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Quake survivor becomes first Turkish gymnast in Games

July 30, 2012

BOLU, Turkey – So excited was Goksu Uctas at the thought of becoming Turkey’s first Olympic gymnast, she wanted the five Olympic rings tattooed on her arm.

For now, though, Uctas has settled for a silver necklace of the famous symbol, which she twirls excitedly in her fingers.

While Turkey excels at wrestling and weightlifting — the nation’s men and women have won 67 Olympic medals in the sports — never before has a gymnast participated at the Games in Turkey’s red and white national colors.

All you really need is faith in yourself,” the 22-year-old gymnast told Reuters in her dormitory room.

Uctas’ story is one of determination and perseverance.

When she was a little girl in the town of Gaziantep, Uctas’ mother had her take some gymnastic lessons like the neighbors. Within 6 months her talent was so obvious that head trainer Yalçın Titiz convinced Uctas’ parents to send her to a boarding school in Bolu, hundreds of miles away. At the age of 5, Uctas started training at the boarding school in Bolu. After one year Uctas’ father managed to move his job to Bolu and the whole family reunited again.

Uctas’ Olympic achievement is all the more noteworthy given that as a nine-year-old — a vital stage in a gymnast’s development — she survived a catastrophic earthquake which struck north-west Turkey in 1999.

That earthquake killed around 17,000 people and left hundreds of thousand others homeless, including her family.

“We lived in a tent for a year, in constant fear because of aftershocks,” Uctas said. “But I never stopped training, even when the gym was being rebuild, I trained outdoors and remained focused on practicing as much as I could.”

Pinned up on Uctas’ wall is a pencil drawing she made for motivation and inspiration, of her heroine Svetlana Khorkina, Russia’s Olympic gold winner. Uctas has a talent for drawing, and loves sketching gymnasts, as a way of relaxing after her taxing physical training.

Certainly Uctas’ qualification will help broaden the Games’ appeal among her compatriots.

Uctas and her coach Mergul Guler were meticulous in their studying of the routines and the skills she would need to master to have a chance of competing.

“I went through so many regulations material on the internet to find out how to qualify for the Games. The reason why no Turkish gymnast ever went to the Olympics so far is not incompetence, it’s just that no-one actually believed it could happen, and therefore never found out how to,” Guler, a former gymnast herself, said in disbelief. Guler has given Uctas the love of a mother and even stayed at the dormitory with her.

Uctas said her real goal is to be a forerunner for the generation that will come after her. She believes that they will achieve much greater success.

Yet Uctas will always be known as the first who blazed the path.


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