Assistant coach Kostya Kolesnikov sits at the heart of men’s gymnastics program

“It’s a family. When recruiting new freshmen, the first word I am saying to them is ‘Welcome to the family’. We can have a good time, we can have a bad time, but always have to know I do care about you.” Kolesnikov said.

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics.

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics.

AJ Condon

Throughout his 15 seasons with the Gophers’ men’s gymnastics program, assistant coach Kostya Kolesnikov has developed strong connections with the gymnasts that have come through, stemming from a special connection with the guy who brought him in.

Head Coach Mike Burns brought Kolesnikov into the program, recruiting him from M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wisconsin. In pursuit of a new opportunity, he moved to Minnesota without his family and lived with Burns for about two months as he settled in.

“During the interview process, he met with the guys and the team and was going through the whole process — he just did a wonderful job,” Burns said. “[Kolesnikov] always struck me as a really good person and a really happy person, a really personable person.”

Neither Kolesnikov nor Burns knew that those two months would form the relationship they’ve held for the past 15 years.

“In that time, we really learned about each other. We were working 12-16 hours a day, and we were working like crazy,” Kolesnikov said. “That time we build more [of a] relationship than coworkers — we build more [of a] relationship as friends. We are truly friends, and we truly support each other through any kind of time.”

Throughout their 15 years of friendship, Kolesnikov and Burns have always had each other’s back. Earlier in his career, Burns had a knee surgery and Kolesnikov was right by his side during his recovery. Kolesnikov knows when challenges arise, Burns will be right there doing the same for him.

“If I need something and my kids are sick, I will call Mike and say, ‘I need a day off.’ He would say, ‘Absolutely I will cover you,’” Kolesnikov said. “It’s more of [a] relationship as two friends working on the same field, and I’m extremely fortunate to have Mike as a boss.”

The two coaches’ relationship stems from a strong trust in each other’s judgment. They have their arguments and disagreements as any coaching staff does, but that all changes by the end of the day.

“Any relationship is built on trust and respect. I don’t expect us to be on the same page on everything, and we’re not. We’ll debate, we’ll argue, but at the end of the day, all that is superseded by a strong relationship. At the end of the day, I still love the guy like a brother, and I love working with him,” Burns said.

In addition to his relationship with Burns, Kolesnikov strives to be connected with each gymnast that comes through the program. He wants to see them not just develop as gymnasts but also as people.

“For me, personally, I am trying to build for each person a story. What is your experience, I want you to have the best time of [your] life,” Kolesnikov said. “It’s why I’m trying to build with each player [a] very good relationship that will transfer after graduation.”

Junior Shane Wiskus has worked very closely with Kolesnikov throughout his time at Minnesota, but that wasn’t the beginning of their relationship. 

“I was doing private lessons with [Kolesnikov] at my old gym from the age of 11 or 12 up until high school. Then during high school, I went to all the Gopher summer camps and would say hi to him at every competition,” Wiskus said. “He was one of the main reasons I came [to Minnesota].”

Wiskus is a different learner now than he was when he first met Kolesnikov. He’s become more coachable, and Kolesnikov pushes him to be the best gymnast he can be.

“I’m starting to take corrections and really listen to him. He’s one of those guys that will let you know when you’re slacking off, and he doesn’t tolerate any of the BS,” Wiskus said. “To have a coach that understands you, understands your work ethic and your drive and your goals and is also willing to sacrifice all kinds of free time just to push you and help you get better is very helpful.”

Kolesnikov has been helping Wiskus prepare for meets with a personalized calendar. It consists of different programs for gymnastics training and conditioning on his road to the Olympics.

“One thing that Kostya’s really good at is getting you ready for competitions. Sometimes you’ll go into the gym so dead, and you’ll have two, three events and a heavy circuit at the end, and you don’t wanna do it. All you wanna do is do your routine and get out of there,” Wiskus said. “Kostya doesn’t let you slack off — he’ll always tell you to do one more.”

Over the years, Kolesnikov has seen many gymnasts come and go. That doesn’t stop him from continuing to develop the relationships he built as their coach.

“I’m keeping up with the relationship with those guys already graduating by sending them text messages. Through the media that we have right now, we can see a lot of stuff that’s going on in their lives,” Kolesnikov said. “For our sport, we would like them to come back, be supportive, be active, and that’s how we building them, through this personal connection.”