Tumble, twist, swing and vault: When was the last time your typical day included one of these verbs? For one Woodbury family, the sport of gymnastics, and the movement and artistry that come with it, is not only work and play, but also a major passion.
Pavel Miligoulo and his wife Elena are the owners of Rising Stars Gymnastics Academy, an Oakdale gym that offers training for novice gymnasts and top-tier competitors alike. With several international accolades between them—both Pavel and Elena competed for the Belarusian and USSR national teams—the Miligoulos know a thing or two about the challenges and joys of their sport. “It’s about building confidence and teamwork,” Elena says. “In gymnastics, kids learn how to deal with success and disappointment…It’s a really safe environment, too. They learn how to break things down and achieve, part by part, and put it together and have success.”
When Pavel and Elena immigrated to Minnesota from their native Belarus in April 1992, they were on their way to continue a strong family tradition. Pavel’s father, internationally renowned gymnast Nikolai Miligoulo, had come to the Twin Cities in 1990, bringing his successful coaching style with him. Nikolai Miligoulo was one of the first athletes to represent Belarus at the 1960 summer Olympics, where his team won the silver medal in the all-around gymnastics competition. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Nikolai competed that year with a major injury: Most of the bones in one wrist had been crushed by an accidental car-door slam. “He was in pain, but he was proud,” Pavel says with a smile, noting simply, “It was the Olympic games.”
Among them, Nikolai, Pavel and Elena have trained national and international champions, including a few Olympians; Pavel and Elena have coached at several levels for more than 30 years and Nikolai coached 1980 Olympic gold medalist Nelli Kim. But for this down-to-earth local family, coaching means helping kids have fun and discover their own potential. When she first arrived in Minnesota, Elena says she noticed a different attitude toward kids’ sports in the United States. “When we were trained [in Belarus], it was about bringing medals home. It was more selective: ‘If you’re good enough, we’ll train you, but if not, we’re not interested.’ Here, sports are for everyone.”
Pavel adds, “Gymnastics is a foundation for every part of your body, and it’s good for boys and girls.” He notes that kids who study gymnastics, even for a few years, are much better prepared for other sports as they get older. The Miligoulos encouraged both of their sons, Nikolai and Slava, to enjoy sports, but never pushed them to stick with gymnastics. Both young men, who attended Woodbury High School were successful swimmers and divers in high school and college, and are thankful for the solid foundation they built in gymnastics training. Slava says, “Being able to balance practice—up to 20 hours a week—with school and a social life helps prepare kids to be self-sufficient and self-motivated in their life after the sport.”
Slava graduated in 2011 from the University of Minnesota and works full-time as a software engineer. Of course, that’s on top of coaching at Rising Stars, which he says is a true labor of love. “I love working with the kids. It doesn’t feel like a job,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see them grow both as people and as gymnasts.” Slava’s older brother Nikolai, who graduated from the U of M in 2008, also stays involved at Rising Stars, where he runs IT operations.
The Miligoulos say that leading their own gymnastics academy and working together as a family is incredibly rewarding. “We all worked hard to make it work,” Elena says. “We are really blessed that we came to America, where there are great opportunities for people who have goals and work hard.”
The 2014 Winter Olympics, featuring gymnastics, are scheduled for Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia; sochi2014.com. For more information on Rising Stars Gymnastics Academy.