During the World Games 2022 in Birmingham, Uzbekistan’s Darya Latisheva unleashed dazzling wushu performances in nandao and nanquan that left spectators breathless, and won her a long-dreamed of silver medal. In 2018, she initially national gained fame when she won Uzbekistan’s first medal ever in wushu at the Asian Games. A year later she was the bronze medalist at her debut in the World Wushu Championships in Shanghai. As Uzbekistan’s premier wushu athlete, Darya, now only 22, has done much to popularize the sport in her own country. She epitomizes grit, perseverance and bravery, especially as she struggled to win a devastating battle with Covid-19 to proudly see the flag of Uzbekistan rise over the World Games podium. Darya’s dedication, intelligence, and sportsmanship are combined with a never-give-up attitude that has made her one of Asia’s most promising young champions of this decade.
Wushu Beginnings in Tashkent
Darya was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and had never heard of wushu until she was nine years old, when a martial arts club opened near her house. Training sessions were held outdoors, and as she watched from the sidelines, she was mesmerized by athletes practicing with swords and staffs, and became instantly attracted to wushu, deciding to join.
“Wushu is a very beautiful and complex sport,” says Darya, “which, in my opinion, is higher in complexity than some Olympic sports. When I first started performing, wushu in Uzbekistan was already at a good level, and every year it only gets better and better. The level is growing thanks to our results from international competitions that are published in newspapers. This way people in Uzbekistan learn more and more about wushu and get interested in this sport. Therefore, competition has increased on many levels, but it’s still not as competitive as, for example, the domestic championships of China and Russia. The reason for this is that in our country greater attention is paid to Olympic sports than to non-Olympic ones, so we are looking forward to the inclusion of wushu in the Olympics.”
Darya remembers her first wushu tournament, and describes, “It was a competition between clubs, where I performed changquan and gunshu. In my first performance, I was very worried, and when I performed with a staff, I completely forgot my moves. Gradually, my results began to improve. I began to work more, and even harder, and then I began to win numerous championships in Uzbekistan.”
In fact, Darya has won 13 national championship titles, and three continental championship titles. She says the life-changing moment in her sport career came in 2016 at the 6th World Junior Wushu Championships, when she won a gold medal in nangun with a score of 9.31. “And I realized, that I can,” she recalls.
“Every competition is exciting. I think that every athlete has difficulties, I am no exception,” Darya says. She emphasizes that international competitions are unlike national ones. “An international wushu event is at a completely different level and it feels different,” she says. “Wushu in Uzbekistan is not as developed as in other rival countries, so it is much more challenging to compete at the international level rather than at the national one. Now in Uzbekistan, I consistently occupy a leading position. But traveling to international competitions, I see very strong opponents, the most prominent of which are athletes from China. This is the level to which we strive. When we compete against them the excitement greatly increases, and it’s a whole different experience. This makes us work on ourselves, our wushu, more and more. And not just us – I think that each year wushu competition at the international level is gaining momentum.”
Darya’s ascent in her sport has led her to reflect on the evolution of both her physical and mental skills. “Every year, “she says, “my experience in international competitions is growing, and at the same time my confidence in myself and in my abilities is growing too. With each performance from year to year, my level has changed, my technique, physical condition and skill improved. Every time we compete, we try with new efforts. Every year at international competitions we fight not with rivals, but with ourselves, with our own level of last year, and we try to show ourselves better and stronger.”
A Junior Champion, A Rising Wushu Star
When she was 15, Darya won her first gold medal at the 2015 Asian Junior Wushu Championships, in nangun. She would next set her sights on a world title in Burgas, at the 2016 World Junior Wushu Championships, where she first experienced performing the 3rd set of international wushu competition routines-nanquan. Darya recalls, “The complexity was much more difficult especially in jumps. But despite this, we had a great desire to win. Performing in the first two events in nanquan and nandao I did not reach the podium, having made a mistake in the jump. I realized that I had one chance left, and despite my fatigue, I should not give up, but gather myself and make the last, powerful breakthrough. So, my third event, my staff performance, was successful, and I won the nangun gold medal. Based on this experience, I realized that you should never give up — you need to try and fight to the last with all your might, which helped me greatly in my next competitions.”
Triumph would soon be followed by travail. “In 2017,” says Darya, “when I started preparing for the Asian championships, I developed severe back pain, which made it impossible for me to fully exercise. The doctors said that I had a protrusion of the intervertebral discs, and if I do not stop training, I’ll develop a hernia which in the future will end my sports career. I couldn’t bend, turn, let alone jump. But despite this, I decided for myself not to stop and go to the end. I took painkillers, tightened my lower back with a corset, and thanks to my trainer, who found a special approach to training, we were able to overcome this difficult moment.”
“Miraculously,” Darya continues, “two weeks before the Asian Junior Wushu Championships, the pain began to subside, and I began to take less pain medication. At the event, I managed to perform successfully and show a much better level compared to the last World junior Championships. My technique had changed a lot. Thus, I took 4th place in nanchuan and nandao and won the gold medal in nangun. At this championship, I was very pleased with myself. When I arrived back home, I stopped training and underwent a full treatment, after which the pain stopped bothering me. It was a really hard experience that strengthened my character.”
A New Level of Wushu
In 2018, at the Asian Games, Darya had her first experience of competing among adult athletes. “When we started to prepare,” she says, “absolutely no one believed in us that we could bring home a wushu medal. But the coach and I didn’t think about that, and we just trained from morning to night in the gym, working with all our might. Arriving there, I saw a completely different level of competition and the very high level of my rivals. I didn’t think that in my first year I could win such a difficult championship, especially against such strong competitors. I shared these thoughts with my coach, to which he replied: “Dasha, you look at them, but you don’t see how you are doing, you don’t even see how strong you are. You are stronger than them and you can win. Your goal is not to beat them, but yourself; if you beat yourself, then you will win this championship.”
Dasha’s coach instilled in her confidence and strength – it was up to her to do the rest out on the carpet. The competition with the top young athletes in Asia was daunting. “I realized,” recalls Dasha, “that I just have to show my best performance. When we saw the scores and the 2nd place that I took, we were extremely happy. It is difficult to describe the emotions that I had — I saw crazy delight on the face of my coach and his eyes became filled with tears of joy. I could not believe what I had done, that I was really standing on a podium and our flag was being raised along with the flag of China and Hong Kong, China. And for a long time, I could not believe and realize it. Everyone in Uzbekistan was very surprised by our result. It was the first wushu medal for my country from the Asian Games.”
First World Wushu Championships Medal
In 2019, the World Wushu Championships were held in Shanghai, and now, having established herself as a champion in the realm of adult competition, Darya needed to rise to this elite occasion. But this event offered its own unique challenges – besides competing with the best wushu athletes in the world. One of the main difficulties was that Darya did not have her coach during her competitions, as he needed to judge competitions on a different arena. “So I went out without a coach,” she says, “and before going out I had to set myself up. I took 4th place in nangun.”
That left Darya with her nandao. “In my performance with the sword,” she remembers, “I made a big mistake and staggered after landing from a somersault, for which points were deducted. My mistake was that I did not calculate my push before the jump and pushed off too strongly, which caused a twist that affected my landing. With great difficulty, I stopped my movement and improved my jump.” Even more determined, Darya increased her difficulty, steeled herself to control every step, and took third place to win the bronze medal – her first WWC medal in her first World Championships.
“This was another experience that tempered my character,” Darya reflects. “Rely only on yourself, increase your strength of mind, and properly tune yourself before each performance. There was only one goal in my head. I was training for this WWC performance for a very long time and with great difficulty. I had only 1.20 seconds on the carpet, and I have to show my skills to the maximum, display what I have been working on for so long, and not let myself or the coach down. I could not bear the thought that all this work could be in vain.”
A Devastating Covid Illness, Triumph at The World Games 2022
2019 ended on a high note for Darya, but she, like the rest of the world, had no idea what would happen to the world only months later. With the global pandemic, live wushu competition, like almost all sports, ground to a halt. Training alone in Uzbekistan was lonely, but not having a definite goal to work towards was also difficult.
“The preparation for Birmingham was the hardest in my sports career,” Darya says. “And I’ll tell you why. Due to the pandemic, we have not had competitions for 2 years. Since 2021, I have been burning with desire for these competitions and have been looking forward to starting preparations for the World Games. But then, from the beginning of the preparation, a very difficult test appeared for me, which is hard for me to even talk about.”
“In February 2022, I contracted the coronavirus,” Darya remembers. “I started to have a temperature of 37.3, from morning to evening. I trained with difficulty, because I had absolutely no strength. My immunity had decreased, and I got constant and frequent sore throats. I got sick again. Diagnosed with angina, I also developed reactive arthritis, which made all my joints ache, and my knees and ankles swelled. It was very difficult to walk. My rheumatic parameters were greatly increased. The President of the Federation took me to the hospital, where I was treated with antibiotics, and I developed tumors. There were one-and-a-half months left before the competition.”
“After the hospital,” she continues, “my joints returned to normal, but the temperature remained high at 37.3, not having been lower since February. Despite this, I tried my best to train. I was constantly tired and wanting to sleep, and there was weakness and swelling that did not completely go away. The doctors told me that in my condition I need to stop training and start treatment, but their words did not stop me. My coach did not believe that I could prepare for The World Games, although he did not show it, and he supported me until the last minute. I really thank him for this.”
Darya and her coach trained as much as her body would allow, but after the hospital she was in poor condition, and she developed more injuries. “I had a groin sprain, which prevented me from doing jumps,” she recalls. “My coach found a different approach, where we worked out only the technique and stopped doing jumps. There was little time left, after the treatment, and I felt that the pain had gone, but when I started jumping, I damaged the ligament, and it began to hurt a lot.”
Darya was still determined to make it to Birmingham. This was her dream. But with a week left before departure, she suffered another terrible blow. “I thought, I could not stand it anymore and I should give up — my hip joint on my right leg became inflamed or sprained. I absolutely could not jump even through the pain. I was not able to even make one jump before the flight at the final viewing for the Federation.”
With the World Games roster set, no one could replace Darya. They had tickets and visas, and most of all, the perseverance and creative problem solving to somehow find a way. “In this situation,” recalls Darya, “my coach said that before my performance, I need a complete rest for the legs. We changed the score to other jumps and removed my favorite, but very difficult Dantiao Hokufan jump, because of the fact that due to pain during the preparation I could not do it even once.”
A 40-hour flight from Tashkent to Birmingham didn’t help matters, or give Darya much rest. But once they got there, she and her coach, Bazarov Dilshod, went to work. “Arriving at the competition site, my coach told me to do each jump one time on the warm-up mat the day before the performance, separately, not in combination. I did it, and the pain began to subside after a rest. On the day of the performance, my coach told me: ‘Dasha, I know that you are strong, you have gone through a lot, through something that not everyone would have gone through. And here you are, the last push is left, you can do it, I’m sure of it. It is necessary to complete only 2 landings and do everything to the maximum.’ I pulled myself together and did the best that I could. I won the World Games silver that I dreamed of.”
Wushu Life, Wushu Goals
Darya’s support from her coach, her Federation, and her family have helped support her in her quest to be a champion. “At first,” she says, “my family did not really believe that I could achieve high results at the international level in such a difficult sport. But when I began to win the championships of Uzbekistan, my family was very happy and supported me in achieving even better results. For example, my mother sewed uniforms for me for every championship; even at the Asian Junior Wushu Championships in 2015 I competed in a uniform that she sewed for me. And there I took first place in nangun. In preparing for every competition, my family has a lot of faith in me, supports and loves wushu, just like me.”
Darya also values her extended wushu family around the globe, with athletes who supported one another online during the long pandemic that kept them apart in person. “I consider all my rival wushu competitors my friends,” she says, “and I occasionally correspond with some of them. I’m always glad to see them on social media. I rejoice in their achievements, and I like to watch many good and interesting videos they post.”
Right now Darya is focused on her training and career as an athlete, but she has some thoughts on where wushu may lead her in the future. “Basically,” she says, “I devote all my time to wushu and my training, constantly improving my level. But also now I am studying at the Institute of Physical Education in Tashkent as a part-time student and in my free time I study English. I also have a hobby – it is teaching small children wushu. I really like to teach children, to see them learn, to feel how love for wushu appears inside them, and how they come to trainings with even greater desire to absorb new knowledge. I am charged with positivity and energy from them. For now, it’s just a hobby. I would really like to coach children for competitions in future, but as my coach says, I can start teaching at any time and at any age, and I don’t have many years to perform on my own. Moreover, now I am at the peak of my career, and I should work on myself while I have health and opportunity.”
Darya concludes, “My whole life is saturated with wushu. In all my activities, wushu is my way of life. Everything I do in my daily activity is aimed at the realization of me as an athlete in this sport. My dream is for wushu to be included in the Olympic Games. I would like to participate and win a medal there. Next year we have the Asian Games, the Universiade, and the World Championships — and my plans for the future are to prepare well and win these championships.”