Ludmilla Turischeva Went Out Like a Legend

Few athletes in Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) ever won as many medals as Ludmilla Turischeva. But for a gymnast who found so much success, one of the best known aspects of her career is how her status as the top gymnast in the world came to an end. Turischeva was defeated by Nadia Comaneci and Nellie Kim at the 1975 European Championships in a competition that would go down as one of the most historic moments in WAG history.

Ludmilla Turischeva hadn’t just been defeated at the 1975 European Championships, by Turischeva standards she had been obliterated. In 1974 Turischeva recorded a sweep (winning a medal on every event) at the 1974 World Championships. To put into context as to how rare that is, only Elena Shushunova (1987), Daniela Silivas (1988), and Simone Biles (2018) have done it since 1975. The gymnast who had won a gold medal on every event at the last European Championships in 1973 would win only a lone bronze medal at the 1975 European Championships.

Unfortunately for Turischeva, her performance at the 1975 European Championships would define the final years of her career. At best she is seen as a mere sideshow to the rivalry between Nadia and Nellie. At worst people assume Turischeva had ceased to be a first rate gymnast from the 1975 European Championships and onwards. Often times the final two years of Turischeva’s career are described in terms of a great gymnast concluding her legacy rather than adding to it.

All of these narratives are wrong because while Turischeva had performed poorly at the 1975 European Championships, it was not a competition that marked the downfall of a great gymnast. Turischeva had actually been hampered by a back injury at the 1975 European Championships which would explain her poor performance. She would then go on to recover amicably and put up quality performances for the remainder of her career. These two details proving just how much of a one-off the 1975 European Championships were in an otherwise remarkable career.

Turischeva would quickly achieve redemption later in the year with her performance at the 1975 World Cup. There Turischeva gave one of the best performances of her career by winning a gold medal on every event. It was the perfect competition. But Turischeva accomplished something more.

Winning medals seemed to come easy to Turischeva, but she struggled immensely when it came to winning over the love and admiration of fans. The most decorated gymnast of the era was overshadowed by other athletes for almost the entirety of her career. First it was Olga Korbut who upstaged Turischeva. Then in the next Olympic cycle the same thing happened with Nadia Comaneci. Without an iconic moment or a highlight reel that would immortalize her, it didn’t seem to matter that Turischeva’s career medal count (20) was larger than Nadia’s (13) and Korbut’s (12) by a significant margin. It wasn’t enough to win, a 1970s gymnast had to win with style. And at the 1975 World Cup, Turischeva did.

It was at this competition that Turischeva experienced the famed uneven bars collapse. It was her “Korbut Flip” moment. The routine that she would be remembered for. The highlight reel that will never be forgotten. Decades later when documentaries feature Turischeva, it is often with this highlight that they first introduce her. It is a convenient way to capture the attention of an audience by demonstrating that this was a compelling gymnast. Someone who had immense talent if she could stick a dismount while the bars collapsed from under her. It also made for a good story.

But it was more than that. Turischeva stuck her dismount and didn’t look back. The calamity that occurred mere inches behind her could neither startle nor break Turischeva’s concentration. It didn’t even provoke her curiosity. In that moment Turischeva appeared superhuman in her ability to ignore what had just transpired. Turischeva’s highlight is not just one of the best examples of an athlete maintaining mental composure in gymnastics, but in all of sports.

It is widely interpreted as a “statement” move from Turischeva that her uneven bars routine was so impressive, she didn’t need to acknowledge the uneven bars collapse. All she had to do was salute the judges. That her ability to stick the dismount while the uneven bars fell apart had come to Turischeva so naturally, she simply walked away as if nothing had happened. In reality, nothing Turischeva had done during the uneven bars collapse was out of the ordinary for her. This is who Ludmilla Turischeva was, a gymnastics machine who was so focused on winning the task at hand, she paid no attention to what went on around her. It was the perfect highlight to exemplify Turischeva’s reputation for always keeping herself composed.

But as Turischeva walked off the podium, for a brief moment it appeared she did break composure. In a closeup shot of Turischeva’s face it appears as if she was on the verge of tears. Not because she was rattled, but because she was heartbroken.

This is the context that is so commonly overlooked regarding one of the most famous moments in WAG history. It had not occurred to Turischeva while she was at the peak of her career, but at the low point of her career. Turischeva had just been shellacked by Nadia and humiliated in the process at the 1975 European Championships. Her reputation as a formidable gymnast was in tatters. She needed a strong showing at the 1975 World Cup to rejuvenate her career.

What does Turischeva do? She comes storming back and arrives at the 1975 World Cup in top form. She wants to win, she needs to win, only to have this uneven bars disaster occur in the beginning of the All-Around (AA). Potentially ruining a great routine that she might not get back. It is a routine she desperately needs to get her career back on track.

But as soon as that somber moment appears, it is gone. Turischeva reverts back to her normal self. The legendary stoicism returns. Turischeva becomes so tuned in to her own mental thought process that she doesn’t even acknowledge someone giving her a pat on the back. So that someone gives her a pat on the back for a second time trying to provoke a response from Turischeva.

When the judges award Turischeva one of the highest scores of the competition, Turischeva reacted with only indifference. The reason Turischeva turns around is so she can have a conversation with her coach to prepare for the next rotation. For Turischeva, that was the more pressing concern.

The 1975 uneven bars collapse provided a moment that television producers often throw on the whiteboard as they decide which highlight reels should be featured in their profiles of great moments in sports history. It would join Nadia’s Perfect 10 and Korbut’s flip on the uneven bars as WAG moments that are frequently shared on the Internet. In doing so it brings peoples’ attention to Turischeva, an athlete they otherwise wouldn’t have known about. What makes this moment so remarkable is that it not only gave Turischeva the memorable highlight reel she deserved, but did so in a way where both her athleticism and legendary mental discipline are on full display.

Ironically, one of the most famous moments in Turischeva’s career came in the two-year period where she is commonly dismissed as a gymnast who had ceased to be relevant. As a 3x Olympian, Turischeva had a rather long career. But many would be surprised to learn that the uneven bars collapse occurred just nine months before her final competition.

The 1976 Olympics would be defined by the battle between Nadia and Nellie Kim and the Perfect 10s the two gymnasts scored. But one of the little known details of the 1976 AA is that Turischeva and Nellie were actually tied for second in qualifications. This was the carry-over scoring era where a qualification score accounted for 50% of the final score. Nellie had every incentive to give her best effort and after eight routines in the team competition, Turischeva had matched her blow for blow.

But because only Nadia and Nellie scored Perfect 10s, it made the gap between Turischeva and Nadia/Nellie appear much more extreme than it truly was. For a time, Turischeva had made the race for second place somewhat interesting.

Turischeva gave a strong performance in the team competition, but when it mattered most Turischeva did not shine as bright. In the All-Around Finals Turischeva put up only the fourth highest score. Turischeva passed Teodora Ungureanu to snag the bronze medal due to her strong qualification score and carry-over scoring. In Event Finals Turischeva won two silver medals which solidified her status as the third best gymnast of the competition. But it paled in comparison to the dual success of Nadia and Nellie who won every gold medal.

Without a Perfect 10, without a gold medal in the individual events, and with the intensely watched All-Around Finals being her weakest performance of the Olympics, it is no wonder that Turischeva’s performance at the 1976 Olympics felt like an afterthought compared to Nadia and Nellie.

It is fair to say that after the 1975 European Championships Turischeva wasn’t the same gymnast. She was an athlete in decline, but she hadn’t hit a cliff. Rather, the final two years of Turischeva is a mix-bag. She is a gymnast that could hit in qualifications, but not in the AA finals. She could hit at the 1975 World Cup, but not the 1975 European Championships. The once dependable medal threat had given way to a gymnast with more sporadic results. Turischeva was still a highly capable gymnast in those final two years. She simply couldn’t express it at every moment.

It must be remembered that Turischeva was putting up these results in an era that matched neither her age nor her body-type. Contrary to popular thought, the average age in women’s gymnastics crashed long before Nadia’s arrival in 1975. At the 1972 Olympics eight different teams had a 14 year old in their lineup. 48% of the field was under the age of 18. Three in every four gymnasts were under the age of 20.

That was all in 1972. And yet Turischeva had made it to the next Olympics as a 23 year old while the ages were continuing to decline. There are plenty of examples of gymnasts defying age barriers in gymnastics. Pushing the age barrier is difficult because it means overcoming burnout, compounding injuries, and fatigue. But what made Turischeva different is that is that she did it while also pushing the envelope on body type as well. Turischeva maintained the classical image of a gymnast in an era where gymnasts in her style had been largely weeded out of the sport.

The success Turischeva had in her final years became overlooked as gymnasts like Nadia, Nellie, and Korbut attracted larger spotlights. Her poor performances appear much better when injuries are considered. As well as the disadvantages she had as an aging veteran and a 1960s classic style gymnast trying to keep up with the small acrobatic daredevils of the 1970s.

The final two years of Turischeva’s career were as legendary as any other chapter in her career. But perhaps the greatest thing Turischeva accomplished was the impact she had on the young Nadia Comaneci who had the pressure of an Olympic Games thrust upon her at the age of 14.

In her final years Turischeva decided that a devastating defeat was not the end of the line, but rather a setback that she would overcome. There was no bitterness towards Nadia from Turischeva. Ludmilla seemed to perfectly understand her status as a role model, and how significant of an impact her actions would have on those who looked up to her. Turischeva did nothing but embrace Nadia, almost appearing proud to pass the torch to such a worthy opponent. Making it a point to approach Nadia with a congratulatory kiss in the two competitions they met. Nadia cites Turischeva frequently in her memoirs and is quick to credit Turischeva as her inspiration. The reason greatness came so easy to Nadia Comaneci, she had Ludmilla Turischeva to teach her what greatness was.

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