Girl Brought up on Gymnastics

By Andrei Batashov

Soviet Life, October 1979   Elena Mukhina was thought to be a shy little girl to whom nobody paid much attention.  Then one day, while watching television, she saw gymnasts performing the most startling exercises on gym apparatus.  She decided then that this sport could also help her become colorful and daring, someone people admired.

When a woman came to into her third grade classroom and asked who wanted to sign up for gymnastics, Elena recalls that she sprang up from her desk and cried out joyfully, "Please, take my name!"

She was 14 years old when she came under the tutelage of the noted Moscow gymnastic trainer Mikhail Klimenko.  He was as much impressed by the girl's abilities as by the dedication he read in her eyes.

Elena made swift progress, being the first to execute a more intricate version of the Korbut Loop, with a 360-degree turn, a "moon somersault" in the floor exercises and a backward double somersault dismount from the balance beam.

She emerged from the 1977 European championships with a silver medal in the overall competition and four other medals -- three of them gold -- in the individual events.  In Strasbourg the following year, she took the top overall world laurels, plus a gold medal in the floor exercises and two silver in the balance beam and uneven parallel bars events.

After these victories the experts observed that Olga Korbut's fantastic technique and daring, Elvira Saadi's grace and plasticity and Lyudmila Turishcheva's gentleness and concentration were all rolled into one in Elena Mukhina.

Her own appraisal is a good deal more modest:  "I did fairly well in Strasbourg, on the whole, but I could have avoided touching the floor in one place and overstepping the line at another in the floor exercises.  I was stunned by the routine on the uneven parallel bars and in vaulting by the American gymnast Marcia Frederick.  I still can't figure out her vaulting.  Her run-up isn't especially vigorous, but her second part, in mid-air, is unusual.  Nadia Comaneci, the Rumanian star, was not in her best form in Strasbourg.  I was taken by her style a year ago.  All of her movements then were absolutely faultless and confident.  I think that Nadia will be back in her old winning stride by the time of the Moscow Olympic Games."

There have always been gymnastic idols in Mukhina's life.  Their example forced her to perform with greater clarity, think more logically and look for still more daring stunts.

Elena is an undergraduate at the Central Physical Culture Institute in Moscow.  She wants to become a full-time trainer when she graduates.  She should be good at that job because she listens closely to people, looks carefully at the world around her and therefore notices the small and accidental things which are so important.

"What other sports are you interested in besides gymnastics?" I asked her.

"Riding.  I hope that horses stay around forever."

"You like animals.  Did you have a dog when you were a child?"

"No, I was told that I wouldn't be able to take care of it -- too little free time.  I would have liked having a dog."

Elena's childhood was not easy.  She lost both parents early in life and was brought up by her grandmother.  There were childhood dreams, of course, but very few of them came true.  The one that did was gymnastics.

"Gymnastics has built up my confidence, determination and dignity," she says.  "Besides opening up the world of sports to me, it has taught me the fundamentals of art."

"What forms of art are closest to you?"

"Ballet dancing and animated cartoon making.  It seems to me that cartoonists must have natures like their characters, cheerful yet somewhat naive."

I recalled once again what Elena said about her joy at the invitation to join a gymnastic group.  That childish quality has not disappeared altogether.  It has turned into a source of inspired competitiveness, which will be her mainstay at the Moscow Olympics.

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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