Larissa, Natasha and Zina

Sport in the USSR, April 1969   One evening six years ago a skinny girl of 13 stood at the entrance to Leningrad's big indoor arena and pleaded with the ticket collector to let her in to watch a gymnastics match between Japan and the Soviet Union.  The ticket collector would not be moved.  "You go home now, little girl, he said, "and come back when you're 16."  She came back much sooner, but not as a spectator.  Her name was Natasha Kuchinskaya.

A new stage in Soviet women's gymnastics is now associated with this name.  Natasha's fame has come to equal that of Larissa Latynina, our top gymnast of yesteryear.  Natasha is showered with fan mail; news items and feature stories are written about her; there are thick folders of pictures of her in the files of newspaper and magazine offices.  And she is only 20.

At the time of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 hardly anyone had ever heard of Natasha.  But soon after that she burst into the limelight at the national championships held in Kiev.  The consensus was that a talented new gymnast had appeared on the scene.  Natasha did not win the gymnastics crown that year, although she came close to it.  Another 15-year-old, Larissa Petrik, from the Byelorussian town of Vitebsk, created a sensation at the tournament by capturing the overall title, the youngest competitor ever to do so.  A third star to emerge in the gymnastics firmament at the same time was Zinaida Druzhinina (who later married world gymnastics champion Mikhail Voronin and took his name).

This marked the birth of a new wave that brought many striking gymnasts to the fore.  Then came a similar wave, and spectators soon grew accustomed to seeing incredibly complicated performances made by teenage girls who still wore their hair in braids.

For a time many feared that the drive of the new girls to introduce a maximum of super-difficult elements would lead to standardization.  Fortunately, this did not happen.  Each began to seek her own path to the pinnacle.  During the next few years they altered the style and spirit of their performances more than once.  The Natasha Kuchinskaya of 1965 and 1966 infected the spectators with her vivacity and spontaneity.  Each appearance was a bombshell of joy.  "Just look at me!" she seemed to be saying.  And what a smile!  Her fan mail included countless proposals of marriage.  At the last Olympics many Mexicans dreamed of marrying Natasha, who came to be called "the sweetheart of Mexico."

At Natasha grew older the fans noticed change. From a laughing teenager she developed into a mature gymnast whose work took on something of an academic quality.  Her will to win became stronger than ever.  Those who followed the last Olympics will recall that Natasha fell while working on the asymmetrical bars at a point when it seemed practically impossible to fall.  I don't know what her thoughts were at that moment, but she must have felt miserable indeed.  Many expected this to be the end of Natasha's Olympic career.  But -- "You can't imagine how much strength of will Natasha has," said Larissa Latynina.  "She's a real fighter."  What Natasha did on the second day of the tournament can only be called a feat.  She seemed to have forgotten her setback, and the spectators saw a miracle of gymnastics unfold before their eyes.  Natasha won a place on the victory rostrum, a bronze medal worth its weight in gold.

Natasha finished only 0.10 of a point behind silver medalist Zinaida Voronina.  Everyone who saw Zinaida at the very beginning of her career predicted a big future for this lovely, graceful girl.  The enthusiastic applause she drew every time she performed evidently convinced her that she had reached her goal.   Her floor exercises were indeed a wonderful sight -- but they were not quite up to date, lacking acrobatic and other complicated elements.  At the last European championships, in Amsterdam, she won the silver medal in the overall scoring for the first time.  Her floor work was still old-fashioned, even though it brought her a bronze medal.

After capturing the European silver medal Zinaida was understandably put out at being criticized for her floor exercises, and she deserves all the more respect for finding the inner strength to make an agonizing reappraisal.  She set herself the highest standards in changing her floor work, and no one can say that her Mexico Olympic silver medal was not fully deserved.

When you talk about Larissa Petrik the word "accidentally" keeps cropping up.  It might seem that Larissa, who is endowed with exceptional talent, accidentally lost, accidentally fell, accidentally slipped up.  But that is not so.  Writing about this is painful because I have a very soft spot in my heart for Larissa.  I don't know of any other gymnast who defends her style so vehemently.  Whether she is right in urging sharp, jerky movements in gymnastics is debatable.  She says the times and fashion demand this, and that the sensible thing is to keep in step with the times.  Personally, I don't think she is right, and that this is sometimes what prevents her form from capturing the top honors.  Of course, the Olympic gold medal in the floor exercises might seem to be the crowning point of any gymnast's career, but I am convinced that Larissa is capable of more, and she knows it, too.  Something seems to interfere with her all the time, however.  Perhaps it is her fanatical attachment to sport.  While still in school Larissa was keen on acrobatics, and then she went in for dancing.  I would say, though, that no one else expresses the spirit of gymnastics so forcefully and fully as Larissa does.


This page was created on May 21, 2001.
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