By Pritha Sarkar
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Gymnasts have among the shortest career spans of any athletes and few make it to more than two or, at the very most, three Olympic Games. But the irrepressible Oksana Chusovitina is taking part at her seventh.
In a sport overpopulated by tiny teenagers, 41-year-old Chusovitina has kept her body "lean and mean" for over four decades so that she can compete against rivals younger than her 17-year-old son Alisher.
"When I compete... if they gave a few more marks for age it would have been great!” Chusovitina quipped after she competed in women's qualifying on Sunday.
There was certainly a lot of love in the Rio Olympic Arena for the oldest ever gymnast to compete at a Games and who was a member of the triumphant Unified Team, representing former Soviet republics, on her Olympic debut in 1992.
The cheers were loud and prolonged when the venue's MC introduced the Uzbek as "a living legend" and the volume went up a few notches as she sprinted down the runway before launching into her first vault -- a layout front somersault with 1-1/2 twists.
A hop back on landing did little to dampen the mood and a score of 15.166 proved that she was not in Rio to simply celebrate competing at a record seventh Olympics for a gymnast.
Wearing a pink and white shimmering leotard, her toned arm muscles were in full display as she lifted off for her second vault -- a double twisting Tsukahara -- which earned her 14.833.
Having competed in the first of five groups of the day, she faced a long wait to discover if her average score of 14.999 was good enough to make the eight-woman apparatus final.
“I really love the sport, I love to give pleasure to the public. I love to come out and perform for the public and for the fans,” said Chusovitina, who has competed under the Soviet Union, Unified Team, German and Uzbek flags during her distinguished career.
Asked how she rated her performance, she assessed: “I’m alive I'm well and that means everything’s okay.”
While Chusovitina does not think what she is doing is that remarkable, 1996 Olympic champion Kerri Strug said it was "unbelievable" that one of her contemporaries was still going strong.
"Kudos to her for being so disciplined with her diet, staying lean and mean at that age. It only gets harder to compete with these youngsters but she’s doing it," the American told Reuters.
"She’s had a child, and to keep getting into a leotard and stay in such phenomenal shape. To be able to bear all that pounding over the years, I don’t know how she does it."
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by Brian Homewood)