MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian rhythmic gymnast Melitina Staniouta was just three years old when a trainer spotted her potential as she walked past a local gym with her mother and invited her to enroll.
Staniouta, now 22, went on to win all-around bronze medals in the 2010, 2013 and 2015 world championships. Now her sights are set on the Rio Olympics.
In the all-around category, Staniouta will be eager to show off her flexibility while attempting jumps, flips and tumbles in time to music while throwing and catching apparatus such as a rope, hoop, ball, clubs or a ribbon.
“Sometimes you’re just praying to get to the end of the routine,” Staniouta said.
“You get a lot of injuries. I chipped a bit off my metatarsal bone in 2010 during a routine. I put the operation off until I finished the competition. The longer you do the sport, the more problems you get,” she said.
To see a Reuters Wider Image photo essay on Staniouta, click: reut.rs/2abrcYw
Photos show her training and competing, as well as trying on her official Olympic uniform and getting ready for a photo shoot.
Staniouta said rhythmic gymnastics is not particularly popular in Belarus, so she is grateful to supporters in Spain, where the sport has a larger following.
“I have Spanish fans, who fly around the world to see competitions. Thank you so much to them! Support is very important. It’s always nicer to compete when you hear that people are rooting for you in the crowd,” she said.
Russia have dominated rhythmic gymnastics since 2000, with the country winning four successive team and all-around Olympic titles.
But with Russia facing a possible ban from all sports in Rio after an independent report uncovered rampant state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics, countries such as Belarus, who won the team silver in rhythmic gymnastics in 2012, could end up benefiting.
Staniouta said it would be a shame if Russian gymnasts cannot compete.
“Doping isn’t needed in artistic gymnastics. What would be the point? To throw the club higher and hit the ceiling?,” she said.
Writing by Alessandra Prentice, editing by Pritha Sarkar