Gymnastics Bios #6: Natalia Tereschenko

The Soviet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) program was made famous for its iconic stars such as Larissa Latynina and Olga Korbut. It was their success and resulting fame that made the Soviet program so legendary. But I will contend that it is the lesser known gymnasts who also wore the Soviet emblem on their leotard that are what make Soviet WAG so fascinating.

When it comes to Natalia Tereschenko, she seems to check all the boxes when it comes to the prototypical niche Soviet gymnast who didn’t achieve the same level of success as Olga Korbut, but is every bit as fascinating. An absurd origin story, undeniable athletic talent, an irrational approach towards creating new eponymous skills, and yet in spite of everything, becoming a casualty of Soviet depth.

Tereschenko’s story starts at the midway point of the 1977-1980 Olympic quad and one particular region of the Soviet program is surging, Siberia and its nearby regions. For many, when they think of Siberia they think of a place that is sparsely populated and has temperatures comparable to the polar ice caps. But this is a misrepresentation as most of Siberia’s population is concentrated in the South. The Siberian city of Novosibirsk is actually the third largest city in all of Russia. It is from these Southern Siberian settlements that famous Siberian gymnasts such as Maria Filatova and Elena Naimushina hail from.

Top Row (L to R) Svetlana Agapova, Elena Naimushina, Maria Filatova, Natalia Tereschenko. Bottom Row: Natalia Yurchenko, Nellie Kim, & Stella Zakharova.

But there is one exception to all of this, Natalia Yurchenko grew up in Norilsk, a city that is located roughly 200 miles inside of the Arctic Circle. But not even Yurchenko has the distinction of having to deal with the harshest of living conditions. That honor goes to Natalia Tereschenko and Ust-Omchug which is located in the Magadan Oblast region of Russia.

For any other gymnast their hometown was little more than biographical trivia. For Tereschenko, Ust-Omchug seemed to define her entire approach towards gymnastics. Ust-Omchug is located surprisingly South. It has almost the exact same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska and the Pacific Ocean is only 95 miles away. But due to global jet streams and ocean currents, Ust-Omchug is in the general vicinity of where the coldest temperatures in the entire Northern Hemisphere can be found.

Just 275 miles away is Oymyakon, the site where the lowest temperature in the Northern hemisphere was recorded at −89.9 °F or −67.7 °C. In January and December Oymyakon has an average temperature of −50 °F or −46 °C. Back in Ust-Omchug Tereschenko had to deal with a more modest January/December average of −26.7 °F or −32.6 °C.

In recent times the region has been devastated by population decline, in one instance the nearby “town” of Kadykchan has an official population of 0, but back in 1986 its population was in excess of 10,000. Ust-Omchug itself has a population of roughly 3,000, down from an estimate of 11,000 back when Tereschenko lived there. But it is not the extreme cold nor the small population that had the greatest impact on Tereschenko’s career, it was its extreme isolation.

Google Maps provides no public transportation routes to Ust-Omchug, but its driving distance to Moscow is calculated at 134 hours. The town is accessed only by the infamous R504 Kolyma Highway that is nicknamed “The Road of Bones.” The name derives not from the Gulag prisoners who died constructing it, but in one final act of cruelty their bodies were used as substitute construction materials and are part of its layered foundation.

But it is not the Kolyma Highway which connects Ust-Omchug to the rest of the world, yet another road is needed once the Kolyma Highway is exited. This one being unpaved gravel that lasts for over 100 miles. The only reason the Soviets ever came to this place was to extract its mineral resources.

Ten miles away from Ust-Omchug is the site of the former Butugychag Concentration Camp which featured amongst other things, uranium mining. It was said to have killed its workers in as little as a month due to radiation exposure. There are concerns about radiation exposure at the site to this day. Ust-Omchug was where the population of Butugychag was relocated to after its closure.

Note: The Soviets bulldozed its worst Gulag sites to hide the crime and they remain largely untouched and unstudied six decades later. There isn’t much information regarding the death toll of Butugychag and the R504 Highway. The poorly sourced figures that I did come across ranged from 600,000 to 1.3 million.

One quote describing this area:

“Butugychag, a place so cold and remote and surrounded by barren snow-streaked rocked hills that it seemed like another planet.”

This extreme isolation was to Tereschenko’s disadvantage, but it wouldn’t stop a gymnast who possessed unquestionable athletic talent. In 1975 Tereschenko proved her worth by winning the top junior competition in the USSR. The following year Tereschenko finished 5th at the most prestigious international competition for juniors. And in 1977 she would return to win it outright.

1978 American Cup

In 1978 Tereschenko was given an assignment that was typically only awarded to soviet gymnasts who were top contenders for an Olympic team, the American Cup. But Tereschenko wouldn’t be the only Soviet in attendance. Joining Tereschenko was fellow Soviet Natalia Shaposhnikova. Despite Tereschenko’s success in domestic competition, it was Shaposhnikova who was by far the better known junior prospect.

Shaposhnikova would go on to have a Hall of Fame career and is one of the few gymnasts from the 1970s whose name is widely known amongst younger generations of fans. But at the 1978 American Cup Shaposhnikova had one of the worst performances of her career. Shaposhnikova fell on bars and beam and failed to make it out of the qualifying round. American commentators highlighted the “big surprise.” With the top Soviet gymnast out of the competition, it was up to Tereschenko to carry the load, and she did.

The gymnast who arrived to New York with the intention of serving as a sideshow to her own teammate would ultimately go down as one of the few foreign gymnasts to have ever won the American Cup. Even though Tereschenko competed at the World Championship level, the American Cup would ultimately be the competition she is best known for because she had so much of the spotlight.

It was at this competition that Tereschenko demonstrated an uneven bars dismount that would later be named for Ma Yanhong. But this is not the skill Ma unveiled at the 1979 World Championships. But rather the upgraded dismount Ma debuted at the 1981 World Championships five years later. It is currently rated as an F in the Code of Points. International Gymnast labeled Tereschenko an “exciting little gymnast” and noted her as one of the top prospects for the 1980 Olympics. The magazine called her execution flawless and said her difficulty stunned the crowd. Humorously, the magazine couldn’t seem to make up its mind on Tereschenko’s beam routine. In its two separate reports, one expressed amazement over her mount, the other over her acrobatic series.

It all came while Tereschenko was dealing with the previously mentioned geographical limitations of her training location. The 1970s was a period where WAG was witnessing an increase in difficulty at a very rapid pace. The reason being that WAG entered the decade where human body and equipment limitations had far exceeded the current level of difficulty.

In the aftermath of Olga Korbut, WAG suddenly found itself in a position where daredevil new moves were being strongly encouraged, but because such little emphasis on difficulty had in existed in the past, the sport had a long way to go before gymnasts who were trying new moves would hit the limits of what the human body and equipment was capable of. A massive component of this new trend was that this thinking was relatively new to the sport, and there were so many moves that were possible, but no one simply had thought of them yet. Now people were.

Kurt Thomas (L) & Tereschenko (R)

This is what made the geographic upbringing of Tereschenko so significant. Exposure to the moves being pioneered elsewhere in the Soviet program was critical to helping a gymnast pioneer moves of her own. Seeing another gymnast perform a move and deciding to try that same move with an extra twist, or witnessing a move from the men’s side of the sport and deciding to try to introduce it to the women’s side were the inspiration for countless WAG innovations of the era.

Without the benefit of having direct access to what her Soviet rivals were doing, Tereschenko had to little to go on as she tried to create eponymous skills for herself. And Tereschenko loved coming out with original moves, pushing the limits, and doing what had never been done before. But Tereschenko would get a rude awakening when she trained a double salto on floor in 1974. At the time she was 12 years old and thought that would be her eponymous skill. Only to learn another gymnast had performed it in competition before she did.

Note: The 1:27 mark in the above YouTube features part of Tereschenko 1976 floor routine including the double salto. At 2:46 the double salto is shown again, this time in slow motion.

Despite the move being a highly elite skill that only one or two other gymnasts were capable of, it was a heartbreaking blow and for a time even demoralized her. Tereschenko was a brilliant gymnast but it was hard for her to not feel like only a big fish in a small pond when she dominated an isolated region and felt like she was at the top of the hierarchy, only to get ambushed when she saw what the gymnasts in major population centers were capable of. All of this occurring at a young age, perhaps even occurring right as she was about to compete in a major competition and it came as a shock. It was as if Tereschenko was being punished through no fault of her own due to her geographical predicament.

But the brilliant gymnast had a brilliant coach who knew how to rejuvenate his pupil. He used the prospect of a new skill to keep her occupied and provide a goal that would keep Tereschenko motivated. The twisting Tsukahara. The Tsukahara and its upgrades was the dominant vault of the 1970s and back then had a lore similar to how gymnastics fans today describe the Amanar vault.

Whereas Nadia Comaneci was known for technical perfection by executing previously existing skills better than anyone had before, Nellie Kim was known for being an innovator who pushed the envelope. Doing what had never been done before and letting that be what made her significant. The twisting Tsukahara was Nellie Kim’s trademark move, and the skill that made her the second gymnast to achieve a Perfect-10. And yet Natalia Tereschenko who was five years younger than Nellie Kim would be credited by International Gymnast as having performed it first.

1978 American Cup

And one year after the Montreal Olympics, Tereschenko upgraded to a Tsukahara with 1.5 twists. It was as if the tactic was that Tereschenko wanted twice as much difficulty as everyone else. If she couldn’t see what the top moves being pioneered in mainland Russia were, Tereschenko was going to do what she thought the top gymnasts outside of Magadan were doing, and then find something significantly harder. Or at the very least, freakishly more original. Geography and personality had collided to create a gymnast where being only marginally more difficult than everyone else wasn’t going to cut it.

This might all sound like madness, but Tereschenko’s coach was Eduard Nechai, who is better known as the coach of Olesia Dudnik. For many gymnerds, the Dudnik connection is where all the madness in this story suddenly starts to make sense. If gymnasts in the 1970s were exponentially raising the difficultly of the sport in order to find the upper echelon of how much difficulty the human body and equipment was capable of, Dudnik of the late 1980s was the gymnast who finally found it. Dudnik has something of a cult following amongst gymnastics fans. Her beam difficulty score (D-Score) is a legend in itself as it is still competitive against top gymnasts of the current era.

Eduard Nechai (L) & Natalia Tereschenko (R)

Dudnik and Tereschenko were both born in Kirovograd, Ukraine. Tereschenko is not from Magadan, she was actually discovered in Ukraine and brought to Ust-Omchug by her coach. Her coach was originally from the Far East and had an affinity for the wilderness of the region. Tereschenko’s parents supported the move as the region provided ample work opportunities for them. The article that provided this information never bothered to inquire about Tereschenko’s feelings over the move. Kirovograd and Ust-Omchug are the same distance apart from each other as Kansas City, Missouri and London, England.

And this is what makes Tereschenko’s story so unique among her Soviet contemporaries. Soviet gymnasts from small towns were quickly ushered into large regional capital cities. For Tereschenko, the opposite is true where she went from central Ukraine to one of the most isolated villages in the Far East. Soviet gymnasts typically trained in a city that had at least half a million people, if not one million. It was rare for a Soviet WAG to represent a municipality with “only” a quarter of a million people. Natalia Yurchenko for example was born in Norilsk, a city that had 180,000 people at the height of her gymnastics career.

But Norilsk had little impact on Yurchenko’s career. Her career took off only after she was moved to the Southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, which had a population slightly under one million people. It is thanks to Tereschenko that Ust-Omchug and its roughly 11,000 people are represented in the standings of major USSR domestic competitions alongside only the top Soviet cities that were universally known throughout the country.

In 1979 Tereschenko appears to have relocated to Moscow. Tereschenko’s career was defined by her attraction to difficult and unique elements, but in competition she had her ups and downs. In 1977 Tereschenko finished 7th and 5th at the two major Soviet domestic competitions. This would have made her a borderline candidate for a Soviet team had the World Championships been held that year. But there was no such competition in 1977.

In 1978 there was a World Championships, but Tereschenko’s best result was 15th in the All-Around in Soviet domestic competition. She missed out on making the team. Finally in 1979 Tereschenko finished 3rd at the 1979 USSR Championships and was named to the 1979 World Championships team. There is little that can be said about Tereschenko’s performance.

As the lowest ranking member of the Soviet team only one of Tereschenko’s routines was broadcasted. Competition reports provided no insight as to how she fared on each apparatus. Tereschenko finished 27th in qualifying and put what was statistically, one of the worst performances ever by a Soviet gymnast. It should be noted that by going first in the Soviet lineup she was at a disadvantage and she was certainly better than 27th. Tereschenko also qualified to vault finals, but was eliminated due to country limits. The two Soviets ahead of her both went on to win a medal.

1978 American Cup

None of this is to say Tereschenko was a bad gymnast. The Soviet team had been hit by a wave of injuries and that could explain Tereschenko’s low result. While I wouldn’t describe Tereschenko as a tall gymnast, she was the tallest member of the Soviet team and was dealing with a height disadvantage. She was also closing in on the typical retirement age for Soviet gymnasts of the era. Whereas top All-Around contenders like Nellie Kim managed to defy the trend of gymnasts retiring after their 17th birthday, it was much harder for lower ranking gymnasts like Tereschenko to do the same. Tereschenko’s prime years were not 1979 but the earlier parts in the quad.

In 1975 she won the top junior competition, in 1976 she was second only to Elena Mukhina in another high profile junior competition, and in 1977 she won what was the most prestigious international competition for juniors. At the 1978 American Cup Tereschenko beat Vera Cerna, the 6th ranked gymnast of both 1978 and 1979. It can not be stressed enough how much talent Tereschenko had that her performance at the 1979 World Championships does not accurately reflect.

Tereschenko would return for the 1980 season. Her final result was a 21st place finish at the USSR Championships. Tereschenko would be the only member of the Soviet team at the 1979 World Championships who did not make the 1980 Olympic team. If Tereschenko’s junior career had been managed differently, she very likely could have had a larger role WAG history. Tereschenko had an aggressive training schedule as far back as 1974 despite being a prospect for the 1980 Olympics. It is important to note that Tereschenko’s career closely mirrors that of her contemporary Olesia Dudnik, both had insane levels of difficulty early in an Olympic quad, only to be out of the picture by the time the Olympic year came around. Both gymnasts who share the same coach appear to have horrible pacing.

Eduard Nechai (L) & Natalia Tereschenko (R)

But there are some counter points to this. Pacing a junior in the 1977-1980 quad is far different than pacing a modern gymnast such as Sabrina Voinea. In the late 1970s the increase in difficulty was moving very fast and such an aggressive training schedule seems more forgivable under these circumstances. Nor is it the fault of her coach that Tereschenko had a significant amount of growth from 1978 to 1979. Tereschenko can’t be described as a tall gymnast, but she wasn’t a small gymnast either. Tereschenko’s 1962 birth year was also a stroke of bad luck. It put her in the predicament of being too young to be a viable candidate for the 1976 Olympics, but would be getting close to retirement retirement age by 1980.

At a certain point it becomes less about Tereschenko not being good enough and more about the insane depth of the Soviet program that made fascinating gymnasts like Tereschenko become a casualty of that depth. People should remember Tereschenko for her brilliance and ponder how a gymnast so talented wasn’t able to break out onto the international scene due to all the depth surrounding her.

She is the story of what is behind the big names like Shaposhnikova, and Nellie Kim. The lower ranking members who were also talented, had insane levels of work ethic and ability, and a background that is so fascinating, that growing up in the outskirts of an old Gulag camp is just the beginning of it all. As Tereschenko’s story proves, when it comes to Soviet gymnastics, the more you dig into the Soviet program and all its gymnasts, the more fascinating it all becomes.

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