Over the past 25 years Belarusian athletes have firmly asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the international arena. The country has celebrated some of its biggest victories in aerials. For many years aerials athletes have been trained by world-renowned specialist, the head coach of the national team Nikolai Kozeko.
Born in Minsk, Nikolai Kozeko began his sports career in the mid-1960s as a trampoliner. He won many prizes and became a Soviet Union champion in 1972. Upon retiring Nikolai Kozeko began his career as a coach. At first he worked with divers. In the mid-1980s, he finally decided on what he really wanted to do and took over the BSSR national team in aerials, a new and quite exotic sport at that time. He gathered the enthusiasts ready to conquer the new, yet unseen sports heights. The leader of the first Belarusian team was Vladimir Aleynik, the medalist of two Olympics in diving. Upon completing his sports career, Vladimir Aleynik coached the Austrian national team for many years. Nikolai Kozeko, who inspired him, continued his hard work. In 1990, after the successful performance of his team at the Soviet Union Spartakiad he was awarded the title of the Distinguished Coach of the BSSR. In 1993, he was put in charge of the national team of the sovereign Belarus, which he leads until now. His athletes made an Olympic debut in Nagano in 1998, exactly 10 years after aerials made part of the Olympic Games program.
Your athletes have won seven medals at the six Olympic Games in a row. What were the training conditions ahead of the Olympics in Nagano 1998? Do they compare to what you have now?
No, they do not. To prepare for our first Olympics we used the sports facilities that had nothing to do with aerials: a trampoline hall, an acrobatic track... I had to be resourceful and think of something to somehow simulate ski jumping. And we did it. Dmitri Dashchinski won a bronze medal. To be honest, we dreamed of an Olympic medal, but our chances, we thought, were minuscule. However, we succeeded. This is what sport is about...
Four years later Dmitri Dashchinski was probably the main favorite in Salt Lake City, but it was Aleksei Grishin who graced the podium.
Of course, having gained experience, we dreamed of bigger achievements in 2002. However, 14 days before the start of the Games, our leader Dmitri Dashchinski broke his collarbone. Everybody were sure that Dmitri would not be able to perform. However, he did with a special support and placed seventh. Aleksei Grishin won the second consecutive bronze medal for Belarus. Sport is unpredictable.
Dmitri Dashchinski made a comeback to the Olympic podium eventually. He won silver in Turin 2006. Could Dmitri have achieved more at that and the following Olympic Games?
According to the general opinion of freestyle aerials specialists, Dashchinski was the strongest athlete in Turin, but the gold medal went to the Chinese athlete. It was the pinnacle of Dmitri's sporting career. Later, in Vancouver and Sochi, he produced a strong yet medal-less performance. Meanwhile, Aleksei Grishin gained experience, confidence and a winning spirit in Salt Lake City.
All this made the first Belarusian gold a reality at the 2010 Vancouver Games. What made the victory possible?
The journey to the top was extremely difficult. It was a fierce competition in an extremely nervous atmosphere. Aleksei withstood all this and won with a back/full-double-full-full jump. It was our secret thing, which turned to be a victory.
Next was the triumphant Sochi 2014. Anton Kushnir and Alla Tsuper won the champion titles. What were your emotions back then?
It really was a triumph - all gold medals were ours! A moment of luck and triumph! But only a moment, and then again a training routine, without which there is no success.
How did you motivate yourself and your athletes for the PyeongChang 2018 after the Sochi triumph?
There was already excitement there. Could we repeat the success? Now I am sure we could, if not for the judges. Everyone still remembers how the real leader Anton Kushnir was brazenly kicked out of the final in the qualifying. It was a shame, but once again, I will say a trivial phrase – this is sport. We did have our gold medal however. A new star, Hanna Huskova, graced the top of the Olympic podium.
The new Olympic champion is already from Generation Next. Who can outperform Hanna in Beijing 2022?
Hanna Huskova, Aleksandra Ramanouskaya, Stanislau Hladchanko and Pavel Dzik are ambitious and goal-oriented athletes. I hope they will be able to compete well and continue the medal traditions of Belarusian aerials.
Can you say that the past 25 years were a success for you? Does Nikolai Kozeko have worthy successors?
I am happy that I have managed to implement all my plans. I was lucky with my colleagues, government officials in the Belarusian sport and the general attitude to sport in our country. This also applies to my aspirations to prepare qualified coaches who will lead the team in the future.
What is your opinion on the development of Belarusian sport over the years?
Our sport has been developing very well. Take a walk along Pobeditelei Avenue in Minsk and you will see the evolution of sport in the country: from the old House of Physical Training to the magnificent Minsk Arena and the Palace of Rhythmic Gymnastics. Talking about the whole country, I can say that the changes in all areas, including sport, have been enormous. The main thing is to keep this up!