A Sensation of Lightness

May 1, 1978. A coach asked Mikhail Klimenko, "Hey, why does Lena look so sad? She doesn't smile during her cheerful floor routine." Klimenko replied, "Do you have parents?" "Yes." "Not Lena. Her grandmother raised her. It's difficult for her, but one day she will smile!"

They met early in the morning of December 28, 1974, in the CSKA training hall. Mikhail Klimenko and Lena Mukhina. The large windows were sprinkled with a fine snow. Klimenko, habitually folding his arms over his chest, was in no hurry to begin the workout. His coaching instinct told him that this quiet, sad little girl possessed unusual gymnastics talent. Or was he wrong?

Mikhail was coaching his brother, Viktor, at the time. He also coached boys. But he had never worked with little girls. Alexander Yurevich Eglit, who coached Mukhina, said to Mikhail, "Look at this girl. Take her into your group; you won't regret it."

So, three days before the new year Klimenko took a look. He already knew that Lena's routines were very weak, that she was often called a coward and, that at age 14 she lagged behing the rest of the girls on the team. Still, he decided to give it a try.

Klimenko said, "I first had to see what her form and skills were like. I said, 'Let's start on the trampoline.' I asked her to spin, do some flips and somersaults, and then try to add twists. I saw that she was coordinated, listened carefully, and tried to fulfill all my directions. And her eyes! Intelligent eyes. I was delighted, of course. Alexander Yurevich was right, she's a very interesting girl."

After two years, Mukhina was a contender for the Olympic team. How did she become a contender? It was necessary to show an entirely new complexity in her program. Mukhina did this, but she wasn't consistent enough by the time of the Olympics. However, at the end of 1976 she won the youth championships of the USSR.

Mukhina: Most of the girls in my third-grade class at school #202 loved figure skating. They would cut pictures of Irina Rodnina and Ludmila Pakhomova out of the newspaper. But for some reason I liked gymnastics. I only saw a competition once on television. I don't remember the names of the gymnasts, but I couldn't stop thinking about it for a whole week. I couldn't understand how the gymnasts did such difficult things.

Like in a fairy tale, an unknown woman came to our classroom. Imagine - Antonina Pavlovna Olezhko, master of sport. And she said, "Those who want to join the gymnastics section, raise your hands." I nearly cried with joy.

After a few days of training, I realized that the gymnastics on television and my workouts were very different things...

Under Mikhail Yakovlevich, I became Moscow champion in the candidate for master of sport category. We trained a lot, because I knew how to do only a few things and I was embarrassed by this. He introduced me to a completely different kind of gymnastics, which I secretly dreamed of but which I dreaded. I was really scared. I wanted to escape from the hall whenever the coach proposed a new element for me to learn. I would cry quietly from uncertainty, from knowing I was powerless to control my mind. I thought, 'Well, why did I come here? Maybe I really am a coward?'

But Mikhail didn't retreat. "Understand," he said, "that without these elements you can't catch anybody. You can't win. But you will win."

There, with tears in my eyes, I climbed onto the apparatus."

In training, Viktor helped Mikhail. Both of them are analysts. They have the gift of "seeing" technique and breaking down an element, later re-assembling it as a whole. Both are confident in their knowledge and abilities. This confidence that they are doing things correctly, and that there are no other options, was passed on to Lena.

Mikhail led a desperate attack on complexity. But he had a special approach to it. He needed a kind of complexity that would not stress her or cause her to feel "depressed." Look at Mukhina now. Her gymnastics is fascinating - with completely natural motion, without any effort. That's exactly how the writer Galina Shergova put it. "Fluidity and natural movement are what an artist needs most."

Klimenko once asked Lena who her favorite gymnasts were. "Lida Gorbik and Olga Korbut," she replied. "Lida is beautiful and graceful. And Olga is bold and explosive." Klimenko thought that if Mukhina could be like both of them, then she would be a real gymnast.

The "Mukhina loop" was born unexpectedly while rehearsing the "Korbut loop." Suddenly, Viktor invited her to try it with a twist. He remembered that her floor exercise had a unique element - pirouette straight into a prone position. Associative thinking worked. She learned the loop. Lena once said, "Do you know when I really became frightened? When I saw myself on television performing this element. Bars is my favorite apparatus. I love them and...I'm a little afraid."

The immutable law of sports says, do not flatter yourself into thinking that you would have won if you had stopped improving.

Mikhail Klimenko is a fine coach who studied to be a teacher and psychologist. In two years, there was an evolution in his pedagogical views. He taught a little gymnast new tricks, and taught her to be steadfast.

Mikhail was absolutely sure of Mukhina's victory in last year's "Moscow News" tournament. She was in excellent shape, and during traing she shone. But in competition - stress and nerves. The coach passed his excitement on to Lena. She wavered and lost to Masha Filatova.

Klimenko learned a lesson that tormented him - why did she make errors, why? He realized that Lena needed to remain calm in competition so she wouldn't feel the pressure. At the national championships, Mikhail told Lena, "don't think about the scores." She did as instructed. It was a step backwards in terms of character building, but it was necessary. Mukhina first had to "establish" herself in a senior tournament. A silver medal - it was a statement.

And in May at the European Championships, where she needed to think about victory, so to speak, in an obligatory manner. Passions are very different and you are competing not only for yourself but for "the sake of your country," and that's when Mukhina overcame her innate shyness and indecisiveness. She kept a stiff upper lip. And smiled!

Lena: Previously, I had only seen Nadia Comaneci on television. In Prague I saw her in person and watched her during podium training. I realized then that Nadia is just a regular girl. She also fell and made mistakes. On the day of the competition, I didn't see Nadia Comaneci as the Olympic champion but simply as an opponent that I could beat.

Lena returned home, and her grandmother wrung her hands - oh, how many medals! Silver for all-around, gold for floor, bars and beam, bronze for vault.

Lena was sewing some slacks one night while listening to her favorite singer Alla Pugacheva, when she suddenly remembered the press conference - and laughed. One journalist asked if she was afraid when walking in the streets at night. She replied immediately, "Well, of course I'm not afraid, because you have never seen such an amazingly couragous girl before."

At the recent national championships in Chelyabinsk, the podium was lit up with breathtaking passion. There were at least five top gymnasts who could take the title. Mukhina won.

Lena Mukhina cried. Pain was causing her tears. Lena had hit the beam, and stepping on her foot was very painful. One event remained - floor exercise.

She made a decision: "I have to compete! I must give my all!"

So she went to the mat. It was perhaps the best performance of the entire year. Klimenko was terribly happy. "Just look, she is a fighter. That's character."

You look at Lena Mukhina and involuntarily find yourself comparing her to Ludmila Turischeva. They have the same style, the same seriousness, but with an internally soft, appealing, natural style, and the same self discipline.

Eight years ago, Turischeva became a world champion for the first time. She was 18 at the time. Mukhina is a student at the Moscow Physical Institute. She will turn 18 on June 1. Her first world championships will be in October 1978.