Why So Many Gymnasts Come From Voronezh

When you think of powerful Russian cities the first thought that comes to mind is Moscow and Saint Petersburg (known as Leningrad under the Soviet Union). But when it comes to Russian gymnastics there are two cities that stand out, Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don. These two cities have consistently been some of the most productive cities in Russian gymnastics. It’s even more remarkable when you consider their size. Rostov-on-Don is currently the 10th largest city in Russia while Voronezh is the 14th largest. But that’s modern day Russia. Under the Soviet Union many of its major cities (such as Kiev) were outside the borders of modern day Russia. In the final Soviet census Rostov-on-Don was the 23rd largest city while Voronezh was ranked 28th in population. How did these two cities end up being the two strongest cities in the Soviet and Russian gymnastics programs?

Yuri Shtukman (M)

The answer comes down to one man from Voronezh by the name of Yuri Shtukman. Shtukman is credited with being the first coach to focus on training gymnasts at the age of five to six years old. This was a revolutionary tactic that is common practice in modern gymnastics, but a rarity back in the late 1950s. The top gymnast of the 1960s was Vera Caslavska who started the sport at the age of 15.

Tamara Lyukhina

Shtukman started coaching in the mid 1950s and had success almost immediately with Tamara Lyukhina who would become a 2x Olympian (1960 and 1964). He produced another successful gymnast in Irina Pervushina. Irina would win a bronze in the All-Around (AA) at the 1962 World Championships losing only to Larissa Latynina and Vera Caslavska, two of the most accomplished athletes in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG). Pervushina would then go Jekyll and Hyde in event finals putting up two last place finishes, but also winning a silver on floor and a gold on bars.

Irina Pervushina

Pervushina’s best competition would also be her last. A knee injury brought her career to an end. In gymnastics history Pervushina is a sort of one hit wonder, but also a case of “what could have been?” Had injuries not ruined her career, she could have gone on to be one of the best gymnasts of the 1960s. Pervushina had won the 1962 USSR Cup while defeating Larissa Latynina in the process.

Lyubov Burda

But Shtukman’s greatest success would be Lyubov Burda. In 1967 Burda won a bronze medal at the USSR Championships. Having celebrated her 14th birthday just three months prior, Burda’s third place finish had knocked fourth place finisher Polina Astakhova, a holder of ten Olympic medals, off the medal stand. Astakhova was the last remaining gymnast from the classical era of Soviet WAG (1950s to mid 1960s) and her loss to Burda effectively ended Polina’s career.

But it wasn’t just the fact that Burda had won a medal at an extremely young age, it was how she did it. One account reports that Shtukman entered the competition with a “mysterious and sly smile” and went around promising a surprise. His former pupil Pervushina had been a great bars worker and Shtukman had built on what he had learned when he applied those same lessons to Burda. The result was a routine that featured two new moves, the Burda Pinwheel and the Burda Twirl.

Burda’s UB routine. The Pinwheel is performed at the very beginning, the Twirl is performed 8 seconds in.

While Olga Korbut is best known for producing innovative new moves, Korbut is what made the innovative style of gymnastics popular and forced the governing powers to embrace this new innovative style. But it was Burda who was responsible for starting the trend of new moves designed to make the spectators gasp. The Burda Twirl would become the trademark move of Ludmilla Turischeva who was the top gymnast of the era. The Burda Twirl would even outlive the Korbut Flip. Ecaternina Szabo (1984) and Svetlana Baitova (1988) performed the move at the Olympics. Tatiana Groshkova and Elena Zamolodchikova did Burda Twirls in the 1990s. It was performed as recently as 2003. (1)

Burda would go on to become a 2x Olympian and would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame. There were a number gymnasts and coaches who were responsible for killing off the classical era of gymnastics. By the time Burda came along classical gymnastics was on its last breath. But Burda’s ability to demonstrate daring new moves and to win over an established veteran at 14 years old makes her the gymnast who delivered the final deathblow.

Shtukman wouldn’t have any major success after Burda. But he did have one last interaction with a future WAG great at his school Spartak Voronezh. Outside the gates of the school a young girl who had been denied enrollment kept pestering officials to be let in. She had gone as far as to practice gymnastics in the courtyard hoping to be noticed. Eventually one of Shtukman’s subordinates by the name of Gennady Korshunov let the girl in. Shtukman was furious that his authority had been undermined. Shtukman reprimanded Korshunov and the two didn’t talk for two weeks because of the incident. But the girl was allowed to stay. Her name was Elena Davydova.

Elena Davydova

But Shtukman would never get to see Davydova become an Olympic Champion. He died unexpectedly in 1977. Spartak Voronezh soon fell into disarray. As a result Davydova and Korshunov relocated to Leningrad. Her career quickly revitalized and Davydova was named to the 1978 Soviet World Championships team as an alternate, won the AA Gold at the 1980 Olympics, and won a bronze medal in the AA at the 1981 World Championships.

Davydova may have done it while technically representing Leningrad, but her connection to her hometown of Voronezh remained. Davydova’s most famous move was being the first woman to complete a Tkachev. The move was first done by Alexander Tkachev, a men’s gymnast from Voronezh. It was though Tkachev that Davydova was first exposed to the move. She was the first woman to do it because she had more familiarity with the move than any of her top rivals of that era.

Shtukman was gone but his legacy remained. Early in his coaching career he had also coached a Soviet gymnast by the name of Rima Alexandrova. Alexandrova would rise to become a minor member of the Soviet team and would later marry her former coach. In the 1980s she would become a successful coach herself.

Komova (L) and Kolesnikova (R)

Her first success was Vera Kolesnikova who was a member of the 1985 Soviet World Championships team. Kolesnikova however is more widely known among gymnastics fans for being the mother of Viktoria Komova, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the AA. Komova’s coach was Gennady Yelfimov who is the current coach of Russian gymnast Yana Vorona who trains at the Voronezh club that is now named after Shtukman.

Alexandrova’s other success was 1987 World Championship team member Tatiana Tuzhikova. She would marry a man by the name of Sergei Denisevich who is the coach of 2016 Olympian Angelina Melnikova.

Every gymnast discussed so far is from Voronezh, but the Voronezh dynasty would not be the most iconic club of the Soviet WAG program. That honor goes to the Dynamo club in Rostov-on-Don. Under Vladislav Rastorotsky Dynamo Rostov would produce Ludmilla Turischeva who would win nine Olympic medals and eleven World Championship medals, Natalia Shaposhnikova who would win four medals (two gold) at the 1980 Olympics, and Natalia Yurchenko who was the AA gold medalist at the 1983 World Championships. The list continues with Albina Shishova who was named to the 1983 Soviet World Championships team, and other notable gymnasts who didn’t achieve mainstream success, but were part of the Soviet WAG program as lower ranked members such as Elena Ponomarenko, Lyubov Yudina, Elena Veselova, and Svetlana Rylkova.

But what does Vladislav Rastorotsky have to do with Voronezh? He started out in Voronezh. Shtukman was his mentor meaning Shtukman’s coaching tree extends into all of Rostov Dynamo and thus his final coaching tree looks like this:

  1. Special thanks to @chrisakadanafan @Pamchenkova and @OnoNoKomachi1 for finding these examples.

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