inside me.
I never prepared myself with some strange things. The best preparation is inside me.
So I don’t need to do anything because I’m already ready for this. I already did the work for it. I know that I did a lot and I don’t need to do more work at the last moment, it would just confuse me and create anxiety. I need to be calm, to be able to collect all these things that I already know and that I already prepared for and then and just go.
How the preparation changed over the years during her career
Christian: You are a nine-time world champion. How did the preparation change over the years preparing for World Championships?
Anastasia: As I said, after every victory, we always thought that all we need to do is just work harder and harder because our opponents work always more to be able to be the best and to win. So with every victory, it actually got harder and harder, because we needed to work more, to be able to show that we’re still the best.
It was also very, very difficult even mentally because it’s a big pressure. When you win the first time, the people see you and said they are very good. But with every victory, the people want to find something in your performance, they want to find some errors in your performance.
It’s a big pressure mentally. With every victory, people want to find some errors in your performance.
And when they don’t find it, they’re a little bit disappointed about it because they just think that it’s impossible. It’s impossible that they are so good that every year, they’re just perfect. And so when you realize that the people expecting you to be perfect, that’s difficult because we are not a robot, we are just a human being.
And when you realize it, it’s very, very difficult in a mental way to concentrate for the best performance. And that’s why every new World Championship, every new performance, even just a show was very difficult, because every time you need to show that you’re still the same like you were two or three years ago, and actually even better.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks or failures? So if things don’t go your way?
Anastasia: I tried to put myself on a positive way and told myself, that it was just like experience that came to me to make me even stronger, like a new knowledge for me that shows me that I need to work in a different way.
I told myself, that it was just an experience to make me even stronger.
Sometimes I was disappointed about it, but after thinking about it and working with myself, with my thoughts that came in my head, I realized that it’s okay. I know I have one more chance to improve; to go forward and to become better.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Anastasia: I never had any role model. I do admire people who work a lot and who managed to achieve their goals. And for me, it’s a very big motivation to see these people, but I can’t name just one person for being my role model.
I do admire people who work a lot and who managed to achieve their goals.
I believe that every person can show you something; can teach you something that will be very useful for yourself or useful for your growth, but I never choose one – someone for being this role model for me.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Anastasia: The best advice, as I said already, was to just work hard. You don’t need to look at your opponents. So for example, when I competed, I never watched the different performances of my opponents. Maybe only after the competition in a replay or so. But not during the competition.
And it was very good advice. I always followed this advice, and only competed with myself and do the best I can do. And this was really very good because in this case, I never was afraid of the judges. I never was afraid of someone. I just knew that I needed to do my best and to win against myself.
I only competed with myself. And this was really very good because in this case, I never was afraid of the judges. I never was afraid of someone. I just knew that I needed to do my best and to win against myself.
By doing it, I already did what I needed to do and whatever after the judges which score they give me or what the people say about me, I knew that I was with my best. And so after everything is just destiny.
A typical training day in the life of a Synchronized Swimmer
Christian: Back in the days, how did the typical training day look like?
Anastasia: I woke up at 6:30. Usually, we started with some running for 30 minutes. It’s like breathing practice in the morning because after we needed to spend a lot of time in the swimming pool with the chlorine and everything. So we needed to have a lot of oxygen.
After I had breakfast because it’s very, very important. After we go to the swimming pool and we spend about four and a half, five hours. After one or one and a half hours for the gym after lunch, after just a little nap for one hour, sometimes it was less, 45 minutes and then again for the four and a half or five hours in the swimming pool, and then we’re done.
We did everything. So we tried to go to sleep. So I did not have dinner because I tried to keep my diet to be in the correct weight, especially because of my injuries. So, I always tried to avoid the extra weight.
Even one kilo was too much for my injury because I needed to work with it. I needed to swim with this. And so I never had my dinner and after we just went to sleep and try to fall asleep, that it was very, very difficult.
Her motivation to write the book “Dancing in the Water.”
Christian: You wrote the book, “Dancing in the Water.” What was your motivation to write the book?
Anastasia: For a lot of years, I always received the same question about synchronized swimming and about our life. And after this, I realized that even if for a lot of years, we respond to the same question, but the people still don’t know anything about synchronized swimming.
So the idea of the book was to explain what is synchronized swimming. So that’s why this book is like a question and answer format. I have a friend who doesn’t know anything about synchronized swimming and I asked her to ask me all these questions she wants to know about synchronized swimming.
So this book was created to be in this way to be able to explain as much as possible about synchronized swimming, like techniques, synchronized swimming and all. It is about synchronized swimming in a professional way. So everything that one person who far from sport, who far from synchronized swimming, can just think, we’ll try to respond.
Christian: We’re coming to the end.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Anastasia: I think that the very good candidate for this interview should be Bill May. I say it’s the first higher performer in synchronized swimming.
This is a man who finally, after a lot of years has managed to get his gold medal in the World Championship. It’s a person who really can say a lot about synchronized swimming because, for a lot of years, he just had been living in this sport.
He read a lot about synchronized swimming and he’s really great person and an amazing person. And I think that it will be very, very interesting to speak with him.
Christian: Really cool. Thank you.
What’s going on in your life of Anastasia Ermakova at this moment in time
Christian: What is going on in your life at this moment in time?
Anastasia: I continue to work a little bit with synchronized swimming. I work as a choreographer. I create a lot of choreographies worldwide.
The last team I was working with before the COVID situation was the Canada national team. And I also worked a lot with the Kazakhstan national team; and the Austrian team, as well as with different clubs.
But nowadays, I developed a new passion, I really love yoga. I love it first for myself, just to get me in shape, but also to make peace with myself; my body, and my mind. And after I realized that I started to learn and wanted to become a Yoga teacher, and now I got finally got my certificate and I am a certified teacher.
But the point was because I realized that yoga is also very, very good for the athletes and it could be a very great opportunity and a very good possibility for athletes. Especially even for my sport synchronized swimming. I think that with yoga, we can be able to resolve a lot of mental problems and a lot of injuries.
Yoga can help to recover faster after training or after injuries. And so now I’m working on it and trying to create the best way of yoga for the synchronized swimming and yoga for athletes. So this is the project that I think and I believe it could be a really, really great thing for the athlete and very great help for athletes and for coaches.
The minimum effective dose of yoga to see the benefits for athletes
Christian: And what would you think is the minimum effective dose of yoga to see the benefits for athletes?
Anastasia: I think that even 30 minutes a day is enough.
Christian: And when your program for athletes is done, where can we find it?
Anastasia: I am about to start working online. I work with athletes and teams online, because now it’s very easy. We used a lot of Zoom conferences for doing some preparation and for doing some classes during the COVID.
I am preparing a course that will be available online that everyone can use it and everyone can gain it for their own preparation or for the team preparation and I hope it will be really helpful.
Christian: Really cool.
Where can you find Anastasia Ermakova
Christian: Where can people find you?
Anastasia: At this moment, I live in Italy. I am available in my Instagram account, my Facebook account and I am always happy to meet new people. And so if people would be interested in speaking with me or to ask some question to me or anyway, they can text me in my Instagram messages or Facebook and I will be happy always to reply to them.
Anastasia Ermakova’s social profiles
Christian: Anastasia, thanks a lot for your time. It was awesome.
Anastasia: Thank you.