A Dialogue of Champions

By A. Batashev

Sport in the USSR, 1979   Our guests are 18-year-old Yelena Mukhina of Moscow and 26-year-old Nikolai Andrianov from Vladimir, overall world gymnastics champions.

They hardly ever smile when they step out onto the mat.  They are restrained and austere, because their gymnastics requires such superhuman effort that they can't allow themselves the luxury of wasting even a particle of their nervous energy on something incidental or extraneous.

Mukhina:  Competitions make me concentrate inwardly.  I don't see anything around me; I can walk past my teammates without noticing them.  I don't know anything about my scores.  Only when the tournament is winding to a close do I open my eyes and begin to add up the points I received.  I train in the same fashion.  If I get distracted, and start looking around, it's all over, I can't do anything anymore.

Andrianov:  The hardest thing for me in a contest is executing the first couple of steps.  Afterwards I shut myself off, in a sense, from the world.  But I still feel the audience.  The more fans there are, the easier it is for me to perform.

What do you consider the most difficult aspect of a gymnast's training?

Mukhina:  The psychological preparation.  At one time I was afraid of exercises on the beam.  Then I gradually began to accustom myself to the tricky little devil; I'd get up on it and say to myself: "What's the big deal?  You do such complicated acrobatics in the free exercises and here you're scared silly...You should be ashamed of yourself!"  I'd close my eyes and...do the exercise.  And so I gradually taught myself that there was nothing supernatural about this kind of exercise.

Andrianov:  In order not to relax too soon when I am performing on the last piece of equipment, I get myself thinking that there is still one more left, and mentally begin to prepare, say, the gauntlets for the exercises on the horizontal bar.  When I jump off I even put on the gauntlets for a few seconds, and then put them back.

When you walk out of the gymnasium after a training session, do you leave gymnastics behind or does it dog you?

Mukhina:  I try to forget about it at once.  Before I starting working with my trainer, Mikhail Klimenko, gymnastics did not leave my thoughts, either waking or sleeping.  That really wears you out..  My trainer has made me consciously tune myself off from it, and now I can regulate when I want to think about sports and when I don't.

Andrianov:  Thoughts about gymnastics surface in my consciousness independently of my desires.  I am constantly imagining various combinations, in the free exercises, on the horizontal bar...  Strange things happen.  For example, for a long time I couldn't do a cross on the rings.  Then one day I dreamt that I easily did that same cross.  In the morning I showed up for my training session and really did execute it with the utmost ease.  The most important thing is imagining and feeling the exercise.

To what extent do you participate in creating your combined exercises?

Mukhina:  My trainer suggests something.  I listen to him, then begin to work out the most convenient forms of executing it.  The main scheme remains, of course, but I add certain nuances...

Andrianov:  My trainer, Nikolai Tolkachev, also helps me, but basically I compose my own exercises.  I almost always improvise during performances.  I will always remember the following episode at the Olympic Games in Montreal.  The final piece of equipment, the horse, was to decide whether I'd be the Olympic champion or not.  Everyone seemed to have gone wrong on the horse -- Shakhlin, Endo, Voronin.  All this immediately whirled around in my head.  And when I walked up to the handles I told myself: "Calm down."  I gripped the handles -- my hands were shaking.  I couldn't calm down.  I did a combination, obeying some "gymnastic" instinct.  And only afterwards did my trainer tell me what exactly I had done.

What impression do your main rivals make on you?

Mukhina:  I was dumbfounded by the American Frederick in the exercises on the uneven bars and the jump.  I still can't understand how she jumps so well.  Her running doesn't seem very strong, but the second phase of her flight is simply amazing.  This time Nadia Comaneci was not in good form.  Last year I was enraptured watching her performance.  All her movements were pure and confident.  Not one slip.  I think that by the Moscow Olympics Comaneci should be back in shape.

Andrianov:  Usually I don't look at my rivals so as not to spend myself emotionally.  But for some reason this time I watched...  I liked the Bulgarian Deltchev, the Japanese Shimizu, the American Thomas, and all our lads.

What sports do you like besides gymnastics?

Mukhina:  Riding.  Because of the horses -- they're so graceful.

Andrianov:  I like hockey and everything that is close to gymnastics -- figure skating, acrobatics, trampoline jumping.

And how do you feel about the ballet?

Mukhina:  Unfortunately I go to the Bolshoi Theater less often than I'd like to.  I recently saw "Giselle" with Nadezhda Pavlova.  I cried through all the last part.

Andrianov:  I only recently began to be interested in ballet.  As far as technique is concerned, our jumps, for example, are more difficult.  But it is unbelievably hard to execute even a simple leap in ballet style, to give it a pure line and remain suspended for a moment at the highest point of one's flight.  To do this one must train a good ten years...  However, I think that in the future gymnasts will appear who will be able to combine the complexity of gymnastics and the expressiveness of ballet.

Do you like to dream on the subject of gymnastics?

Mukhina:  Sometimes I think: how could gymnastics be made easier?  And I imagine how nice it would be if we made our jump off the equipment into the water.

Andrianov:  What do you know!  I also thought of that.  One day I even tried making my final double pirouette into water.  It turned out there was nothing nice about it at all.  It hurt.

What is your opinion of the gymnastics of the past?

Mukhina:  When I see gymnastics films shot ten or fifteen years ago I get the feeling they were made thirty or so years ago because the sport has grown so more complex and refined during this period.

Andrianov:  Nevertheless, some old elements keep their value to this day.  At the Montreal Olympics, for example, Sawao Kato executed a vault on the parallel bars that no one had done for many years.  Everyone thought it was a completely new and most original element!  I think that certain elements used by both our Viktor Chukarin and famous Japanese masters of the past will reappear in the combinations of today's gymnasts, in an appropriate setting, of course.

How do you see gymnastics in the future?

Mukhina:  I think trainers will finally find ways of helping comparatively tall gymnasts master the most complex elements.  Then gymnastics will become more beautiful -- the lines will grow longer and the design of the compositions will become more extended and balanced.

Andrianov:  Sometime it will probably be possible to do, say, one and a half jumps backward into a hanging position on the parallel bars or one and a half jumps forward into a handstand.  When will this happen?  I don't know.  Maybe in the next decade.

Have you ever seen yourselves from the side, on a film screen for example?

Mukhina:  I was filmed only once, in the picture "You are in Gymnastics."  I didn't like myself as a gymnast.

Andrianov:  Strange as it may seem, I like to watch myself; it's useful and sometimes simply essential.

What would you like to change in yourself as a person?

Mukhina:  Get rid of my doubts.  They hamper me in gymnastics, too -- they ruin my self-confidence.

Andrianov:  I have too mild a character.  I should be tougher...  I sometimes have trouble coping with even my four-year-old son -- have to call my wife to the rescue.

Do you have a dream that seems unrealizable to you?

Mukhina:  Freeing myself of my doubts [smiling].

Andrianov:  I would like to take part in a space expedition.  Why?  On earth you can do one, two, maybe three pirouettes.  But in space you can do as many as you want.  In a state of weightlessness you can feel all the planes of revolution.  That's why it wouldn't be a bad idea for a gymnast to fly out into space and train there some.

This page was created on April 13, 2001.
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