The young Turks aiming for glory

10 August 2018 – A surprise newcomer to the top tier of European gymnastics has emerged at the 2018 European championships in Glasgow. Turkey are not a team that have featured highly in gymnastics before, but they outscored some of the more experienced gymnastics nations to finish fifth after qualifications, reaching their first ever European team final. I spoke to gymnast Ahmet Onder and coach Aljaz Pegan (a former Slovenian gymnast) before the team finals.

“It’s the first time in history,” says 22-year-old Ahmet Onder of the qualification, who also reached two apparatus finals (floor and parallel bars), along with two of his teammates – Ibrahim Colak on rings and Umit Samiloglu on horizontal bar.

The mastermind behind this transformation of gymnastics in Turkey is former gymnast Suat Celen, who is now the president of their national federation. In 2012 he started to develop the gymnastics programme, increasing the number of clubs across the country and importing foreign coaches to help with the coaching.

One such coach is Aljaz Pegan of Slovenia. A former horizontal bar world champion, Aljaz competed against Suat in the early 2000s, and has been working in Turkey for five years.

“When Suat became the president, he totally changed the system,” says Aljaz. “He has a vision, a very clear view what he wants to do with Turkish gymnastics. He’s putting a lot of effort in this goal, which is to qualify a team to the Olympics in 2020.”

These European championships are a step towards that goal, and gymnasts like Ahmet are setting a standard for others at home to aspire to. “I think with his performances the other gymnasts think, okay, if he can do it, we can too,” says Aljaz. “In the last two years the gymnasts really began to believe they can do something, and this is how we can build a good team”.

“We all train together, juniors and seniors, so I also want them to work like us,” says Ahmet. “We want to reach our goal, and maybe they will be in the team. I believe they’re looking up to us, seeing how we train, how we compete. They are learning from us.”

Ahmet started gymnastics at the age of eight, and it was watching the 2004 Athens Olympics on TV that really inspired him. “My favourite gymnast was the Japanese, Hiroyuki Tomita,” he says. “I watched him and my dream began. I said, ‘I must be there one day’.”

Despite winning several world and European medals on high bar, Aljaz never made it to an Olympic Games, due to the qualification criteria when he was competing. Only recently have apparatus specialists had an opportunity to qualify individually. 

“I’m really happy that I met Suat five years ago,” Aljaz says. “I never dreamed that after my gymnastics career I would stay in gymnastics. But I’m still here with the gymnastics family, and every year I’m more involved and it’s really nice. And with such a good team, it’s perfect!”

Turkey finished seventh in the European team final, with Ibrahim Colak winning a silver medal on rings. At the world championships later in 2018, Turkey placed 15th as a team. The top 12 teams at the 2019 world championships qualify to the 2020 Olympic Games.

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