Aliya Mustafina has been a stalwart for the Russian women’s gymnastics program since her first all-around and team victories at the 2010 World Championships. From a teenager with four Olympic medals in London to a team captain with a silver and a bronze (so far) in Rio, Mustafina has earned a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors in the sport of gymnastics. The 21-year-old will compete for the final time in Rio in the uneven bars final on Sunday, Aug. 14 at 1 p.m. ET.
Born about 70 miles southeast of Moscow on September 30, 1994, Mustafina began gymnastics around six years old. She has athletic genes: her father, Farhat, is a Greco-Roman wrestler who won bronze at the 1976 Olympics.
Mustafina made her senior debut in 2010 and was the queen of that year’s world championships. She was the top qualifier to the all-around and advanced to all four individual event final—the first female gymnast to do so since Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina in 1997.
In the finals, she won five out of six possible medals: all-around gold, team gold with the Russian women, and silvers on vault, bars and floor. In that same competition, fellow first-year senior Aly Raisman finished 13th in the all-around.
Mustafina also began building her reputation as a steely competitor that year. While she’s now a proven leader of the Russian women and is the first to hug her teammates whether they’re celebrating or crying, she wasn’t so forgiving in 2010. After her teammates made mistakes in the qualification round, she told the press, “We made some mistakes on elements that seemed to be going well and reliably in practice. I’m not talking about myself. I did everything OK. I’m not going to name names, because the girls themselves know and understand.”
The next year, Mustafina badly injured her knee on the landing of her vault in the all-around final. With a torn ACL and strained MCL, she required surgery and her Olympic readiness was in question.
2012 London Olympics
As has become her signature, Mustafina proved all the doubters wrong. She was the most decorated Russian athlete across all sports at the 2012 London Olympics, and most decorated athlete who was not a swimmer.
Her first Olympic medal came in the team final, where she competed on all four events to lead the Russian women to silver behind the Fierce Five.
In the all-around, her medal hopes seemed to be over when she fell off the balance beam. But at the end of the competition, she had earned the exact same score as Aly Raisman, and both were in third place. In Olympic gymnastics, there are no ties. Each gymnast’s lowest apparatus score was dropped, and without the beam disaster, Mustafina was ahead. She received the bronze and Raisman ended in fourth place.
Mustafina’s next chance for a medal came in the uneven bars final. With a difficulty score of 7.0 points and exceptional execution score of 9.133 out of 10 points, Mustafina was the only gymnast in the final to break 16 points. The Olympic gold was hers.
Her final Olympic event was the floor exercise final. This was Raisman’s turn to claim a gold, and Mustafina again found herself in a tie for bronze. In this case, the tiebreaker between Mustafina and Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari was determined by the execution score. Mustafina’s execution score was 0.300 points higher, so she made the podium.
In between London and Rio, Mustafina won eight European championships medals and six world championship medals. But success didn’t come easy, thanks to a string of injuries and the loss of her personal coach.
Alexander Alexandrov was both Mustafina’s coach and the head coach of the Russian national team. After the London Games, however, he was removed from the head coach position by the vice president of the Russian gymnastics federation. He decided to leave Russia in 2013 and is currently the head of the Brazilian women’s team.
Mustafina worked with her choreographer before signing on with Sergei Starkin, the coach of male gymnast Denis Ablyazin, in late 2014.
2014 also brought an ankle injury that required surgery, then back pain that sidelined her for most of 2015’s competitions. She returned for the inaugural 2015 European Games to win team, all-around and uneven bars gold as well as floor silver.
She missed that year’s world championships, however, because of continued back pain. The Russian team finished fourth without her. Later that fall, she had surgery on the meniscus of her right knee.
At her last pre-Rio competition, the 2016 European Games, Mustafina proved she’s still a force to be reckoned with. She won gold with the Russian team and individually on the balance beam, plus a bronze on uneven bars.
2016 Rio Olympics
Rumors about her health and the threat of a total Olympic ban on all Russian athletes loomed over Mustafina’s preparations for the Rio Olympics. She wasn’t at her sharpest in the qualification round, falling off the balance beam to rank sixth behind Americans Simone Biles, Raisman and Gabby Douglas as well as her younger teammate Seda Tutkhalyan.
She stepped up her game in the team final. Like in London, she competed in all four events to lead her team to silver. Her score of 15.933 on the uneven bars tied with Madison Kocian’s bars score and Biles’ vault score as the highest of the night.
In the all-around final she led the field at the competition’s halfway mark, putting up yet another a massive score on uneven bars. But she struggled again on balance beam, balking at one of her planned tumbling skills and losing difficulty points as a result. On the last event, floor, she didn’t have the high-scoring skills to surpass the Americans. She finished third, winning bronze behind Biles and Raisman.
Mustafina’s final competition at the Rio Olympics will be in the uneven bars final, where she had the third-highest qualification score. The uneven bars final will be held on Sunday, Aug. 14 at 1 p.m. ET.
With her four medals in London, Mustafina won more Olympics medals than any Russian athlete or any non-swimmer athlete. She received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in reocognition of her achievements.
While Mustafina was notoriously called a “diva” by commentators in 2012 and doesn’t have a warm-and-fuzzy reputation—as perhaps exemplified by her 2015 floor routine to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—she’s proven to be a singularly empathetic competitor and teammate. She’s the captain of the Russian team in Rio and is the first to give her teammates hugs and words of encouragement. When a language barrier stands in the way of giving foreign athletes a compliment, she can be seen shooting them a thumbs up and smile.
The reigning Olympic champion on uneven bars is also still world-class on her best event. She even has a highly difficult skill named after her: the “Mustafina” is a dismount off the high bar consisting of two tucked back flips and 1.5 twists.
How to watch
Mustafina’s final day of competition in Rio will be Sunday, Aug. 14 when she competes in the uneven bars final.
The full event replays of the women’s gymnastics qualfications sessions, team final and all-around final are also available to rewatch.