Gymnastics Bios #3: Galina Urbanovich

Galina Urbanovich was one of the first great gymnasts of Soviet women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). Competing mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, Galina lost virtually all of her international career due to the Soviet refusal to join the Olympic movement prior to 1952. By the time the storied gymnast made her debut in international competition, she was an aging veteran well past her prime.

Born in September of 1917 (some sources say October) at the height of the Russian Revolution, Galina’s birth reflects the troubled time in which she entered the world. Galina came from a Lithuanian family, but was born in the city of Baku in Azerbaijan. The birth location possibly being the result of her family fleeing the chaos that was plaguing other parts of the country at the time. Galina would spend the bulk of her life residing in Moscow.

Her full name Galina Napoleonovna Urbanovich is interesting. According to Luba Baladzhaeva of Gymnovosti, the “ovna” of her patronym (Napoleonovna) translates to “daughter of” meaning the patronym in full means “daughter of Napoleon.”

Galina originally started out as a volleyball player. Gymnastics coaches saw her immense talent and convinced Galina to switch to WAG at the age of 17. By modern standards this was a late start, but not in the 1930s. Galina quickly mastered the sport and within five years emerged as one of the top gymnasts in the country. With no international assignments available to her, Galina would instead have to settle for the Soviet domestic circuit such as the national championships.

Galina would absolutely dominate the domestic circuit. Her 29 gold medals is more than double the number gold medals won by Latynina. With 44 total medals, Galina would be the most decorated Soviet of all time on the domestic level. Galina would win the Soviet national All-Around (AA) title on all but one occasion from 1943-1950 for a total of seven times.

Like her contemporary Maria Gorokhovskaya, Galina served as a nurse during World War II. Unlike Gorokhovskaya, Galina managed to contribute to the war effort while also maintaining a gymnastics career. Galina was also balancing motherhood as well and at times brought her daughter to the gym when she trained. Urbanovich was noted for quickly returning to the sport after giving birth.

Galina’s best event was rings, an event that only the men compete on in modern gymnastics. In Galina’s era WAGs had to train on the traditional WAG apparatuses as well as the men’s apparatuses. They also had to train in Team Portable Apparatus (Team-PA) which was an early forerunner to rhythmic gymnastics.

In essence, Galina had to train on all three of the major gymnastics disciplines of today. It further divided her training time and was quite a burden. Even though many elements of WAG back then made it easier for Galina to win medals, there were also elements that she had to endure that modern gymnasts don’t have to deal with.

It is also important to note that the USSR Cup, the second major domestic competition Soviet gymnasts competed it wouldn’t start until 1955. Urbanovich wasn’t padding her medal count via winning on extra events. She had more events per competition that she could medal on, but also fewer competitions to participate in than future Soviet gymnasts. Urbanovich also continued to put up strong results after World War II ended. This dispels the myth that her wins only happened because other top gymnasts were busy serving the war effort. Galina would have had success regardless of which era she competed in.

The Madmen database which is by far the best collection of Olympic researchers and historians noted Galina was “probably the best female gymnast of the world during the 1940s.” But by the time of the 1952 Olympics Galina was no longer the best in the world.

The aging veteran would put up results that were respectable for her age, but didn’t make her stand out. Galina finished fifth in the AA. On the four events in Event Finals she put up two fifth place finishes and a fourth place finish. She had just narrowly missed out on a medal. In retrospect, the 34 year old finishing in the top five in all but one of the five individual events was rather impressive. Especially since her best event (rings) was not a WAG event.

The Soviet WAG heroine of the 1952 Olympics would be Maria Gorokhovskaya who was four years younger than the aging Galina. With Team-PA serving as a seventh event, Gorokhovskaya would win seven medals in a single Olympics. It remains the record for the most medals won by a woman in a single Olympics across all sports. It also made Maria the first All-Around (AA) champion in both Olympic history and Soviet history.

Gorokhovskaya’s status as an AA champion made her the center of Soviet propaganda, news reels, and highlights in the aftermath of the 1952 Olympics. Her AA victory would remain a “flashback” that would be constantly brought up in ensuing decades within the Soviet media.

Galina would remain more of an obscure figure. At first glance, Galina was simply a supporting member of the 1952 team who had failed to win any individual medals. Her true status as a pioneer of the sport wasn’t given much attention as her lack of Olympic success made her an overlooked figure. The 1952 Olympics would be the only international competition of Galina’s career. Soviet WAGs could not participate in the Olympics until 1952, the World Championships until 1954, and the European Championships until 1957.

Whereas Russian sources give some recognition towards Urbanovich, it is Azerbaijani sources that seem to genuinely go out of their way to mention her. Both Gorokhovskaya and Urbanovich were Jewish. They competed at great risk to themselves and excelled as Jewish athletes at the height of one of the worst anti-Semitic campaigns in Soviet history. I dedicated a separate article to this topic that can be found below:

Link to: The 1952 Soviet team and anti-Semitism

In Gorokhovskaya’s case it was a well kept secret that was revealed only in the 1990s. For Urbanovich little is known about whether her secret was kept, only that she was in fact Jewish. Her lack of an individual Olympic medal brought less attention on Galina. Thus the details of how she wavered the discrimination that Jewish athletes were subjected to has not been widely reported on.

Both Gorokhovskaya and Urbanovich competed past the 1952 Olympics. Galina would significantly outperform Gorokhovskaya at the 1953 USSR Championships. Galina finished third in the AA. Ahead of her in first place was the 21 year old Genrieta Konovalova and a 19 year old by the name of Larissa Dirii.

The 1953 USSR Championships could have been a watershed moment for triggering a decline in the average age of WAGs as the top two spots had gone to gymnasts with abnormally young ages. But it wasn’t to be as neither would have immediate “breakout” success following their 1953 victories.

Konovalova had shown promise in various stages of her career but would never make an Olympic or World Championship team. Larissa Dirii had shown signs of brilliance in the early 1950s, but needed a little bit more time to start hitting consistently in competition. A few years later Larissa Dirii would come back with a vengeance as if she was a completely different gymnast and far better than what she had once been. She was also going by a new name, Larissa Latynina.

Without immediate success from Larissa or Genrieta in the aftermath of their victory, the 1953 USSR Championships would not be the event that would finally crash the average age of the athletes. But it likely inspired coaches to start identifying talent at a younger age. Starting in the mid 1950s a minority of coaches started training children in the gym who were aged 5-11 years old. A significant step forward over the old way of doing things where gymnasts were recruited into the sport in their mid to late teenage years like Galina Urbanovich and Vera Caslavsaka.

For the 35 year old Urbanovich, the loss to two athletes that were significantly younger than her was the end of her gymnastics career. After 18 years in the sport, a new wave of young guns at the 1953 USSR Championships was the final straw for an athlete who had already been fending off younger athletes for an entire Olympic quad.

Urbanovich would serve as both a judge and a coach in retirement. She lived a happy family life until 1971 when her beloved husband died. At the time Galina was only 53 years old. She turned to working as an assistant at a medical laboratory to support herself. The only references to Galina after 1971 cite difficulties with financial and medical hardship. She would live a long life passing away in 2011 at the age of 93 in Moscow.

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