A Winner

By Natalia Kalugina

Sport in the USSR, 11/90  The umpires gave the signal.  The run up, a mighty, beautiful, complex flight.  The micron precise touch on the apparatus.  The push.  The exactly plotted take off.  And the perfect, pin-point landing.

After that, everything was in a fog.  The firm embraces of the Olympic champion's team:   "My son!  I knew you just had to show everyone on the apparatus!  A perfect ten!"  The slowly turning scoreboard with the number 10.  And the roar of the crowd.  And he, Vitaly Scherbo, 18, thrusting up his hands in victory.

That's how fame came to the boy from the outskirts of Minsk at the European championships in Lausanne this past May.

It was then that Valery Kerdemilidi, a famous gymnast of yesteryear, said: "This is a champion for many years to come.  It's a pity that we did not put him in the team at the world championship last year."

Who was the first to realize that Vitaly Scherbo would make the entire gymnastics world talk about him?  And talk about him with admiration bordering on ecstasy?  Was it perhaps his mother?  She was an acrobat herself, and a Master of Sport.  Once she dropped by a gymnastics hall to visit her girlfriend, a coach.  And she happened to take her young son Vitaly along.  Was it perhaps then, when she gave him to children's coach Leonid Vydritsky, that she realized that she was giving gymnastics a new star?

"Hardly." Scherbo thought for a second, and continued, "Now that I've become a professional I realize that I did not have any special talent.  I was simply a very active kid.  And my mother wanted me to learn to move correctly.  Besides, I did not have time to run around the streets either.  I had to work hard."

Or perhaps Vydritsky felt with his coach's sixth sense that the boy was unique, that he only had to be taught how to display his God-given talent?  Vydritsky likes these fidgety boys.  And they like him.  To this day, when returning home from competitions or a training camp, Scherbo rushes to his first coach.  This was related by Sergei Shinkar, to whom Scherbo came after parting with Vydritsky.

Vydritsky taught his charge a great deal.  He gave him excellent gymnastics training.  It is a joy to watch Vitaly when he does routines on the apparatus.  The gymnast's body literally rings.  But, most importantly, he taught the boy how to work.  However, time passed, and Vitaly found Vydritsky's group boring.  He recalls that there were moments when he did not want to go to the gym.  Had he perhaps subconsciously realized that he was capable of more?  Or maybe he lacked stiff competition to develop himself?  Whatever the case, Vydritsky turned him over to coaches who were working with top-flight athletes -- Sergei Shinkar, Merited Coach of Byelorussia, and his colleague Leonid Filipenok.

Regrettably, I have often written about how as soon as they reach the elite, newly-made stars declare to a coach without batting an eyelid:  "Without me you are nothing.  You are paid a salary and bonuses because of me."  That is why, whenever I talk to a new rising star I always wonder what is going to be said about the coach:  after a few words about the mentor you can draw a conclusion about what the "golden boy" is worth. But Scherbo doggedly kept silent.

Then suddenly at the European championship, when we arrived at the hotel after the combined event, Vitaly unexpectedly opened up.  He was very sad sitting there -- he had let the bronze medal in the all-around championship slip away due to a mistake on the parallel bars.  Then he booked a call to Minsk.  He missed his mother.  And of the two minutes on the phone he spent a minute and a half telling his mother to call Shinkar and tell him that he was all right, otherwise the coach would be worried.

The conversation ended.  I asked him how everything could be all right when he was sitting there dolefully.  He replied:  "But then Shinkar would have got upset."

The next day Vitaly won the gold medals not only and not so much, as it seemed to me, for himself as for the coaches who stayed home in Minsk.

I recalled the words of Shinkar himself at that time:  "Vitaly is like a son to me.  His father and I used to train together.  For this reason I feel particularly responsible for his future.  He is difficult to deal with.  But we do not choose our children.  They are what they are.  Incidentally, a character like his is not all that bad for sport -- he cannot bear being second.  So we work -- a lot.  I love Vitaly."

Shinkar was probably the first to realize that the boy would get somewhere.  He and Filipenok worked very hard at practice sessions.  And the boy, who does not have perfect coordination or especially strong legs, and is inclined to plumpness, began posting better results.  They thus worked toward the national team gradually, step by step.

Scherbo arrived at the 1989 national championship as a member of the USSR squad.  But there were many national team members yet few champions.  For this reason no one paid particular attention to him.  They followed instead Grigory Misyutin, who was said to be the next Bilozerchev.  Yet some Scherbo from Minsk, not he, went to the world championship as a substitute.  They even wrote his name incorrectly -- Scherba.

At the USSR Cup playoffs this past April Vitaly was among the first to perform.  Frankly, this was not the place for a leader.  He began with the floor exercises.  The first diagonal direction.  A double salto bent with pirouette.  It was breathtaking.  Even the famous Valentin Mogilny is very satisfied when he does a double salto with turn.  But here was this upstart.  In the combined event Vitaly posted the third best result, but later waltzed his way to three gold medals in the individual events.

Then came the triumphal European championship in Lausanne, where Scherbo emerged victorious in three events.

"When I made the national team I found it much  more interesting to work.  In Minsk it had got to the point that I was beating everyone.  But when I arrived at Lake Krugloye camp outside Moscow it turned out that I was a far cry from the leaders.  So I had to work still harder than prior to  my arrival in the team."

"Vitaly, what about your mother?  You are at training camps, and she is without her son."

"We miss each other.  But what can you do?  At first I would leave for two weeks and then return.  Now I stay away from home for longer periods.  I feel bad without her, that's for sure.  But gymnastics is my work, and Mom and I realize this."

We watched the gymnastics tournament at the Goodwill Games in Seattle on television.  Scherbo went out onto the platform.  I felt calm.  Red-haired, pock-marked.  What do they call him in the team?  Red-head who doesn't know how to lose, which is why he wins.  And he did win, of course.

Later I envied the people who were with the athletes in Seattle.  After the competitions everyone gathered in the village, and Scherbo told jokes about himself again.

Last spring I asked Shinkar:  "What are your plans for 1992?"

"God willing, I don't think we'll be at the bottom."

Touch wood, but I can't help wanting to be more specific:  at the Barcelona Olympics this Red Devil is certain to be at the top.  In any event, this is what I believe.

This page was created on May 11, 2003.
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