Utyasheva, a former World Champion rhythmic gymnast, was in Doha to help launch the world-wide campaign to host the 2014 Winter Olympics of Sochi, a Riviera-like city on the Black Sea in southern Russia.

 

"Russia is a great country of winter athletes, Sochi is a beautiful place, and we have a big number of Russian athletes supporting the Sochi bid," Utyasheva said through a translator.

 

The 21-year-old gymnast retired from professional competition earlier this year, but still performs in artistic shows and organises a gymnastics tournament in the Russian city of Yaroslavl.

 

"I quit professional sport after my injuries, I was on crutches for 8 months," said Utyasheva referring to surgery she had in 2003 to repair fractures in both of her feet.

 

The six-time World Cup winner initially had dreams of being an ice skater, but was discovered at 4 years of age by gymnastics coach Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Kasyanova while on a shopping trip in Volgograd.

 

Discovered while shopping

 

"I was standing in a queue in a shopping centre with my mother, stretching my arms, and was spotted by a coach who thought my flexibility would be good for gymnastics," Utyasheva explained.

 

"I wanted to start ice skating - which was my favourite sport, but I got into rhythmic gymnastics and I'm very pleased that I did because I have benefited a lot from it."

 

Lyaysan Utyasheva performs a
rhythmic gymnastics clubs routine

Gymnastics has taken the diminutive Utyasheva around the globe as she became one of Russia's best rhythmic gymnasts, winning gold at the Madrid World Championships in 2001.

 

Now assisting with the Sochi Winter Olympic bid, it was obvious that Utyasheva had plenty of passion for sports development and would indeed be a great ambassador for the 2014 Games bid and for Russian sport in general.

 

"As a sportsperson I would like to support our athletes to develop, and to share my experiences with new generations," said Utyasheva, who is also the Vice-president of the Yaroslavl Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation.

 

"When starting out, children should like what they do, and be devoted to what they do.  It's a hard life with a lot of training."

 

Impressed with ASPIRE

 

While in Doha, Utyasheva visited ASPIRE - Qatar's academy for sports excellence, and the largest indoor sports dome in the world, where she surveyed the 2006 Doha Asian Games venue for gymnastics.

 

On the ball: Lyaysan Utyasheva

"I am really impressed with the ASPIRE Academy," said Utyasheva.

 

"ASPIRE is truly a state of the art facility that clearly demonstrates that Qatar is committed to developing world class sporting facilities."

 

"In our country, our families have to support our sporting pursuits early, and if the government recognises a good sports person, then they provide funding," she added. 

 

"But here, there is an amazing opportunity for the young generation to be trained in such super facilities."

 

"I am amazed that everything is paid for by the government.  It provides a golden opportunity to learn at ASPIRE."

 

Gymnastics is not big in the Middle East at the moment, with female sports participation in general being especially low, as noted by Utyasheva.

 

"For girls here, it's difficult to get into gymnastics because of cultural background and special dress regulations," she said.

 

"But now new uniforms are being developed which cover more of the body which will hopefully give the young people here a chance to develop in the sport of gymnastics."

 

The ultimate winter sports nation

 

As some of her family lives in Sochi, the 2014 bid is close to the heart of the young ambassador with the Russian government planning to inject $12 billion into developing infrastructure in the region as well as creating a year-round resort city with international sporting facilities.

 

 

Gymnast and ambassador:
Lyaysan Utyasheva in Doha

"Sochi 2014 is the gateway to the future of sport and the opportunity to establish a brand new winter sports capital in the ultimate winter sports nation," Utyasheva said.

 

"The games in Sochi will transform Russia into a center of excellence for winter sports training and international competition."

 

Retiring from gymnastics competition at just 21 years of age might seem strange, but Lyaysan Utyasheva may have found a new calling as she contributes to the promotion and development of Russian sport, and hopefully a winning bid for Sochi 2014.