What Does Olga Mostepanova Dream Of?

By Andrei Batashev

Sport in the USSR.  Last summer Olga Mostepanova, a ninth-former from Moscow, won five gold medals (in the all-round and team events as well as in the floor exercises, balance beam and vault) in the gymnastics portion of the Friendship '84 competitions which were held in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia.  Moreover, in the finals of the all-around competition she received the highest mark possible -- 10 -- four times in a row!  Mostepanova's phenomenal success caused specialists to adopt a reverent attitude which might have been more appropriate if the person in question were not a 16-year-old schoolgirl but a "professor of gymnastics" who was somewhat weary of wins and praise.  In fact, this "professor" totally lacks academic stateliness and from time to time she and her friends from the team pull tricks which make their audience -- as a rule, the older members of the national team -- thank their lucky stars that their sporting careers have tempered their health and nerves enough to withstand such shocks.

These tricks usually occur evenings at the sports center.  The inventive young athletes take, say, a jacket and attach a rag head and glove arms.  Then one of the gymnasts dons the jacket, inserting her legs into the sleeves and hides under a chair.  Now they wait for someone to drop by.  The guest is detained, seated, and asked all kinds of questions...When, flattered by such attention, he begins to get engrossed in conversation with them, a terrifying figure suddenly rises from beneath a chair...

"That person probably faints dead away?" I asked Olga.

"No," she just reassures me, "he just jumps up and screams..."

Naturally, coaches are spared such jokes due to the authority they command and...the compassion of their trainees.

"I frequently feel sorry for my coach," says Olga who has been training under him for nine years, "because he takes all my sorrows to heart so much more than I do."

And it is true that, if he could, Vladimir Aksyonov (who is 45 and the former coach of Elvira Saadi, an Olympic gold medalist in Munich and Montreal in the team event) would not leave Olga's side for a single minute so as to defend her from every kind of misfortune and worry.  Aksyonov cuts photographs of Saint Bernards and terriers out of magazines ("For Olga.  She collects photographs of dogs.") and gives her books featuring kind characters ("She should learn to give others joy.  That's why I want her to read Dickens and Chekov more often.")

Which does not mean that Vladimir Aksyonov has turned his part in Olga's upbringing over to literary figures.

"In 1980," he says, "Olga went to the European junior championships as an alternate.  When she returned I couldn't recognize her.  She began bossing her friends around: 'bring me this, do that...'.  I asked her, 'Why are you using that tone of voice?  Where did you pick that up?'  She didn't say anything, but I already guessed what had happened: 'Maybe, one of the more experienced athletes at the European championships acted in the same way towards you?'  She nodded.  'Surely you didn't enjoy being treated that way?'  Once again she was silent and I could see she was thinking.  It's not heard to guess what about.  She'd been made into an errand girl at the championships and when she got home she decided to boss others around, too, as a way of compensating.

"I said, 'No, Olga, this will never do.  Naturally, you should be respectful towards those athletes who are older than you.  But they should not take the liberty of humiliating younger athletes.'

"We never had to discuss the subject again.  She became the old Olga Mostepanova who gets pleasure out of helping others."

But let us return to her athletic achievements.  Olga took part in her first big competition, the USSR junior Cup tournament, in 1979 and emerged the winner.  Three years later, at the European junior championships, Olga took third place in the all-round competition and won the gold in the balance beam.  That was also the year she began to compete against the best adult gymnasts.  She received bronze medals at both the USSR Cup tournament and the national championships.  The following season she became the silver medalist in these competitions.  And then, in the autumn of 1983, Olga set out for Budapest to take part in her first world championship.  There she gave performances worth two gold medals (in the team event and the balance beam) and two silvers (in the all-round competition and the floor exercises).  Upon her return home the momentum continued and Olga gained possession of the national Cup.

Does she get nervous before a performance?

"Of course," answers Olga.  "About five minutes or so before it's time to go on you start trembling all over. But after you've raised your hand to say you're ready you don't think about whether you're nervous or not any more.  Everything that doesn't bear some relation to the performance disappears.  You and the apparatus are the only things in the hall.  There's no one and nothing else."

I once saw a photo which depicted a gymnast executing a somersault and -- in a blur -- a line of fire.  The photographer shot the two elements separately and then superimposed them in order to convey a gymnast's sensations during a performance.  Recalling this picture I asked Olga whether she sees the hall during the moment of flight.

"No.  Everything happens in almost total darkness and in silence.  But as soon as you finish the routine, noise and light suddenly return without any sort of transition."

What is it that sets Olga Mostepanova apart?

"The extremely rare gift she possesses of feeling, creating and adjusting movement in flight, in space where there are no supports," says Aksyonov.  "On the trampoline, for example, Olga can perform anything you like -- well, say, a triple piked somersault with a 720 degree turn."

As I listened to Aksyonov's answer I was reminded of something the coach of the Japanese national team, Shun Fujimoto, told me three years ago at the time of the world gymnastics championships in Moscow:  "A profound relationship exists between the aesthetics of gymnastics and our spiritual lives.  And if we were unable to live with our heart gymnastics would probably not exist, as it reflects man's emotional nature, his thirst for flight..."

 And Olga Mostepanova's coach takes a very solicitous attitude towards his trainee's ability to live with her heart, an ability which is an important part of her gymnastic talent.

Today specialists have named Olga Mostepanova one of the chief contenders for the gold in the major international tournaments of 1985.  It goes without saying that Olga knows that.  But I think that she does not fully realize how difficult the task which faces her is and, at the same time, that it is within her grasp.

What does she dream of?

"Of graduating from an institute, becoming a coach and teaching small children."

"Of attending rehearsals at the Bolshoi in order to understand how ballerinas achieve such supernatural ease, weightlessness and lift..."

"Of petting a small, affectionate warm tiger cub..."

"Of growing another four centimeters, but no more because then my coach would get very upset -- as it is I'm already 155cm tall."

"Of training in weightlessness, in space.  Here you have to land all the time, but it would be so great to float in space."

Once, when Olga was talking about her favorite gymnast, all-round world champion Natalya Yurchenko, she said, "Her movements are so triumphant and pronounced.  They last and last as if in a slow-motion film."

Olga Mostepanova's movements are of a different kind.  Now, after meeting her, I understand what is unique about them.  They are precisely the sort which would be created by someone who imagines herself petting a tiger cub or floating in space.

This page was created on October 20, 2001.
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