Always in the Shadows

By Natalia Cherepanova

Sport in the USSR, 5/90    The name of youth national gymnastics team head coach Anatoly Kozeev appeared in our magazine seven years ago, when we first wrote about the current all-around world champion and Olympic champion Svetlana Boginskaya, then a ten-year-old gymnast, whom Kozeev singled out from among his trainees.  Boginskaya became a star for all enthusiasts of this sport, and a joy and sorrow for him.  I put the following questions to him.

Let's talk about the sad bit later.  First I would like to ask you about what gymnastics is to you.  Is it a sport with which your occupation is linked or is it something greater, what, to put it more pompously, is called the main endeavor of your life?

I'm not one for fancy expressions.  I'm used to reflecting about gymnastics in more down-to-earth terms.  In the mid-1950's, when I was a ten-year-old boy, I entered a boarding school, which by today's standards was more reminiscent of an institution for delinquents.  The school was in Angarsk near a labor camp for prisoners.  Today, in hindsight, I realize that my cronies and I were right on the road to that camp.  If not for our PT instructor Sergei Lobadyuk, whom I recall with gratitude to this day.  Yes, it was our PT teacher who was able to divert us from dangerous pranks.  He got us so interested in sport that very soon we began winning all the competitions held in the neighborhood.  Each of us mastered several sports and received a number of sports ratings.  Back then I chose gymnastics and, consequently, my future occupation.

Then came studies at an institute of physical education and some sports achievements.  I was even in the national gymnastics team and was considered a candidate for the Olympic squad.  Admittedly, I failed to make it to the Mexico City Games because of an injury.  Then I prepared for Munich, but lost out there, too.  By that time I had become one of the oldest in the team and, without noticing it, I felt an inclination for this work, and snapped up an offer to coach at the Soviet Wings sports club in Moscow.  I observed other coaches in action, and I kept being haunted by the thought that they were doing a great deal incorrectly.  How should things be done?  I am still looking for the answer.

Judging from the achievements scored by Soviet gymnasts, we can draw the conclusion that you have in fact found the answer.  You have been heading the youth national team for ten years now.  And all the recent women champions -- Elena Shushunova, Olga Mostepanova and Oksana Omelianchik -- have gone through the school of the youth team and appeared in big-time competition with your blessing, so to speak.

It would be incorrect to ascribe the victories of our gymnasts to me personally.  For one thing, each gymnast has her personal coach who works his heart out with her; for another, an established group of instructors -- Dmitry Zorin, Nikolai Yepishin and Andrei Shishkin -- has been working with the youth squad for six years now.  And choreographer Natalia Matveeva has been with them for the past two years.  Thanks to this cooperation we have managed to elaborate a system which enables the gymnasts to get into shape and master the movements at an early age, which gives them the foundation for creating highly complex routines later.  In this way, we prepare them for executing unique elements.  We attain results not through intensivity of workouts or through frequent repetition of the same element, but through rationality of training, where the main disciplines are trampolining, acrobatics and choreography.  Scientific substantiation of methods also figures prominently in this work.

Any system of methods is subordinated to the goal.  How do you interest a child in this goal?

This is already a moral question.  Drawing on my practice, I will say that the girls who are destined to become champions do not need to be lured by material benefits and glory.  They are drawn by their own calculation -- to be the very best.  This loftiest goal is so bewitching that there is no need to convince them, let alone force them, to train.  Of course, there are sometimes tears (what children do not cry?) and conflicts at training sessions.  But this is all part of the work effort.

At one time accusations were leveled against our big-time sport for the fact that the enormous training loads which young talents had to handle at many-hour-long workouts deprive them of the joys of childhood and make them obedient, unresourceful robots.

Hundreds of gymnasts have gone through the gym where the youth team training camps are held.  However, we have never crossed the limit of the athletes' possibilities, beyond which workouts became torture.  Quite the contrary, I have repeatedly seen for myself that a child's body is much more tenacious than our, adult, one.  Otherwise how do you account for the fact that after three hours of intensive workouts girls are prepared to have snowball fights until dark or spend hours trampolining?  It seems to me that an exhausted body is incapable of this.

You have said that hundreds of young gymnasts have come and gone over the years you have been working.  How do you manage to discern the one who will later become the very best?

Each champion, no matter how different they may be, stands apart from the others which are not as talented, by one thing -- her capacity for leadership.  You, too, probably remember ten-year-old Svetlana Boginskaya, then the youngest in the team, who always managed to beat her teammates to the punch and shout out, "Me!" when the girls were asked who wanted to do a new element.  Admittedly, such gymnasts as Boginskaya are a rarity.  She possesses unique motor abilities.  Everyone knows this.

Something else is well known.  Our "prima" has a difficult character.  She wanted to give up sport several times.  How was it possible to keep Svetlana in gymnastics and get her to the victory stand?

Svetlana is like a daughter to me.  We were very close all the years that she was in the youth team.  She even lived in my house sometimes.  However, the moment came, regrettably, when I felt that she didn't need me any longer.  Now, not as a coach but as a person who was rooting for her with all his heart.  But even now I follow her career; I think she doesn't even notice this.  I get disappointed if something doesn't go well for her.  What I want more than anything is for her just to come over to me some time, as was the case before our departure to Seoul, where she was the Olympic champion.

Unfortunately, today I don't see anyone capable of matching up to Boginskaya among my charges.  Several gifted girls have appeared of late.  One of them is Elena Levochkina, 15, from Chirchik, the Tashkent Region, who won the combined event at last year's unofficial Junior World Cup in Japan and took the silver at the European Youth Championships.  She will get far if she is not hampered by her natural inclination to plumpness.  And then there is Tatiana Lysenko, 14, from Odessa.

Gymnastics fans may find it worthwhile remembering these names.  Anatoly Kozeev's eagle eye is never wrong.

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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