A Statue Come to Life

By A. Shelukhin

Moscow News, #13 1979   Long ringlets neatly pinned up, arched eyebrows, a clear, almost limpid face, and large grey eyes, calm and sometimes serene -- such is the portrait of Yelena Mukhina, world gymnastics champion, before an ordinary training session.

She enters the gym on Moscow's Leningradsky Prospekt at 9 a.m. sharp. Clad as usual modestly -- a violet woolen top and black sports pants, no bijouterie or charms -- she seems a trifle mundane; it's her face that shows it all: deep down she's walking on air.  She's in her element and every cell in her body tingles with power, energy and suppleness.  During the last decade sport has brought her a great deal.

Every minute of the training session is planned: she does warming up exercises slowly and thoroughly, does her pull ups on the wall bars, then to the trampoline for a few light and graceful leaps and somersaults.

During these minutes Mikhail Klimenko, Merited Coach of the USSR, seems to be paying no attention to his pupil, as he talks to his colleagues.  Then, as though recalling something, he approaches Mukhina and says a few words.  Yelena takes it in; it's all quite clear.  She has to polish up her vaulting.  She goes to the end of the track, sticks out her right foot, and for 15 seconds warms up her toes.  Then, starting position: arms straight, the body stock-still.  Suddenly, she's off like a shot.  The jump, the mid-air turn, and the perfect landing on the far side of the horse.  For an instant she looks like a statue come alive, every line of her body chiseled.

"How long do you keep her vaulting?" I asked Mikhail Klimenko.  He smiled non-committantly.

"As long as is necessary, one might say.  Maybe 40 minutes, or maybe even as much as two hours.  It all depends."

The 20 or so gymnasts looked quite at home in the gym.  They all trained on different pieces of apparatus.  Among them were five-year-olds, rated 12-year-old gymnasts, and 16-year-old Masters of Sport.  The coaches spoke in undertones.  Sometimes the piano played, accompanying the choreographer Natalya Klimenko, Master of Sport in calisthenics.  Then Yelena Mukhina, quite oblivious of her neighbors, makes another try -- the soaring leap, the turn, the landing and the "freeze."  She looks in the direction of her coach.  He makes a movement with his hand, emphasizing the nuance of the vault.  For Mukhina everything is clear...

"Is there any secret in her staggering success and in her becoming world champion?" I asked.

Mikhail Klimenko isn't surprised by the question.

"There is a secret and it's a very simple one to explain," he replied.  "Mukhina is the sort of gymnast that almost inevitably mounts the dais.  The thing is that she is the embodiment of two fundamental aspects of world gymnastics -- a complex program and femininity in performance.  We used to know masters who either had an amazingly difficult program or who were stunningly graceful.  But Mukhina combines the two."

"And which standards guided you in your work?" I continued.

"When I was young I thought our Olympic champion Viktor Chukarin had it all.  Boris Shakhlin and the Japanese gymnast A. Nakayama also put in fine performances.  Lyudmila Turishcheva's victories taught our gymnasts a lot, too.  But recently I have been impressed most of all by Nikolai Andrianov, whose light, immaculate style has become the yardstick for gymnastics and has demonstrated the worth of aesthetics.  I believe that Yelena Mukhina, too, has learned a lot from the golden treasury of Soviet gymnastics."

"I think there is no special secret in my latest achievements," said Yelena Mukhina.  "Today, success is within the reach of all those who are totally committed to their favorite sport, those capable of concentrating absolutely everything on a single goal.  There's another thing though -- my coach has always taught me that every new performance is first of all an occasion for joy."

Yelena always manages to keep her spirits up, even when she yielded to her friend Olga Koval from the same sports school.  Yes, sport is unpredictable.  In terms of mastery, Koval revealed herself earlier than did Mukhina, and in 1975 was already a prizewinner in the World Cup tournament.  But a year later, 16-year-old Mukhina performed brilliantly in all the youth competitions, taking top place in the overall, as well as in the vaulting and floor exercises.

Mukhina made rapid progress, mastering every new complex elements.  In the spring of 1977 she won a prize in the competitions for the Moscow News Prize, and that summer she distinguished herself in the all-Union junior games.  In the 1977 European championship she came second in overall and performed beautifully on the asymmetrical bars, on the beam and in floor exercises.

1978 was Mukhina's year.  First she took the Moscow News tournament and the USSR overall championship.  Then, in the autumn, she swept the French fans and judges off their feet at the world championships in Strasbourg by her charm, grace and a cascade of complex combinations.  She was among the best in the floor exercises, and on the beam and the asymmetrical bars, and she totally dominated the overall.

In tournaments gymnasts have to make 12 appearances, each of which calls for great self-control, willpower and concentration.  "I always attached great importance to the psychological training of my pupils," says Mikhail Klimenko.  "And I think that psychological stability has played no small role in Mukhina's latest successes."

The 18-year-old world champion, who is now studying at the Moscow Physical Culture Institute, is entering the stage of genuine sports maturity.  But, as before, she still puts a lot of work during every training session into mastering new elements.

"We approach a new element gradually, by a roundabout route," Yelena says with a smile.  "We know well that one can't succeed by storm.  So we display the maximum of patience and persistence."

An eventful season lies ahead of the gymnast -- the USSR Cup, the European championships, the finals of the Tournament of Soviet Nations, the World Cup, and the world championships.  Each requires its own kind of training rhythm, and it is far from easy to find.  Mikhail Klimenko says:

"It is natural that we should all be waiting with particular interest for the performances by the strongest gymnasts at the tournament for the Moscow News Prize.  For Mukhina these competitions have been a good schooling.  It was here that she gained confidence and the style of a champion.  I think it would be useful for new masters to pass through this schooling, too."

This page was created on December 8, 2001.
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