When All Seemed Lost...

By A. Batashev

Sport in the USSR    Elena Shushunova (146 cm tall, 41.5 kg) participated in her first "adult" competition during the USSR Spartakiade in 1983.  At that time the 14-year-old gymnast from Leningrad (who is coached by Viktor Gavrichenko with the assistance of Tamara Yatchenko and choreographer Elena Rasina) got a bronze medal in the team competition.  In the same season Elena won the USSR Cup and took second place at a major international competition in Japan.  Two years later Shushunova captured the titles of national and European all-around champion.  Next stop: the 1985 world championships in Montreal. 

She got off to a good start in the contest for the world crown.  The horse vault and floor exercises earned her "tens."

"I took these perfect marks as evidence that some kind of law of justice was operating," Viktor Gavrichenko recalls.  "If you'd seen Elena when she first came to us in the Central Army Club gym at the age of 7.  Short, inconspicuous, the object of attention only because of the funny movements she made.  The other girls seemed like better material for gymnasts in terms of their lines, their proportions, in short, their physical attributes.  But in Elena I sensed an inner strength and a hidden wealth of emotion.  And I wasn't mistaken.  By practicing she turned herself into a gymnast while displaying diligence and patience of a kind that reminded me more than once of that celebrated champion of the past, Lyudmila Turishcheva."

The third event in the gymnasts' compulsory program was the bars.  Shushunova ran up to the apparatus, pushed off on the springboard, leaped and fell.  As it turned out, she had lost her rhythm as she ran up to the bars and got her legs "mixed up" as a result.

"I couldn't believe that something like this could happen," Gavrichenko says.  "What had made her mistake inevitable?  Where had I miscalculated?  I thought about this and I, too, was ready to sink through the floor in shame."

The judges gave Shushunova a mark of 8.75.  It was a catastrophe.  At that moment, no one could help her -- not her friends on the team nor her coach.  But there was no time to give way to despair.  Ahead lay the last apparatus -- the beam.  And Shushunova performed her routine with a mischievous, slightly mocking artistry, as though in walking from the bars to the beam she had been transported to another dimension where other laws of gravity pertained, making even the smallest mistake impossible.

"She got a 9.875 for the beam!" Gavrichenko recalls.  "That came as a surprise to everyone: we hadn't even dreamed of a mark like that.  Nevertheless, this triumph could not make up for her failure on the bars.  I told Elena: 'Now you have a different task in front of you.  After the first day you are in 17th place.  That means that you are out of the running for an individual medal.  You must now think not about yourself but about your teammates, and work for them, for the team."

On that day when the athletes rested before the optional phase no one could have guessed what Elena Shushunova would do the next day before the spectators and judges.  Even Viktor Gavrichenko who had sensed "an inner strength and hidden wealth of emotion" in her nine years before, was incapable of foreseeing how high Shushunova could soar after falling.

"I don't know what happened to me after I botched up the bars," Elena says, recalling that moment.  "After the first day everyone was tired but I had so much energy.  I felt like I could fly.  And the next day I did a vault with two and a half flips instead of one and a half.  That's how I went through the entire optional phase."

Her comeback thrilled the head coach of the Soviet women's gymnastics team, Andrei Radionenko, a man with many years of experience under his belt who is accustomed to calculate everything exactly.  That evening he decided to put Elena Shushunova in the final of the all-around competition although after two days of competition she was only in seventh place!  Naturally, Radionenko took a big chance in choosing Shushunova over the very gifted Olga Mostepanova and Irina Baraksanova, who were in third and fourth place, respectively.  What guided the mentor of the Soviet team?  Sensing that Elena really could "fly," he gave her a chance to contend for the gold, fully aware that should she fail all the blame would be laid at his door.

"I don't know which emotion was stronger then," recalls Elena.  "Happiness that I would be performing again or guilt towards Olga and Irina who found themselves on the sidelines because of me."

"All next day I shivered.  I couldn't do anything with myself I was so overwrought.  Only towards the evening did I manage to calm down a bit.  The final of the all-around competition was contested on the basis of the optional program alone.  And I had an easier time performing that than the compulsory.  I find the compulsory program confining and I probably think more about them than about my gymnastics."

On the day when it was determined who would get the gold in the individual championship Elena Shushunova did not think about gymnastics.  She lived it.  And the story of the athlete's struggle with fate was reflected in her routines.  It gave them special beauty and imparted them with the significance of adversity overcome.

"When the competitions were over," Viktor Gavrichenko says, "I couldn't believe my eyes: Elena Shushunova and Oksana Omelianchik were tied for first place, having accumulated the same number of points to the thousandth fraction.  That had never happened at the world championships before."

"Then, in Montreal," says Gavrichenko winding up his story, "I didn't feel a sense of elation.  Maybe just a sense of calm.  I couldn't fully grasp that Elena was the winner of the world championships.  And even now when I walk into the gym I see in her not a champion but rather the same trustful and obedient pupil who always takes a lively interest in the new elements we suggest."

When Shushunova performs her floor routine with its falls, sudden departures into syncopated time and difficult "men's" acrobatics, one gets the feeling that she must be the same in daily life -- mischievous, witty and completely sure of herself. But this is not the case.  Shushunova the gymnast is more adult than she herself.  Elena dresses quite plainly ("I think today's fashions go too far"), loves to dance but feels too shy to ("I'm not very good at it..."), mourns over not being able to take her dachshund, Nastia, with her on trips ("She's already eight years old and has to be given tender loving care").  Incidentally, Elena likes books about animals best of all, and when she was in school (Elena completed her secondary education this year) her favorite subject was biology.

Elena prefers to spend her holidays with her parents (her father is a driver, her mother a milliner) either on the Black Sea or outside Leningrad, where they fish and gather mushrooms.

In the area of the arts the gymnast is most interested in animated cartoons and the circus, which thrill her with their power over movement and their fabulous metamorphoses.

Elena Shushunova has a great deal of the child in her.  That is why she can so easily be drawn into games.  Knowing this the choreographers who put together her floor routine often ask Elena not just to perform one or another series of elements but to play, say, a robber relaxing or a delicately painted china teapot, or to mime a scene on the theme, "Oh, how I admire myself."

Yes, Shushunova the gymnast is more adult than she herself.  In mastering her sport Elena has retained the shyness of her childhood, which protects the immediacy of her perception and that expectation of joy which she looks at the world around her.  Together with the courage and ability to fight back which gymnastics has taught her, they will probably help her become an imaginative and astute coach.  Elena chose that occupation long ago and that is why she entered the Leningrad Institute of Physical Education this year.

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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