Natalya: The Russians' New Golden Girl

Now!, Sept. 14-20, 1979   In the graceful footsteps of those elfin gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, newcomer Natalya Shaposhnikova will woo the Olympic crowds, predicts Alan Hubbard.

A cuddly bear called Misha is the official mascot of the 1980 Olympics.  But by the end of the Moscow Games it is more likely that our hearts will be won by gymnast Natalya Shaposhnikova, the new ballerina of the bars and beam who seems destined to become the favorite daughter of Russia.

The Russians are determined to present a breathtakingly lavish show that will be savored when the mere statistics of competition are forgotten.  For such a traditionally insular country it will be difficult to present a public face wreathed permanently in welcoming smiles.  But they mean to try.  And the simplest way to get their message across is to give the world someone to love.  Natalya could well be that someone.

She follows in the graceful footsteps of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, whose gamin cuteness and sinewy agility created a new non-butch, image for Eastern European sports ladies and captivated the world.

Now it is the turn of Natalya --a tiny four foot nine -- to be the sparrow in the spotlight.  Aged 18 (but looking 13) she has cultivated a balancing act that is unique, a one-handed handstand at the end of the beam, twisting her body until it becomes horizontal to the floor.  She is also the first girl to employ several hazardous turns and somersaults previously demonstrated only by men.

In her own way schoolgirl Natalya is as remarkable as Korbut, but unlike Comaneci she reserves her smiles until the routine is completed.

British sports fans will have an early chance to see that smile when she visits the Wembley Arena with the USSR's Gymnastic Display Team on October 24-28.

Natalya comes from Voroshilovgrad, a town 100 miles north of Rostov-on-Don and is the daughter of an electrical plant worker.  Her coach is the intense, quiet-spoken Vladislav Rastorotsky, who trained Olga's great rival, Ludmila Turischeva, to be world and Olympic champion.  Ludmila, 26, now married to the former Olympic sprint champion Valery Borzov, also acts as an adviser to Natalya, of whom she says, "She is a lovely girl, fragile and supple and her performance is full of complicated elements.  But she is stubborn and always challenges her coach with her own point of view."

The once-shy Natalya is described by her coach as being "as prickly as a hedgehog.  One never knows what to expect of her."

What Russia expects, though, is that the schoolgirl who emerged as overall champion of Spartakiade, the recent dress rehearsal for the Games where she beat the world champion Yelena Mukhina, will achieve greater eminence next summer for herself and her country.

She will thus become as much a symbol of Soviet sport as one of the greatest Olympians, 37-year-old weight-lifter Vasily Alexeyev, the dreadnought who has collected eight world titles, 82 world records and will be striving in Moscow for his third Olympic gold medal.

From the sweetest to the strongest, Russia has every intention of dominating the Olympic Games as no nation ever has before.


This page was created on December 02, 2004.
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