For want of an adventure after accumulating four years of teaching-cum-coaching experience at a university in Saint Petersburg, Russian Ekaterina Logunova applied for overseas postings to be a gymnastics coach. “I received two job offers in Europe and one in Ipoh. I decided to choose the city that was as far away from the cold Russian climate as possible,” she said.
The only thing that the Russian National Champion (2006 – 2007) and World Cup bronze medallist (Spain 2008) knew about Malaysia was that it is a tropical country and Islam, its official religion. That, and having to leave behind her boyfriend (now husband), didn’t stop her from taking up the offer to be the rhythmic gymnastics coach for Perak state, based in Ipoh.
“When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in February, it was blazingly hot, a huge contrast from the biting winter of Russia. It was like paradise! Shortly after, I made my way to Ipoh to start work. I remember seeing lots of greens everywhere. It was so refreshing from the winter scenes of Russia,” recalled Logunova.
But the Ipoh of 2013, when Logunova first arrived, and the Ipoh of 2017 are nearly like two different cities. According to Logunova, Ipoh retailers have almost caught up with those of larger cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur. “I used to find difficultly buying the brands of clothing that I like. I had to travel to Penang, the nearest big city. I don’t do that anymore because I can find whatever I want in Ipoh now.”
Although Logunova has retired from competitive gymnastics, as a coach, she still adheres to a very strict diet and fitness routine. Even Ipoh’s famed local cuisine and street food have failed to sway her from a regimented lifestyle.
“This is the only life I know since I was four years old. I cook for myself and stay away from unhealthy food, although I do have cheat meals whereby I take a bite of different food just for the taste. But those times are few and far between. I go for outdoor runs every morning and evening. I love to be outdoors because in Russia, we only have three months for outdoor activities during the summer. It’s funny how I embrace the tropical heat but my local friends are hiding in air-conditioned rooms,” she laughed.
As a fitness freak, Logunova could hardly ignore the state of the many gymnasiums in Ipoh. “Up until today, there is not one that has impressed me, sad to say. I have visited quite a number and found the equipment to be old. The environment is just not there,” she lamented.
Logunova, who coaches five hours a day and longer when preparing her students for tournaments, does not mind the almost non-existent Russian community in Ipoh. With her husband, Evgenii Starovoitov, working as a football coach in Saint Petersburg, Logunova is mainly accompanied by a cat, Max, that she adopted from the streets three years ago. “My students and their parents include me in many activities, so I am kept quite busy,” the 28-year-old said. Logunova is in charge of about a hundred budding gymnasts; about thirty of them are in the elite group.
Her best achievement as a coach so far in Perak is silver medals in Sukma Games 2014 and 2016. Under her guidance, three Perak gymnasts have gained spots in the national squad, and she is understandably proud of them.
“The ideal age to start training for gymnastics is about five to six years old but in Malaysia, children only start at the age of seven. Besides, in Malaysia, academics take priority over sports, unlike in Russia, where it can be turned into a rewarding career. Many of my students have to regularly sacrifice training for classes or other school activities. On the other hand, they fare well in their grades because they love gymnastics and they know that by acing their studies only are they allowed by their parents to continue with training,” she explained.
It looks as though Logunova is enjoying her job, in a city that she has grown to love. She is hoping that her husband can also secure employment and join her here, to finally put an end to the long distance relationship of five years.
Note: An edited version of this article [Russian brings gymnastic flair to Ipoh] was published on 11th November 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.