Nelly Kim: A New Gymnastics Star

By Stanislav Tokarev
Sovetsky Sport, 1976

During practice sessions she sometimes furiously kicks gymnastic apparatuses and screams that she will never go near them again.  Her moods switch a dozen times a day, she admits, and she may change decisions 10 times an hour.  But all this is "off stage".  In competition Nelly Kim maintains enviable composure, and is extremely reliable, consistently chalking up good marks.  A few minutes before going into action she is quite at ease, talking and laughing.  Not every competitor is so relaxed.  Ludmila Turischeva, for instance, becomes stone-like -- you would not dare approach her.  With Nelly Kim it is quite different.  She does not mind joking a minute before her entrance.  "Nelly, why are you licking your palm?" I asked her once.  "I've torn off a callous, you see.  I'm treating it as an animal would," she said, her slanting eyes twinkling mischievously.  Two dozen lenses were focused on her, cameras clicking constantly.  Someone else might have lost her temper and stalked off, or played up to the cameramen by striking attractive poses.  Not Nelly Kim...  She was licking her palm.

Nelly Kim was fortunate to go in for gymnastics at the right time: in the 1960s quite a few talented coaches appeared in the provinces.  Until then masters of gymnastics had lived and trained only in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev.

In Vitebsk, Byelorussia, Vikenti Dmitriyev was training Larissa Petrik, who was to come to the fore by defeating the many-times Olympic champion Larissa Latynina.  In Grozny, the North Caucasus, coach Vladislav Rastorotsky was training Ludmila Turischeva, who eventually beat Larissa Petrik.  Says Nelly Kim's coach Vladimir Baidin: "Successes of others tempted us gymnasts of Chimkent, Kazakhstan, to try our luck."

In 1969, 12-year-old Nelly Kim asked 14-year-old Olga Korbut for an autograph.  The world had not heard of Olga yet.  She was known only to Soviet experts in gymnastics: they hurried from the bars where she had just astounded everyone with her "loop" to the beam where she was about to execute her stunning somersault.  The world had never heard of her -- so what?  She herself was sure of her abilities and her autograph was as bold as it is today.

Nelly Kim and other girl gymnasts of her age are not pioneers in acrobatic gymnastics -- this trend was started by others.  As usually happens, a pioneer exerts oneself to the utmost to reach what seems to be the ultimate achievement, whereas those who come later do the same movements or stunts with confident ease.  Olga Korbut's somersault seemed inimitable.  Nelly Kim was one of the first to repeat it, and she did it almost casually.

An athlete's success has a great deal to do with his, or her, character.  Nelly is a girl of character.  She hates lengthy practice sessions -- she practices when she feels like it and only as long as she finds it enjoyable.  But once she practiced a "swoop" on the bars for four and a half hours in a row.  After 200 attempts she gave it up, convinced that she could not do it.  She appraises realistically her abilities.  Her natural simplicity and clarity of aim -- the qualities she values most of all in people -- help her to neither over-estimate nor under-estimate her possibilities.  Her natural simplicity has nothing to do with narrow-mindedness.  She is intelligent and has versatile interests.  While she is eager to fulfill her ambitions in sports, she says she wants to live so as to give all she can to life and to take in return as much as possible from it.  She loves music.  She has made up her mind to study English and plans to enter the Foreign Languages Institute, although she is still a student at the Physical Culture Institute.  In childhood she did not read much, and now she is "discovering" for herself Romain Roland, Anatole France and Emile Zola.

She is rather difficult to handle, her coach says.  He has never been able to get her to do exactly as he says.  Once, before the Olympic Games, they had one of their routine rows and Baidin asked her: "Listen, if I guarantee you -- if I give you a hundred-percent guarantee -- that you'll get two gold medals, will you obey unquestioningly what I say?"  She thought a while then answered honestly that she would not.

During her short sports career Nelly Kim has become a world champion (team championship), a European champion in free exercises and won the USSR Cup in 1976.  She has beaten Ludmila Turischeva and Olga Korbut, and she has also triumphed over the Romanian girl gymnast Nadia Comaneci, a new star in gymnastics, in three out of four events.

Sometimes I think that there is something in Nelly's genetic code that is responsible for her sweeping casualness, independence and love of life, and also for her sudden fits of fury aimed at what appeals so grippingly to her heart -- the accursed vaulting horse, beam and bars.  Perhaps it is the Tatar and Korean blood in her veins that rebels against the age-old submissiveness of her great grandmothers.  And her sunny character -- is the result of our time and society in which she has been brought up.

It is easy to be Nelly's friend.  And it is fun to stroll in the streets with her and talk to her only minutes before her performance.

Approaching a gymnastic apparatus she slightly wrinkles her high swarthy forehead and narrows her eyes...and then she begins to unfold the great secret of her body and soul, the secret whose name is talent.

This page was created on January 15, 2004.
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