At the 1952 Olympics the All-Around (AA) would be contested in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) for the first time. The first gymnast to hold this title would be Maria Gorokhovskaya who would also have one of the most remarkable life stories of any AA champion. Among her life experiences was her service during World War II.
Maria Gorokhovskaya’s served as a nurse in World War II and was present at the siege of Leningrad. The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and would be one of the deadliest battles of World War II. The Soviets would suffer more casualties at this one city than the Americans and British lost throughout the entirety of World War II combined. Civilians would suffer the worst of it with 800,000 deaths and resorting to pigeons, rats, pets, and even cannibalism for food.
It was under these circumstances that Maria endured. During the day she worked as a nurse in a military hospital. At night she worked on the roofs as a firefighter putting out fires caused by German incendiary bombs. She was eventually evacuated to Kazakstan after suffering “exhaustion” which could mean a host of things ranging from her being overworked or because she was on the verge of death due to lack of food.
It was an act of faith that had brought her to Leningrad. She moved there to further her education as a young 20 year old right before the city came under siege. It brought her into the forefront of one of the worst battles and put her in significant danger, it also may have saved her life. Maria came from a Jewish family in Crimea. Her hometown came under Nazi occupation and her father was murdered in the Holocaust as a result. The only other mention of the fate of her family members cite her brother being killed in combat while serving in the Soviet army.
After the war Maria either began or returned to WAG. It is not clear at what point in her life she started gymnastics. She won her first medal at the USSR Championships at the age of 26, and her first gold at the age of 27.
Maria was denied the opportunity to compete at the 1948 Olympics due to the Soviet Union not participating in the Olympic movement until 1952. Maria spent most of her career in the shadow of many Soviet gymnasts, among them Galina Urbanovich. Urbanovich had dominated the 1940s and can be described as the grandmother of Soviet WAG. But by 1952 the veteran Urbanovich was starting slow down due to her advanced age.
Both Gorokhovskaya and Urbanovich were Jewish. They competed as Jewish gymnasts at great risk to themselves and excelled 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:
At 30 years old Maria was four years younger than Urbanovich and when the 1952 Olympics came around, 1952 would prove to be Gorokhovskaya’s year. The stars had aligned perfectly for her.
Maria would win the All-Around title, the first ever in WAG. But she was just getting started. Gorokhovskaya won a silver on each of the four remaining individual events. She also won a gold in the team event and another silver in an event called “team portable apparatus” (Team-PA).
Commentators often invoke the weaker competition and more events of the time as a slight against WAGs from this era having it easy compared to current WAGs. One thing that isn’t talked about is WAGs from the early 1950s and prior had to not only train on all the traditional WAG events, but Team-PA which was a forerunner to rhythmic gymnastics, and even events from men’s gymnastics as well. Gorokhovskaya herself was a standout on the high bar. In the early 1950s WAG had to train on all three of the major gymnastics disciplines of today. It further divided their training time and was quite the burden for them.
It did give Maria one extra team event and she took advantage of this by winning a medal on that event and also medals in each of the six traditional events as well. The only other time it was possible to win seven medals in WAG at a single Olympics was in 1956. It was during those games that Larissa Latynina would narrowly miss the mark by winning six medals and finishing in fourth place on the balance beam.
The record of seven medals in a single Olympics would forever remain with Maria. For WAGs, it is impossible to break as they can only win a maximum of six medals in a single Olympics. It remains part of a wider Olympic record across all sports for women. Maria holds the distinction of having won the most medals in a single Olympics by a woman. The men have managed to reach the feat, most notably American men’s swimmers. But their female equivalents have been unable to win across as wide a range of events. Female swimmers tend to max out at only five medals in a single Olympics. Only on two occasions has a woman won six.
The record has stood for 68 years and was essentially “unbreakable” in that time. A rule change starting in 2020 allowing mixed-gender events in swimming will give future women the extra event needed if they finally want to match Maria’s record.
Gorokhovskaya would also compete at the 1954 World Championships. She won another team medal and a bronze on floor. It was the only other occasion in her career that she competed internationally. Soviet WAGs could not participate in the Olympics until 1952, the World Championships until 1954, and the European Championships until 1957. In retirement Maria would work as both a judge and a coach.
As the first AA champion in both Soviet and Olympic history, Maria would be frequently featured in Soviet propaganda, highlights, and news reels. She would also constantly be cited as a “flashback” to past success. Soviet officials were not aware of Maria’s Jewish background. It would not be revealed until the 1990s when she moved to Israel to live out the rest of her life. Maria died in Tel Aviv at the age of 79 in 2001.
Note: Maria’s status as an AA champion makes her a widely referenced figure, but because she competed in such an obscure era, in-depth information about her is hard to come by. Multiple sources confirm that she was Jewish, moved to Israel, and served at Leningrad. But all the other details in this article (other than her competitive results and birth year) only come from single sources that are not as strong as what I normally use. It’s not something I like doing as I usually prefer books, interviews, and newspaper archives. With Gorokhovskaya there isn’t much available.