The Star with the Ribbon

By S. Kivrin

Sport in the USSR, 1980   After the 7th USSR Spartakiade in August 1979, Lena Tomas was asked: "Do you get nervous during competitions?"  Lena quickly replied:  "I am never nervous."  That answer seemed rather too categorical.

Two months later we met again.  We were traveling in a coach taking the USSR rhythmic gymnastics team along the mountain roads of Georgia.  The coach jolted us unmercifully.  It was a long trip -- over two hundred kilometers in all.  Towards the end the girls were obviously worn out.  Only Tomas remained unaffected.  She had covered her head with a jacket and was sleeping on the back seat, having placed herself so that she wouldn't fall off.  It was then I remembered what she had said at the press conference.  Yes, Lena's calmness and restraint were enviable.  That of course doesn't protect her from accidents on the floor, but it goes a long way towards explaining her constant success.

At the last Russian Federation Games in Chelyabinsk, Lena had a big lead after three events, but then dropped a club, and so badly that it landed under the judges' desk.  The number of points by which she was leading melted away instantly and she fell back into second place.  This, however, did not upset her.  Lena performed the exercise with the ribbon with such perfection that she became absolute champion.

Soon after that a similar situation occurred in Moscow at the USSR Spartakiade.  Before the last two events Lena was leading Irina Deryugina, the world champion, by 0.05 points  Next came the ribbon exercise and suddenly something went wrong: only 9.35 points.  That kind of result was unlikely to place her among the medallists.  But Lena remained true to herself.  She performed the exercise with the clubs with inspiration and thanks to this was awarded the silver medal for her all-around performance.  Moreover, on the final day of the competitions, having conquered her nerves, Lena was awarded two gold and two silver medals in the individual events.

Events didn't exactly go Lena's way at the 1980 USSR Championships in Frunze, either:  after the first day of competition she was in third place, and after the second day -- in fourth place.  But on the third day Tomas nevertheless managed to win herself the title of USSR absolute champion.

So what helps Yelena Tomas to maintain her self-control, to contain her emotions, which are so natural at her age?

"When I perform, I sometimes do not even know my own marks, and to be frank, I don't pay much attention to those of my rivals," she confessed.  "What interests me is the actual process of performing.  I am happy when I feel that I am giving the audience pleasure, and that is what I aim for."

"During competitions she concentrates entirely on the actual performance, the musical accompaniment and on the feelings it evokes," said Aida Lavrova, her coach.  "She becomes absorbed in herself, and to everyone else she seems withdrawn and aloof.  But in fact this is the power of her thought, her ability to control her emotions.  This is why she can subjugate her own will during events."

Lena's seeming aloofness momentarily disappears when she feels she has made contact with the audience and senses that they are wishing her well.  The need to respond to good with good, to generosity with generosity, constancy in her affections, patience and love of work are qualities that have been with Lena since childhood.  Lena was lucky in being surrounded by kind people.  A helping hand, whether it was her parents' or her coaches' was always there to support, to aid and comfort her.

Sport was always a natural everyday thing in Yevgenia and Viktor Tomas' family.  In 1969 they enrolled Lena in a rhythmic gymnastics class in the Barrikady Sports Club in Volgograd under coach Alexandra Popova.

This first attempt wasn't particularly successful.  After a year Lena left the class.  But her father and her coach showed foresight in persisting and Lena returned to the class.  Soon she was being coached by Aida Lavrova.  "I could always be persuaded by the gentleness and courtesy of my teachers," recalled Lena Tomas, "by their ability to understand, forgive and make me work.  They would never get angry, on the contrary, they would explain, convince and were always magnanimous in being right.  After that it would simply have been impossible not to do what they asked..."

Lena's first major test came at the 1977 National Youth Championships in Panevezys.  After the first day Lena was in fourth place, after the second day -- in seventh place.  The third day was devoted to the exercises with the hoop and the ribbon.  The hoop exercise gave her 9.75 points, the ribbon exercise 9.6.  These excellent results brought the newcomer the bronze medal for overall performance.  The audience gave her a big ovation after the exercise with the hoop.  She felt for the first time that her art could bring people joy; she sensed the warmth and involvement of the audience.  "It was there that I was born as a gymnast," Lena was to say shortly afterwards.

From that time on Lena and her father have kept a diary of her contests.  Together they analyze them, determine and discuss the opinions of experts and the press reviews.  This "family laboratory" enables her to return to the past, to look objectively at her successes and failures, to learn from them and draw conclusions for the future.

1978 brought Lena Tomas the title of champion of the 15th USSR School Games.  A year later in Tomsk she won the silver medal in the USSR Cup, which gave her the right to attend the world championships.  July 1979, in London brought the Volgograd schoolgirl world fame.  On the stand in Wembley Stadium she was awarded the title of world champion in the ribbon event and the silver medal for overall performance.

Frank Taylor, chairman of the European Sports Press Association and one of the leading English sports commentators, wrote after the world gymnastics championships:  "The Soviet Union, which has dominated this sport for many years, has never been short of new talents, and they have a new star in their team, 17-year-old Lena Tomas, who is described as sensational."

Experts often, when talking about Tomas' performances and trying to stress her individuality, compare her to the temperamental and freedom-loving Carmen as she is portrayed in the music of Bizet's opera.  Indeed, in Lena's exercises, the music emphasizes the gymnast's idea, the idea of freedom, of self-expression.  Lena's exercises are a transformation of her physical and emotional potential that complements the nature of the music.  But as the senior coach of the national team, Merited Trainer of the USSR Valentina Bataen once noted, Lena always remains herself, with her characteristic classical purity of fine, finely defined gymnastic style and grace is performing.  This, we might add, is a guarantee of her future success.  This is what her fans believe, and what she herself relies on.

"Whom do you like competing with, and why?"

"With those gymnasts who always do well.  When you meet a true master, you inevitably try to reach above yourself, you develop."

"Who is your most testing rival?"

"Myself.  In order to succeed, you have to put yourself in a special mood, to find the desire to compete.  This means you often have to master, to force yourself.  And that is difficult."

"How do you feel about your failures?"

"I can't grieve over them for too long.  I rely on my own capabilities, and this is why I look for failures and mistakes in myself."

"Which gymnast do you take as your standard?"

"My idol, Galima Shugurova.  She could captivate the audience with her skill.  I also admire Irina Deryugina's fighting spirit.  She doesn't falter even at the most difficult moments."

"What is your favorite gymnastic exercise?"

"I haven't got one.  Gymnasts should be all-rounders."

"What qualities attract you in your friends?"

"Independence, constancy, completeness, courage and love of work."

"What do you like doing best in your free time?"

"Music.  It helps me to regain my emotional equanimity."

"What are your plans in your sporting career?"

"To compete and win!"

This page was created on May 04, 2002.
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