Nikolai Andrianov: It's Tough to be a Champion

Smena, 1976

We present Nikolai Andrianov, the all-round gymnastics champion of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.  Nikolai Andrianov is 25, and a student at a teacher's training college.  He makes his home in the city of Vladimir, 200 kilometres southeast of Moscow.  His record, prior to the Montreal Games, includes the following feats: in 1972 he won the Olympic title in the floor exercises; in 1974 -- the world title on the rings; and in 1975 he won the World Cup competition.  Below is the story of his life and sports career as told by himself.

It is hardly news to anyone that champions are made, not born.  It took me 12 years to climb to the highest rung of the gymnastics ladder.

I was first introduced to gymnastics in 1964.  I had a friend, Zhenya Skurlov, who went in for gymnastics.  Zhenya and I were great friends; together we roamed about the backyards seeking out our enemies and enjoying scraps.  Since I had no interest in any of the subjects taught at school, I had plenty of free time left after classes.  I cared much more about how I looked in the eyes of other boys, especially older ones, than about school.  At seven I made friends with boys in their teens, and I think I learned to smoke before I learned to read.

One day Zhenya took me along to his gymnastics section.  I didn't think much of what they were doing -- there were lots of other, more interesting things to do.  So I quit.

The gymnastics coach, Nikolai Tolkachev, came for me at home, and took me literally by the hand back to the section.  Did he, my first and only coach, perceive a future Olympic champion in me?  I'm sure I didn't impress him with any special aptitude for gymnastics.  I did not have the required coordination of movement.  What I did have was physical strength and spunk -- both acquired in countless tussles with the kids.  I was not tall, rather squarely built.

Ours was not a happy family: my father left us when I and my three older sisters were still kids.  Mother had to raise the whole gang on her own.  A formidable task...

My progress at school was very poor.  I guess my teachers still give a start when they hear my name mentioned.  No, the boy Nikolai Tolkachev got for a pupil was no shining model.  And if I did not quit his section again, it was not because of any great love of gymnastics.  It was not so much the sport that attracted me as Nikolai Tolkachev himself.  He became like a father to me, and before long I moved over to his place to live.

Every day for eight or ten years my coach would say to me: "You are going to be an outstanding gymnast."  He had plans broken down into years.  According to these plans, I was to become a champion.

Tolkachev must have been irked by my boyish stubbornness, my refusal to understand things that seemed obvious to him; and my total lack of responsibility must have been quite discouraging.  But he was a patient man.  Now I can see that the main asset that man had as a coach was his approach to children -- intelligent, sensitive and understanding.  Of course, at that time I wasn't thinking in those terms.  I just knew that it felt good to be with him.

Tolkachev helped me to do my homework and to understand algebra, physics and chemistry, and he visited the school to iron out my troubles.  My coach did not only help me constantly, pulling me forward like a powerful tugboat, he also taught me a responsible attitude and how to control my actions.  Once, I remember, he caught me and two of my cronies smoking, and he locked us up, all three, in a dark storeroom...

I envy champions who had a brilliant debut, because I had nothing of the kind.  With me everything went haywire at first.  But my coach kept telling me: "We'll make a champions out of you yet!"

I made the national team in 1970 when it included such top-notchers as Mikhail Voronin, Viktor Lisitsky and Viktor Klimenko.  I learned a lot from my older comrades, and now, years later, I can see how useful contact with them was to me.

A few years went by, and I was the only one of the old squad left on the national team.  When we went to the Olympics in Montreal, I was the only member of the USSR team who had Olympic experience.  I had won my first Olympic award in 1972, in the floor exercises.  The average age of the Soviet team sent to Montreal was just under 20.  This was eight years less than the average age of the Japanese team, our main competitor.

What did I and my coach reckon on for my Olympic appearance?  We believed I had a good chance of winning in the floor exercises, or in the vault, or on the rings.

As it happened, I won gold medals in all three.  But most important of all, I got the big gold medal -- for the all-round event, and with it the title of all-round champion, the most coveted title in gymnastics.

In the three Olympic tournaments preceding the Montreal Games the Japanese gymnasts won the all-round event and took home the big gold medal.  Boris Shakhlin had been the last Soviet athlete to win the all-round title.  That was in Rome, in 1960.  I'll be frank, I'm happy to have broken that sad sequence of events -- sad, that is, for our team.

Nikolai Tolkachev had planned my four-year program of preparation for Montreal in such a way that I reached peak form precisely by the time of the Olympics.  I was full of pep and felt equal to any task.  Some people advised me, before the competition, to leave the more difficult, high-risk elements out of my composition, making it simpler and safer.  Their advice was absolutely unacceptable to me.  It seemed senseless to chuck out, at the last minute, something which I had been preparing for years...

Gymnastics is making dizzying progress these days.  Stunts that were the privilege of champions only yesterday are practiced by hundred upon hundreds of athletes today.  Meanwhile, the champions make further advances.  They have to.  They cannot afford to stop and rest content.  If they are unable to excel their recent achievements today, they will be hopelessly behind tomorrow.

This makes modern sport ruthless, but also attractive.  By the time of the 1980 Olympics, to be staged in Moscow, I'll be 28, and by the next Olympics, in 1984, I'll be 32.  It would seem that this is an age when one attains maturity and the peak of one's abilities.  Nevertheless, I'm fully aware that at 32 I will not be among the Olympic competitors: my chances of winning against much younger athletes will be practically nil.

All talk of the vast experience I will have accumulated by then offers little consolation.  It's not that I'll have less physical strength or less enthusiasm.  It's that gymnastics will be altogether different.  Its features will have changed, and so will its requirements.  This means that in 1984 there will be fundamentally new techniques in gymnastics requiring a new approach.

I have the example of my wife, Lyubov Burda, a noted gymnast, winner of two Olympics gold medals -- in Mexico City and in Munich.  After our son was born she never managed to return to big-time sport.  Time races on and it's very hard to catch up.

A champion has it tough: he's being watched by thousands of eyes; thousands of youngsters try to emulate him.  He has always got to be in shape.  Morning workouts, evening workouts...  Elements, repeated thousands of times, gradually falling into combinations.  Monotony?  Tedium?  Yes, there's a bit of that.  Day after day, a gymnast has to repeat the school elements, the ABC's -- like a pianist playing the scales.  It is very difficult to become a champion, but even more so to remain one.

The story would be incomplete if I didn't tell you about my plans.  They are pretty definite already.  I want to become a coach.  I've already taken charge of a gymnast.  His name is Sergei, he is 21 and a student at the same teacher's training college where I'm at.

Of course, this is only a test of my coaching abilities.  But I like the idea of someone, say in 20 years from now, thinking about me with as much warmth and gratitude as I feel towards Nikolai Tolkachev.

This page was created on January 15, 2004.
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