The Ukrainian Olympic champion says his love of the sport has pushed him its greatest heights
2016 Olympic parallel bars champion Oleg Verniaiev knows people question his often jam-packed competition schedule.
His last vacation, he says, was to the Maldives nearly three years ago and despite two surgeries in each of 2018 and 2019, he has competed at each of the last World Championships since 2011.
He, also, doesn’t really care, saying that keeping that busy schedule has been key to the success of his career.
“I perform a lot, I go to many competitions. It just brings me crazy pleasure,” Verniaiev told Olympic Channel.
“It’s not my job, but a pleasure.” - Oleg Verniaiev
It’s a love that started, like so many other gymnastics champions, at an early age, as he took up the sport in kindergarten with another friend to channel what he says was ‘too much energy.’
“We probably annoyed the teachers,” Verniaiev joked.
Decades later and despite the criticisms – even from coaches at his own gym – the 26-year-old stands by his busy approach.
“As a result, I became an Olympic champion,” he said. “We compete exactly as much as I need. If I believe that I need to perform, it means we go to competitions.”
Not even multiple surgeries following the 2017 World Championships where Verniaiev found himself – and somewhat famously posted a photo of on Instagram – with both legs in casts and his arm in a sling has kept him away from competition for long.
“When I first got out of shape with injuries, I sat thinking: 'well, cool, I will manage to rest.' And, then, I watched the European Championships on TV with our guys and I sat and thought: 'Ah, why am I not there? I should be there. I already want it,’” Verniaiev recalled. “My shoulder was still in the cast, you know, but I already want to go there, and I realized I'm just addicted.”
His singular focus paid off with career defining success at the 2016 Olympics.
“I wanted to compete with him for a long time,” he said of Uchimura. “I understood maybe since around 2013, plus or minus, I can approach the scores that are close to his results.”
The all-around silver was a triumph a long time coming in the all-around for Verniaiev. He had finished 11th four years earlier in London and came to Rio off back-to-back fourth place finishes at the 2014 and 2015 Worlds.
“I always wanted not to perform well but try to beat him and probably because of it I felt burned out,” Verniaiev admitted. “Then year after year, you gain experience. I just arrived in Rio, and I already understood that I can be his rival.”
The decision between gold and silver came down the final landing: Verniaiev’s off the horizontal bar where a small hop might have been the tiny difference.
All the Ukrainian could do was shrug his shoulders in disbelief as his score – and the final rankings – flashed on the scoreboard above at the Rio Olympic Arena.
Disappointed, Verniaiev says he found himself at the McDonald’s in the Athlete’s Village in the days that followed, leading up to the parallel bars final.
“I came to the Olympic Games weighing 53 kilograms, and after the all-around, I wasn’t eating in the canteen for five days and I only ate at McDonald’s,” he explained. “I went into the parallel bars final weighing 58 kilograms.”
Nonetheless, Verniaiev dazzled in that final, holding off American Danell Leyva to take gold.
“I just felt at total peace,” he says of the moment he knew gold was his.
Still, the narrow defeat in the all-around to Uchimura has served as motivation for Verniaiev, especially as he has recovered from what can at times feel like a streak of never-ending injuries in his post-Rio career.
His recovery and the subsequent return to form hasn’t always been easy, especially in a sport as demanding as gymnastics in a country like Ukraine. Although Verniaiev says there have been recent improvements to medical care at his training base, he admits he has traveled to Israel in the past for treatment at his own expense.
The extra year to Tokyo 2020 is for Verniaiev, who saw his bronze medal in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds as a harbinger of things to come at his third Olympics, a double-edged sword.
Verniaiev says the training layoff caused by the coronavirus pandemic has helped in some aspects (“I did not train at all, just slept and rested”), but in other ways, it caused setbacks (“I gained a lot weight and only now, we are recovering and getting back to a certain regime.”).
But, the glow of last season's success inspires him as he forges on with Tokyo preparations.
“I want to return to the all-around leaders race, last year's world championship showed that I am capable of doing it and now we are working on it,” he said.
Work that serves as proof of his endless determination to enjoy the upper echelons of his sport.
“It's my dream and the goal to win the Olympic Games once more,” he says, “to show both my supporters and my haters, who even in the gym, talk behind my back, saying that… I am done with my gymnastics. I want to show that surgeries or injuries is not the end of a career. You can come back after anything and be only stronger.”