Small Girls, Big Vaults

NBI, 50/1977 - They can barely see over the vaulting horse, over which they fly with artistic jumps. They mock gravity on the beam and bars. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-old gymnasts dare to perform exercises today that seemed implausible yesterday. At the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Nadia Comaneci and Nelli Kim set high standards. Young girls, who were unknown a year ago, have now equalled or exceeded them.

In this group is the sixteen-year-old Moscow schoolgirl Elena Mukhina, whose star rose at the 1977 European Championships in Prague and where she surprised everyone with the most difficult program and a world premiere on uneven bars: from a squatting position on the upper bar, she jumped backwards and performed a full twist with millimeters to spare before catching the bar again. Fifteen-year-old Natalia Shaposhnikova made a similarly bold foray at the 1977 World Cup in Oviedo by performing a giant swing on uneven bars, an element that had never been done before due to the closeness of the bars. Difficult elements have also blossomed in the routines of the "sparrow of Montreal," as Montreal journalists called Maria Filatova, the smallest gymnast of the Olympic Games. This talented girl from Leninsk-Kuznetsk won the 1977 USSR Championships and the 1977 World Cup.

The example of Nadia Comaneci has set a precedent in many places. At the last European Championships, seven girls were 13, eleven girls were 14, and twelve girls were 15. Half of the 62 participants were not yet 16 years old. This has never happened before, and indicates clearly enough the tremendous rejuvenation process. The reason for this trend: it's easier for small gymnasts with low body weight to learn difficult movements requiring much coordination, which today is necessary if you want to fight for medals.

In the 1977 season, 17-year-old Steffi Kraker from Leipzig was a GDR gymnast to who made a name for herself in the world. In Prague, she was the bronze medalist on uneven bars, and the silver AA medalist at the World Cup and Chunichi Cup. But she also showed her younger teammates that they have to define themselves if they want to compete against the Soviet, Romanian and Czech "gymnastics kindergartens" in the future. The next world championships will be held in Strasbourg (France). It's certain that the new extravagant elements of today will again be performed.