Grace and Charm

By Alexandr Maryamov


USSR Soviet Life Today, September 1964    The very first evening we met I scrapped all the notions I'd had about the Spartan regimen of the gymnast Larissa Latynina.  We sat over a bottle of sparkling Riesling in Kiev's Marichka youth cafe.  Jazz music filled the air, and Larissa laughed and danced.  I'm sure the lads from the Polytechnic Institute had invited her to their jam session just so they could dance with her.

"Good spirits and a glass of dry wine is 'just what the doctor ordered,'" she laughted.  "At tomorrow's training session I bet I'll feel fit as a fiddle."

Larissa is a girl who keeps her chin up, no matter what.  With the Tokyo Olympics not far off, the two-time world champion and queen of the Melbourne and Rome Olymipcs has set her sights on a third crown at the games in the Land of the Rising Sun.  Even young ladies must keep an eyes on the calendar, but this 29-year-old Soviet athlete seems to be acquiring only more skill, experience and self-confidence with the years.

In the Kiev Sports Palace gymnasium I watched Larissa go through her paces to the strains of music by Tchaikovsky.  Here the champion acquired the grace and perfection that won her high scores from the most punctilious of judges and the cheers of the crowd.  This is where coach Alexander Mishakov spotted the flaws in her performance and where Larissa filled her notebook with his comments and suggestions.

"In my childhood I dreamed of becoming a ballerina," Larissa recalls, "but here I am, a gymnast."  Larissa's teammates do the same exercises she does, but with a difference.  Her superb artistry, inborn probably, no one has yet been able to match.  Her exercises, done with spellbinding precision and timing are a joy to behold.  Her every movement is well conceived; her improvisations weave an intricate and elegant pattern.

There are two champions in the Latynina family now.  Larissa showed me the medal she won at the Fourteenth World Championships in Moscow in 1958 and said that her daughter Tanya deserved half of it.  The champ fooled her doctors and competed in this important tournament when she was in her fifth month of pregnancy.

The junior "champ" has just turned five and still has not expressed the desire to follow in her mother's footsteps, although they do go through the morning exercises together.  For Tanya there are many more interesting things to do than gymnastics at the kindergarten she attends.

Larissa herself prefers not to commit herself about her daughter's future right now.  And only Papa Ivan, a rivershipping technician, has decided opinions on the subject:  "One gymnast in the family is quite enough!" says Papa.  "I'm a nervous wreck every time Larissa competes.  It's even worse than watching my favorite football team.  I never look at Larissa performing on the beam.  I either close my eyes or walk out of the hall."

"It's a pleasure to work with Latynina because she demands so much of herself," says coach Mishakov, her trainer for 10 years now.  Larissa is always in a hurry.  Her daily timetable for the Olympic year would probably look dull, crowded and terribly exacting to the uninitiated.  Larissa has taught herself to account for every free minute, and in this way she gets a multitude of things done during the course of the day.  But she is no ascetic, never has been, and with all her graduate work at the Kiev Physical Training Institute, her gymnastics, her duties in the City Soviet (she has been elected to the Soviet five years running) -- she finds time for the theater and movies, fishing and dancing, get-togethers with friends, and her household responsibilities (and of those she has the normal quota of a wife and mother).

We had driven for about 40 minutes along the road on the picturesque Dnieper River bank when Larissa stopped the car and let her husband take the wheel.  For a beginning driver Larissa was not bad -- a little unsure of herself, perhaps.  She joined me in the back seat, and I continued my interview.

"Do you have a favorite medal in your collection of dazzling awards," I asked.

"I do.  And at the risk of being trite I'd say it's the small gold medal I was awarded in 1953 for graduating from school with honors.  It was at school that I first took up gymnastics and, with the fine guiding hand of our school coach Mikhail Sotnichenko, came to like it.  That was when I won my USSR Master of Sports badge.  When I got back home to Kherson from the Melbourne Olympics, I presented one of the medals I had won there to my first coach."

"What do you like most of all?"

"Spring, music and happy people."

"What do you find the easiest and the most difficult things to do?"

"I think that the easiest thing for me would be to go without dinner for several days.  I eat very little, good for the figure.  And I guess the most difficult thing for me is to cook a dinner that my mother would like.  Driving a car is also quite difficult."

"What are your most pleasant memories from last year?"

"First of all, I started graduate work.  Then there was the work on a committee that judged movies produced by the Kiev Film Studios.  The movies themselves were nothing to write home about in many cases, but I enjoyed judging them.  Last year we also made friends with cosmonaut Gherman Titov and his family.  I remember one drive we took with Gherman; he had us holding our breath, the way he handled the car."

Not a word about gymnastics so far, although that was certainly the point of my interview.

"Gymnastics!" Larissa said, "It's very much a part of my life.  But so are other things.  I like poetry, especially the verses of Rozhdestvensky, Vinokurov and Akhmadulina.  I'm fond of music, both jazz and classical.  I also enjoy the theater and ballet.  And I'd say they all help in my gymnastics work.  I suspect that without them I'd be less of a gymnast."

Comes a time when the future plagues everyone.   And Larissa is no exception.  About her future in athletics she does not know herself.  She would like to continue her gymnastic career even after Tokyo, but sooner or later she must think of stepping down to make way for the younger set.

"It's inevitable and doesn't bother me too much," says Larissa.  "Only it does make me a little sad that the time will come when I'll have to give up all the excitement and fun of a tournament -- something I've gotten used to.  But I keep forgetting I won't be giving it up, just shifting to another field -- from competing to training."  In fact, she has begun coaching already.  Tanya Palamarchuk, a Kiev co-ed, has already won her Master of Sports rating under Latynina's tutelage.

Larissa often lectures, demonstrating her skill not only as gymnast but as a speaker as well.  "And this takes up lots of my time, but I feel I should do it: I want to popularize gymnastics -- it's the sport closest to the arts that we have."

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