Time to Win

By Andrei Batashev

Sport in the USSR, 10/89   During last year's European championships in rhythmic gymnastics in Helsinki, the Soviet team's 16-year-old debutante Alexandra Timoshenko (height 164 cm; weight 40kg) shared the overall championship with Bulgaria's Elizabeth Koleva and Adriana Dunavska.  Besides, she won three more golds -- for the hoop, clubs and rope.

Performing at the Seoul Olympics several months later, Alexandra won a bronze medal.  This year she has emerged victorious from three elimination tourneys for the European Cup held in Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, and then became all-round champion of the USSR for the first time in her life.

With all this in mind, I, naturally, expected to hear only praise from Timoshenko's coaches (famous Albina Deryugina who has reared a constellation of brilliant gymnasts, and her daughter Irina Deryugina, two times world champion).  But I was wrong.

"After her first success Alexandra went wool-gathering for some time and stopped working hard in the gym," Albina Deryugina said.  "It immediately told on her physical form, and her technique suffered."

But after watching a routine training session where Alexandra spared no sweat, I saw that she was already back to earth now.  After the training session Alexandra told me she had time to talk because she was not going to dine that day: "I've got to get rid of 1.5 extra kilograms."

Noting from time to time how great it would be to have some ice cream, Alexandra told me she was born in the Ukraine, in the small town of Boguslav near Kiev.  She had a happy childhood.  "Our house stood high above the river Ros.  There was a forest nearby with mushrooms, berries and flowers -- bluebells and forget-me-nots.  And a blue sky overhead."

When Alexandra was seven, her father (a construction engineer) was invited to work in Kiev.  Soon after that the Timoshenkos moved to the Ukrainian capital where Alexandra started training in the group led by Albina Deryugina.

"I was eight-and-a-half years old then," Alexandra says, "meaning I was more than two years late."

She was too proud to resign to this fact and trained so hard that even the exceptionally demanding Deryugina praised her workability.  At age 14 Alexandra Timoshenko became USSR champion among juniors and, shortly after, collected three medals at a European championships: a gold for the rope, a silver for the hoop and a bronze for the ribbon.  Then, already during a regular USSR championship, she placed second behind the leader of our gymnastics, Marina Lobach of Byelorussia (the would-be winner of the Seoul Games) and won the right to go to the 1988 European championships.

The main contenders were the Bulgarian gymnasts with their reputation of invincibility.  But 16-year-old Timoshenko was not a bit impressed.

"Why should I be scared of them?  They do not bite, do they?"  Alexandra tried to make it as clear as possible how she managed to overcome the psychological barrier.

Alexandra spends each day in the gym polishing her movements so that the audience believes she can effortlessly execute any combination, no matter how difficult it may be.  To achieve this one only has to subordinate oneself to the music, to understand what it demands from you, the inner meaning hidden behind its melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

"I do the hoop exercise under Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini," Alexandra relates.  "It's a tragic piece of music.  When I hear it I always remember the story of Francesca and Paolo narrated by Dante, their love and their ordeal.  Of course, I control each element, but it is a matter of technique, you know.  To tell a love story is a lot more difficult task."

"The exercise with the rope is performed to a modernized version of our Ukrainian folk dance Gopak. The composition is a variation of the 'Terrible Revenge' cartoon made after Gogol's story.  All this dictates humor and special, cartoon-style eccentricity."

"We chose Michael Jackson's music as an accompaniment to my exercise with the ribbon.  All you have to do here to tune in is to remember any of his videos.  When I do this my movements immediately change although I never try to copy Jackson of course.  It's just impossible."

"Well, and what does fatigue mean in gymnastics?  How does it tell?

"It often happens that you finish the exercise, do the final element and are unable to move a hand.  Or when you try to catch something and your hands do not feel anything.  This happened to me during the European championship when I did my last exercise with the ribbon in finals.  In the end I throw the ribbon into the air, catch it and finish the exercise.  That time, however, I failed to catch the ribbon and make it stay in my palm: my limbs had lost all sensitivity.  I blew that exercise."

Timoshenko is 17.  She studies in the 11th form and is only beginning to live.

"And what would you be doing if there were no gymnastics," I asked.

"But it just can't be!" she smiles broadly and adds quite logically: "Therefore there is no need for me to think about it."

"Well, but what will you be doing after you leave sport?"

"There is a long time to go, you know.  I think one can perform even at 20," Alexandra replied in a carefree manner apparently doubting she will ever reach this faraway age.

"I will probably become a coach," she said after a short pause.  "I am totally into my sporting career now."

Yes, everything she sees and feels now, Timoshenko related to rhythmic gymnastics comparing each new impression with her compositions.  Therefore, even a book or a movie is worth her attention only if it gives her energy making her think sharper and feel accordingly on the mat.

"What are you reading now?"

"Stendhal's 'La Chartreuse de Parme'."

"And whom of movie and pop stars would you like to meet?"

"Jean-Paul Belmondo, Mikhail Boyarsky, Michael Jackson.  I admire their emotionality.  They not simply act, they burn themselves out.  How to learn this?  And how to dare this?"

Alexandra Timoshenko doubts her abilities sometimes.  But only until she gets into the atmosphere of sporting competition.  Natalia Kuzmina, head coach of the USSR team, says that the  acuteness of the competition and unexpected obstacles always urge Timoshenko on awakening the thirst for resistance in her.

"Here is just one example," Kuzmina recounts.  "It is June 1989.  The USSR championships in Krasnoyarsk.  Timoshenko is to do an exercise with a ball while another girl has already begun her composition with a ribbon.  When Alexandra is making a salto, the other girl accidentally hits her in the justify eyelid with the stick the ribbon is attached to.

"The doctors stopped the blood and applied stitches.  We, of course, had lost all hope she would be able to take part in the competitions.  But on the very next day she came out again and won the all-around title."

Before I justify I asked Timoshenko what she did not like in herself.

"I'm too stubborn," she said.  "Even when I feel I'm wrong there's nothing I can do about it.  I just go on my own, as if I were possessed by some sinister force."

When I told Albina Deryugina about this, she noted with satisfaction: "If so, then she's really back to earth again.  Well, it's high time.  Gymnastics stars have little time to spare.  It's a pity they're not always aware how fast time flies."

This page was created on March 30, 2001.
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