Oksana and Gymnastics
By Valentina Pozhilova
Sport in the USSR, July 1986 Whenever we introduce highly successful athletes to our readers we usually talk about what obstacles he or she had to overcome on the way to the top, who helped make it possible, etc.
That's more or less what I was planning to discuss with the world all-round gymnastics champ Oksana Omelianchik. But my plan came to naught as soon as the apartment door opened and I beheld a disarmingly elegant blue-eyed creature wearing velvet slacks, a dainty sweater and slippers. From that moment on those eyes held me under their spell, forcing me to forget all the questions I'd prepared beforehand.
What did I know about Oksana before the interview? That in the last world championships held in Canada last November the young girl from Kiev (height 140cm; weight 31kg) shared first place in the all-round competition with her teammate Elena Shushunova and won a gold medal in the floor exercises. That she is 15 years old and a ninth-former at a sports boarding school. And that she enjoys poetry, writes her own poems and draws.
Tatiana Perskaya, her coach, had this to say: "Oksana has her hands full now. After Montreal she competed in South America. After that she began preparing for a sports extravaganza held on the occasion of the 27th CPSU Congress for the Ukrainian delegates. Now that she's back in school she's got some catching up to do in gymnastics. Oksana's week is planned down to the last minute. The only day you might be able to meet with her is Sunday..."
When I spoke to Oksana's mother, Lyubov Omelianchik, she at once understood my position and invited me to visit them: "Come on over! Sunday is our day for receiving visitors. There are a lot of people we like to have over... Oh no, you won't be in the way." On noting the obvious sincerity of her invitation, all feeling of discomfort left me and I no longer felt that I was guilty of depriving the poor girl of her only free day.
And now there she was in front of me with her little brother and sister. Her mother tried to drag them away from Oksana explaining that the guests had not come to see them. But the last thing they wanted to do was relinquish their sister to them -- "them" meaning the guests. Later Oksana told me that little Tatiana was constantly badgering her mother with the request: "Take me to a coach, like you do Oksana."
Oksana Omelianchik's involvement with sport began at the age of five when she took up figure skating. Before even learning the basics of skating she was already trying her hand at ice dancing. The music forced her to spin, leap and Oksana was only too glad to surrender to the melody and rhythm of the music. But one day a coach and choreographer recommended switching Oksana over to gymnastics. Apparently she had seen something in the young girl that others had filed to notice. Was it her exceptional plasticity of movement? Her flexibility? Her musicality? But these are all important in figure skating as well. When I asked Oksana this she merely shrugged her shoulders. Beats me... At any rate her mother followed the advice and brought the girl to Valentina Panchenko who later handed her over to Tatiana Perskaya.
Why does Oksana attend a boarding school? It makes for easier allotment of her time. Her daily schedule is the same as everyone else's: morning exercises, classes, gymnastics training, homework. What does she do for fun? She gave me a surprised look. Isn't it obvious? Gymnastics, of course! Her eyes showed no surprise; instead they took on a serious, adult expression. I'm not ever going to finish with gymnastics. True, athletes today stop competing at a young age, sometimes as soon as they've finished secondary school. But Oksana plans to enter an institute. One that will enable her to make a career out of the love of her life -- an institute of physical culture.
"Do you want to become a coach?"
"No, a choreographer."
Does that mean, I was tempted to ask, your main interest in gymnastics is floor exercises? But I managed to hold my tongue, the answer was all too obvious.
Meanwhile Oksana offered me coffee, candy and pastries.
"Aren't you wary of all these sweets? Aren't you afraid of putting on weight?"
"The competitions are a long way off," Oksana replied light-heartedly. "And during training there's no special diet required," she added as she reached for a piece of candy.
The warm cup of coffee felt good in my hands. I glanced over at Oksana's hands. It was hard to believe that such tiny hands could propel her so powerfully during the floor exercises, and that they could support her weight with such ease as she executed difficult turns on the parallel bars. But it's true.
"Oksana, what do you find most appealing about gymnastics? Training? Working on a new composition? Competing?"
"Everything!" she replied.
Gymnastics experts have said of Omelianchik that she is unusually serious about everything, that she is self-possessed and shows remarkable concentration. I have even heard say that during training she won't even smile if there's not a good reason. That is why she performs so consistently well. As I spoke with her she was not in the least sparing with her smiles.
Everything about gymnastics interests her. Training, putting together a new routine. Does she choose her musical accompaniment herself? No, she has her choreographer decide for her.
"What if you don't like it?"
"That just doesn't happen. My choreographer knows me too well."
Does competing make her nervous? She does get butterflies just before going out on the floor but as soon as she begins her routine she's fine. She tries her best to perform like a true artist whose aim is to share his or her gifts with the audience. She enjoys demonstrating all the skills she has mastered and infusing the spectators with the vicarious thrill of being completely in command of the apparatuses, feeling the lightness of her body and the joy of being alive.
"But what if you fail, if you flounder?"
"That's a part of gymnastics just like it's part of life. There are high points and low points, struggles and victories. It would be nice if everyone would realize this when watching me perform."
When I first started speaking with Oksana and noticed how often the expression in her eyes changed, how she smiled to artlessly, almost like a child would, I found myself unknowingly assuming the kind of tone an adult would use when speaking to a youngster. And suddenly I was thrown for a loop with this very unchildlike reply comparing gymnastics with life.
But life isn't just gymnastics for Oksana Omelianchik. She also loves to draw with pencils, pens and felt markers. Whenever she's lost in thought she finds herself drawing a tree under a rainy, autumn sky; a spring flower along a roadside; a red-breasted bullfinch in the snow. Her poems, too, often have as their subjects the changing seasons of the year.
What amazed Oksana most during her trip in South America were the flowering cacti. It was spring and the delicate flowers on the spiny, forbidding plants along the roadside left a strong impression on her. And she wanted nothing more but to preserve the memory of the cacti -- in poetry, on paper, and simply in her mind's eye.
The Soviet gymnasts visited more than ten different cities in Argentina. Later they calculated that they had spent 60 hours in sports halls and 100 in buses. Most of the country was seen from the window of a bus, since their time was strictly regulated: public appearances and press conferences with the usual questions: How does it feel to be a champion? Is this your first time in Argentina? What kind of family do you come from? What do your parents do?
How did Oksana respond? That being a champion hasn't changed the way she related to those around her or to gymnastics. That yes, this is her first time in Argentina. That she comes from a simple workers' family: her mother is a shop assistant and her father is a mechanic. And that she has a younger brother and sister.
The hours flew by. We spoke of her favorite poets: Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov and Shevchenko. She told me that fellow teammates Natalia Yurchenko and Olga Mostepanova had helper her find "her own" poets.
As we spoke I tried not to let my admiration for the girl show. She was so sincere and frank, so gentle and sweet. This is what Oksana Omelianchik is like when she is not performing. And anyone who says that she is standoffish, too serious and close-mouthed most likely has seen her only in performance when she's got one thing alone on her mind: if I'm going to do it, I'm going to give it my all. And that's exactly what she does. But that's only one side of her.
Oksana saw me to the door. Beside her was a fluffy white lap-dog given to her as a birthday present by friends. And in those few seconds I saw a completely different Oksana, a typical fun-loving girl whose natural spontaneity so characteristic of that age group couldn't help but win you over.
It seemed to me that the lap-dog also felt something similar. That probably explained why it gazed at her with such genuinely canine devotion.
This page was created on April 14,
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