Lagging but Still Managing to Keep Up

By B. Andreev

Sport in the USSR    Moscow schoolgirl Elena Shevchenko has been a gymnast since the age of seven.  She is now 15 and, as is usual for what in modern gymnastics is a mature ago, she has already managed to excel herself in a whole series of major competitions.  For example, last year, Elena became a champion (in the team event) at the Goodwill Games, won the floor exercises at the national championships and gained the title of all-around champion at the USSR Spartakiade.  Injury prevented her from improving on her success this season, but Elena nevertheless managed to beat her rivals at a major international tournament in Japan.

It is hard to know how to approach any adolescent.  And even more so if that adolescent is also the holder of many "adult" awards.  In this case we often make the psychological error of unconsciously assuming the young champion to have the good sense of an adult, and trying to establish what we see as fitting correspondence between the sporting titles and the age of the young athlete.  It seems to me that Shevchenko's coach, Viktor Razumovsky, has not avoided such mistakes.

Elena does everything surprisingly calmly and unhurriedly," he explains.  "But the problem is that she's not the only one in our group.  She has to work with other gymnasts: Olga Bicherova, Elena Gurova, Olga Chudina.  The result is that most of the time is spent on Shevchenko.  Sometimes I feel that she'll drive me wild with her calmness.  But however hard I try to speed her up, she simply smiles sweetly.

With Razumovsky's words in my mind, I watched Shevchenko training for a long time.  And I think that to a certain extent I realized what was the matter.  This gymnast, while remaining in our view, has contrived, by obeying her imagination, to vanish as it were from the hall, transporting herself to worlds we cannot reach.  Later, when I chatted to her, she gave me a few guidelines which enabled me to outline the route of these "journeys" of hers.

"My floor program is called 'The Pink Panther'.  The music is American -- I can't remember the composer.  I don't think about him, but about the panther Bagira from the cartoon Mowgli based on Kipling's story.  It's a pity though that the panther in the cartoon isn't pink but black, because color probably also affects the nature of movements.  When I try to imagine that I'm a panther, I try to feel that I'm not only strong, agile and fearless, but also pink."

How else does she get distracted?  Apparently she sometimes has to "speak" to the apparatus.

"Sometimes the beam is not very well set up and may wobble very slightly.  When that happens, I mentally say to it: 'Oh, please don't shake.  Please be good today and keep me up.'"

Elena's father Nikolai Shevchenko is a road worker and he and his wife Lidia work on an asphalt-laying machine.  He evidently understands his daughter better than others, since long ago when Elena had just begun participating in sport, he used to make toy gymnastics apparatus for her.  Elena used to teach her dolls and matryoshkas complex elements, developing her imagination at the same time.

She wanted to make everything into theater.  That is why she used to act out her own versions of her favorite cartoon at home and play at competing at the world gymnastics championships with her friends outside, amazing their spectators with unbelievable compositions with skipping ropes.

Now Elena is in the 9th form at school and her favorite subjects are those which feed the imagination, namely literature and history.

She used to dream of being a clown, happy that she had been given red hair and freckles.  Now, however, she says she wants to become a coach like her elder sister Irina, but I get the feeling that Elena has not yet forgotten her childish dream.

But let's get back to talking about the things that "distract" her during training sessions.  What might she think about during the pauses?

"About a cartoon or Cinderella; about how to make biscuits or sweets from sugar, mints and cocoa; about Valery Lyukin's triple somersault which I can also do, though only on the trampoline; or about how our budgie recently flew away and how my parents recently took my dog Knopka to my Granny in the village."

I listened to Elena and could picture Razumovsky's sad face.

"But do you realize how hard it is to be a coach?" I interrupted.  "Do you sympathize with your teacher?"

"Oh, yes, very much," she replied immediately.  "Sometimes you simply can't understand what is being asked of you.  The coach tells you the same thing a hundred times and you keep on doing it wrong.  Of course, then he starts getting worked up and angry.  You feel sorry for him and angry with yourself, but something keeps slipping away and you simply cannot do the dreaded element.  Oh, I really hate that way I'm so slow and stupid."

"What do you like about yourself?"

"The fact that I'm always cheerful," Elena answered instantly.  (Let me point out, incidentally, that this quality of hers is also highly valued by her coaches.)

"Elena is a kind person, well-disposed to people," said Viktor Razumovsky.  "She's always ready to help a friend.  For this reason it's essential for her to share her joyful emotions with someone.  And as a result, she has to ensure that everyone around is also cheerful.  And if, for example, Elena Gurova, who is by the way one of Shevchenko's main rivals, suddenly becomes sad, Elena will immediately go up to her and say or do something funny.  You look and sure enough, Gurova is smiling and has forgotten her problems.  In short, everyone's happy.  Except me.  It means that once again Shevchenko has been getting side-tracked."

So what prospects does this girl have and what are her most important features?  I asked the Olympic champion Larissa Petrik to answer this question.

"Elena Shevchenko is my favorite gymnast," Petrik replied.  "We are similar in spirit, in style and ... in the color of our hair.  When she goes out onto the floor, Elena very quickly gets the feel of the situation and in her performance she just slightly plays and flirts with the audience.  One senses a femininity in her that is as yet unaware of itself."

"My favorite elements of Shevchenko's program are the floor exercises and the vault.  As we say, Elena uses contrast.  She begins a combination softly, flexibly and then suddenly explodes, unexpectedly transforming the rhythmic pattern.  Elena's feel for rhythm, which very rarely lets her down, helps her achieve tremendous emotional expressiveness.  And this, combined with her high level of technique is quite sufficient, I believe, for her to win the sympathy of the spectators and the judges at the forthcoming world championships in Holland."

Larissa Petrik is by no means alone in this opinion.  Many experts believe that Elena Shevchenko is one of the greatest hopes of Soviet gymnastics.  But can this hope bring results?  So far, the "slow and unhurried" Elena Shevchenko has always managed to keep up with the times.

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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