LONDON (Reuters) - Oksana Chusovitina made her final somersault on the Olympic vault on Sunday after competing for more than two decades, in six Olympics and under three different flags in a career that other gymnasts called an inspiration.
The petite 37-year-old, who has won a record nine world championship medals on a single event, the vault, finished her career in London with a fifth place on her signature apparatus.
She said she would spend more time with her son, whose illness had prompted her to prolong her unmatched career.
“I’ve got to stop now,” Chusovitina told reporters.
“I’m happy. I’m not injured. I’m healthy and I’m a mummy. Now I’m going to lead a completely normal life with my son.”
Uzbek-born Chusovitina moved to Germany after her son Alisher was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at the age of three in 2002. He has since been diagnosed as clear.
The short-haired athlete started her international career in 1989, a year before Romanian Sandra Izbasa, who took vault gold on Sunday, was even born.
In the 1992 Barcelona Games, she won team gold with the former Soviet Union’s Unified Team, and claimed silver on vault at the Beijing Games 16 years later under the German flag. She represented Uzbekistan in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Despite not winning a medal, Sunday’s competition was special for her.
“I didn’t think about it during the competition but after my second attempt, I told myself ‘this was the last one in your life’.
Chusovitina said she plans to continue to coach gymnasts in Germany, but acknowledged the uncertainty of her life ahead.
“I’ve got to try out this normal life first, then I can tell you how I like it,” she said.
In a sport where athletes are considered to have peaked by their late teens and are drawing pensions from their sporting federations by the time they reach 20, Chusovitina got better with age and was an inspiration for younger gymnasts.
“I admire her a lot,” said Izbasa, her gold medal around her neck. “We congratulated each other. We supported each other. We shook hands and I told her she could even be my mother.”
To repeated questions from incredulous journalists about whether she really would not compete in Rio in 2016, Chusovitina laughed and said: “Only as a spectator.”
For now, she will take her son and husband on their first holiday as a family.
“The three of us have never been on holidays all together. In summer, when my son has school holidays, I’ve had to prepare for the world championships every year. So I couldn’t do it. Now I can.”
The three will visit triple Olympic champion Svetlana Boginskaya, with whom Chusovitina won the gold in 1992, in the United States.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall