Gymnastics Bios #5: Olga Koval

In 1975 the Romanians famously unleashed Nadia Comaneci on the unsuspecting Soviet women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) program resulting in a string of victories for a 13 year old Nadia, and complete bewilderment among the gymnasts she resoundingly defeated.

In response everyone started rethinking their approach towards WAG and switched their focus to developing their youngest prospects in an attempt to find the next Nadia. When the Soviet WAG program asked itself if it had any young gymnasts who could be a Nadia of their own, the answer was yes.

They had four.

One of the lesser known details of this particular era of WAG is that while Nadia was rising up the ranks of the Romanian program, the Soviet program was witnessing the rise of four child prodigies of its own. They were dubbed the “New Wave.” In retrospect, they may very well have been the greatest junior class of all time.

Among the members of this class was Elena Davydova the 1980 Olympic All-Around (AA) Champion. Next was Natalia Shaposhnikova, the gymnast who has one of the most ubiquitous names in WAG after “Yurchenko.” Today her legacy lives on in the phrase “Shaposh” as gymnasts, commentators, and fans talk about various uneven bar skills. And then there was Maria Filatova, a 2x Olympian.

There is a lot that Filatova, Shaposhnikova, and Davydova have in common. They were all born in 1961 and shared the same birth year as Nadia. They were even born within 44 days of each other. They were all known for their small stature. They all have an AA medal. They all went to the Olympics. They all became famous gymnasts and members of the Hall of Fame.

And then there is Olga Koval, the fourth member of the quartet. The one who never matched the success of the other three. The forgotten one. The gymnast who was the black sheep of the bunch and saw that designation become more and more true as her career progressed.

One of the most important things to note about Filatova, Shaposhnikova, and Davydova is that they have the distinction of being some of the smallest gymnasts to have ever competed in high level competition. At the 1980 Olympics Shaposhnikova was described by the Washington Post as a “tiny 19-year-old who looks and sounds like a girl of 12” and she was the biggest of the trio.

The world saw what a 13 year old Nadia had done and realized that small pre-pubescent girls were at a physical advantage over adult sized gymnasts such as Ludmilla Turischeva, the top ranked gymnast before Nadia had come along. Gymnasts such as Shaposhnikova, Davydova, and Filatova were now seen as the new era of the sport.

Olga Koval was different in a number of ways. She was a year older and a style of gymnast who reflected a young Turischeva. Koval was a classical 1960s gymnast stuck in the 1970s. At first this was an advantage for Olga Koval. She didn’t have to deal with the stigma against small gymnasts that had prevailed in the early part of her career. But by the end of her career the opposite was true as the balance of power had turned against classical gymnasts such as Koval and gave priority to tiny gymnasts such as Filatova, Davydova, and Shaposhnikova.

Unable to beat Nadia with their top gymnasts, the Soviets took a more rudimentary approach. They benched their top gymnasts to avoid further humiliating losses. Turischeva and Olga Korbut were pulled from any competition featuring Nadia. In their place the Soviets turned to their young gymnasts to fill the vacancies left open by the benching of Korbut and Turischeva.

Olga Koval was the natural gymnast to turn to. In 1975 it was Olga Koval who had done the most in high level competition among the members of the New Wave. If you were to ask the gymnastics community in 1975 who the next great Soviet gymnast would be, most people would have chosen Olga Koval. She had been given the most prestigious assignments and was featured prominently by the Soviets in their display tours.

Born in Leningrad, (now known as St. Petersburg) Koval was coached by Vladimir Reison who had also coached Natalia Kuchinskaya. Nowadays Kuchinskaya is something of a forgotten figure, but back in the early 1970s, she was one of the most recognizable names in the sport and is currently in the Hall of Fame. Koval’s connection to Kuchinskaya through her coach gave Koval instant credibility.

At the 1975 Pre-Olympics Olga Koval was the highest ranking Soviet in attendance after Nellie Kim. Koval’s 4th place finish in the AA was notable because the three gymnasts (Nadia, Nellie, and Teodora Ungureanu) who had beaten her went on to place 1st, 2nd, and 4th at the 1976 Olympics. Koval also tied Nadia for silver on vault. Ahead of them was Nellie Kim who won gold on vault at the Pre-Olympics and again at the Olympics.

From L to R: Turischeva, Koval, Elvira Saadi, Korbut, & Lidia Gorbik at the 1975 World Cup

That same year there would be an unusual competition, the 1975 World Cup. Unlike the World Cup in other years, the 1975 version allowed the Soviets to send six gymnasts, a de facto World Championships team. With Nadia not in attendance, the Soviets sent a top team featuring Ludmilla Turischeva and Olga Korbut. But Soviet officials had also decided to give a spot to the 14 year old Olga Koval.

Koval would completely justify her selection to the team with a 7th place finish in the AA. This was an era with no country limits of any kind and every gymnast competed on all four events. Finishing in 7th place was significantly harder to do in 1975 than it is in the modern era. More impressively, Olga Koval finished 7th despite recording a fall.

She attempted a Comaneci dismount on the uneven bars (over the low bar) and fell awkwardly. Koval landed in a way that caused her to head to whip back hard into the mat. But Koval quickly got up and was completely unfazed by it. She seemed more concerned with facing down her coach than any pain she was feeling. Koval also performed the Janz Salto, a move that had been used in the uneven bars routine that had won gold at both the 1972 Olympics and the 1974 World Championships.

Koval would later excel in Event Finals where she won a silver on vault (again in a tie) and this time the gold medal went to Ludmilla Turischeva. Turischeva would be the 1976 Olympic silver medalist on that apparatus. Koval’s results in 1975 reflected that of someone who was firmly among the ten best gymnasts in the world. If not for country limits, she could have been an Olympic medal contender on vault as well.

The 1975 World Cup is not known for the success of Olga Koval. It’s one of the best known competitions in WAG history for one thing, the famed bars collapse that occurred during Turischeva’s routine. Coincidently, Koval was not far away from that fiasco. Olga Koval competed on the uneven bars right before Turischeva’s legendary routine. It’s interesting to note that Koval and Turischeva were of very different sizes, meaning the two gymnasts had significantly different bar settings. There is also the question of whether Koval’s fall was in any way related to the event that happened shortly thereafter. The television footage which caught Koval’s preparation for her uneven bars routine also adds to the intrigue.

In domestic competition Olga Koval won the Junior National Championships fending off Maria Filatova who finished second. It was an ominous sign that while 1975 would be Koval’s year, 1976 would be Filatova’s year.

In 1976 Koval, Filatova, Shaposhnikova, and Davydova had performed well in domestic competition. Their results were so impressive that it appeared at least some of them deserved inclusion on the 1976 Olympic team with the remaining members taking the alternate spots. But in a stunning move Larissa Latynina had opted to keep all four of them off the team. The decision is often seen as Latynina discriminating against the “New Wave” as she opposed the newfound emphasis on youth.

In Latynina’s defense the team she selected would go on to be statistically one of the best performing Olympic teams of all time. In a last second decision, Soviet officials decided to overrule Latynina and upgraded Maria Filatova who was the primary alternate to a member of the Olympic team. Latynina’s reluctance to include young gymnasts on the team was a decision she would pay a heavy price for. Latynina was removed from her coaching position following the Olympics.

For Olga Koval, she was formally named an alternate. Not only had Koval narrowly missed out on the Olympics, things were about to get a whole lot worse for her. As the 1976 Olympics came and went two major developments would derail Koval’s career. The ouster of Latynina as head coach of the Soviet WAG team meant gymnasts in the classical style such as Koval had also fallen out of favor.

From L to R: Davydova, Korbut, Svetlana Grozdova, Koval, Nellie Kim, Turischeva, & Saadi

Even before the 1976 Olympics Koval was dealing with a growth spurt that was crippling her career. In one picture from a post Olympic tour in 1976, Koval is taller than even Nellie Kim, the oldest member of the Soviet team from 1977 onwards. The effects of a growth spurt would be devastating as Koval struggled to keep up with her smaller counterparts despite possessing unquestioned athletic talent. As she put it:

“I felt I could do more, but there started to be a different kind of gymnastics.”

Mukhina, (L) Elena Gurina, (M) & Koval (R)

Koval would also change coaches moving to Moscow where she trained alongside Elena Mukhina and her coach Mikhail Kilmenko. But the coaching change would do little to salvage Koval’s career. In retrospect, Olga Koval can be described as the first great junior prospect to have seen her career ruined by a growth spurt. Koval continued to press on despite being demoted to a minor member of the team.

Sometimes the gymnasts who don’t win medals are just as impressive as the ones that do. Their ability to stick around in spite of circumstances that would have forced out any other gymnast is how they prove talent still runs through their veins even as age, injury, and/or other extenuating circumstances hamper their ability to express it.

That was Olga Koval. To have made it all the way to 1980 before retiring in spite of being at such a disadvantage is an accomplishment in itself. If Olga Koval was born just one year earlier, she could have made the 1974 World Championships team. Had she been born three years earlier, perhaps she could have made her way onto the 1972 Olympic team. If she had been born a decade earlier, Koval most certainly would have been a great 1960s gymnast.

Instead Olga Koval would be a forgotten gymnast from the mid 1970s. The right gymnast for the wrong era. In Koval’s words, “a gymnast in a different direction.” But Koval won’t dwell on the past, just like she won’t dwell on narrowly missing out on the Olympics conceding that age put her at a disadvantage, but also saying this:

“I believe in fate. Sometimes what you try for doesn’t happen, and I was OK with it.”

But Koval can easily be found if one is willing to look. A simple Google search of her name will reveal Koval pictured alongside gymnasts such as Elena Mukhina, Ludmilla Turischeva, and Olga Korbut. Olga Koval may not have been a 1970s superstar, but she still walked with giants who were larger than life. What better way to describe someone who shared a medal with Nadia Comaneci?

Despite her declining results Koval was still given prestigious assignments on Soviet display tours. It is easy to find routines of Koval on YouTube in any non-Olympic year from 1975 to 1979. It is rare for even a 1970s Olympian to be so well documented, let alone a non-Olympian. Koval was even featured in two books written in the 1970s and used as a cover photo for a third book. She was also featured on the popular BBC program Blue Peter.

In one photo of her appearance on Blue Peter, Olga Koval is pictured playing a piano. Her skill on the piano was one of her trademark personal details. It is particularly noteworthy as prior to 1979, elite level gymnastics used a piano for floor music meaning Koval was always close by to one. Throughout her career Koval had ample opportunity to play some tunes when she needed a break from gymnastics.

After the fall of the Soviet Union Olga Koval spent time coaching in Belarus where she choreographed various members of their Olympic team. Like Shaposhnikova, Davydova, and Filatova, Olga Koval made her way to North America. Whereas Davydova, Filatova,* and Shaposhnikova live relatively close to each other in New York, New Jersey, and Ontario, Olga Koval lives further away in Minnesota where she runs a successful gymnastics club. Even in geography Olga Koval is still the black sheep of the bunch.

*Filatova lived in the New York until 2014 and is currently spending time in Russia while her family remains in New York.

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