Gymnastics Bios #7: Tatiana Tuzhikova

“I am not throwing away my shot.”

The Soviet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) program is one of the most accomplished dynasties in sports history. At the height of its power the Soviets had enough talent to send two teams to the Olympics and have both win a medal in the team competition. For a program with so much depth, the only Soviet gymnasts who could rise up its ranks were only those who had spent years building up strong competitive resumes. When team spots were handed out, they always went to gymnasts who had years of experience in international competition.

But that wasn’t the case for Tatiana Tuzhikova in 1987. Tuzhikova’s trophy case is almost completely empty. But in that emptiness comes one of the more compelling stories of Eastern Bloc WAG. How did an obscure gymnast that few had ever heard of, with no wins to her name, manage to rise to the top of the most prestigious gymnastics program of the era?

This is the story of the gymnast who by all accounts wouldn’t have even been considered for high-level competition had the stars not aligned to present a once in a lifetime opportunity. And when that opportunity came, Tatiana Tuzhikova didn’t just take advantage of it, she milked it for everything it was worth. This is the story of the gymnast who didn’t throw away her shot.

Few cities have as much WAG history as the Russian city of Voronezh. Thanks to a single coach by the name of Yuri Shtukman, the city had been a gymnastics hub since the late 1950s and a regular producer of Olympians. But when Yuri Shtukman died unexpectedly in 1977, his club Spartak Voronezh quickly fell into disarray in his absence.

The resulting instability ruined the careers of numerous Voronezh gymnasts who had once been promising prospects. Other gymnasts moved to different cities to help salvage their careers. Among them, Elena Davydova who would win the All-Around (AA) at the 1980 Olympics. Shtukman had a wife and co-coach by the name of Rima Alexandrova who was herself a former gymnast. Rima would soon right the ship and following the 1980 Olympics Spartak Voronezh appeared to be back on track.

Vera Kolesnikova (top Row 2nd from left) and Tatiana Tuzhikova (top Row 1st from right)

Her first success came at the 1983 World Championships when Vera Kolesnikova made the team as one of the two Soviet alternates. Kolesnikova would return to the World Championships in 1985, this time as a member of the starting lineup. In 1986 Kolesnikova appeared to hit her stride, but unfortunately for her there wasn’t a World Championships that year. Instead Vera Kolesnikova would have to settle for winning the AA at the Goodwill Games instead.

As soon as Kolesnikova seemed to rise up the ladder, she quickly fell down again. Kolesnikova had tried her best, but it simply wasn’t enough. Kolesnikova was given a shot and to her credit she took it. But there was only so much she could do without a World Championships that year. Vera Kolesnikova had the work ethic and the talent, but a gymnast also needs a little bit luck, to have all the stars align in her favor. Peaking in the one year without a World Championships or Olympics was not it.

Coming up right behind Vera Kolesnikova was Rima Alexandrova’s other promising prospect who was three years younger, Tatiana Tuzhikova. Prior to 1987 Tatiana Tuzhikova had been a regular participant in the two major Soviet domestic competitions, the USSR Cup and the USSR Championships.

Tuzhikova had established herself as a solid member of the top 20 and a member of the National Team, but that was effectively it. In the AA her results typically ranged from 19th to 9th. She rarely qualified to Event Finals. Of the three times she did, they were all 8th place finishes which is effectively a last place finish in gymnastics.

None of this is to say Tuzhikova was a bad gymnast. At this point she was still in the 99th percentile within the Soviet program, and had she competed in Western Europe probably could have made one of their Olympic teams. But within the insane standards of the Soviet program, Tuzhikova was an afterthought.

An analysis of the Gymn-Forum database reveals that in 1985 and 1986 the Soviets handed out 131 international assignments to 51 different gymnasts. But Tuzhikova was not among them. Tuzhikova headed into 1987 with (as far as I could tell) no international competitive experience and no success in domestic competition. Despite that, Tatiana Tuzhikova was about to go on the run of her life.

At the 1987 USSR Cup Tatiana Tuzhikova finished 5th in the AA. It was the competition that would be critical to selecting the team for the World Championships that year. Now considered the 5th best gymnast in the Soviet program, it was more than enough to justify Tuzhikova’s inclusion on the six-person team. But there was a catch.

What usually happened in a case like this is that Soviet coaches would have told Tuzhikova to either get lost, or at the very least demote her to an alternate role. In order to appear at a World Championships Soviet gymnasts didn’t just need to prove they were good enough, they also had to prove they could be trusted.

Competing in front of friendly crowds is very different than competing in front of an international audience. Just because a gymnast could maintain composure in a domestic meet didn’t mean she could maintain such composure in the high pressure environment of a World Championships. Nor can it be predicted if a lone 5th place result was indicative that Tuzhikova truly was that good, or if the result was an anomaly that wouldn’t occur again. Or there could be a better candidate who simply hadn’t performed well because she was injured and would be at full health by the time the World Championships were to be held.

This is what made having previous results and experience in international competition so important for a Soviet gymnast competing for a team spot. In any other year all of the above questions would have prevented Tuzhikova from making the team. But this wasn’t any other year.

In 1986 the Soviet Union suffered the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. Besides the terrible human toll the tragedy took on the country, it also changed the political landscape of the Soviet Union overnight. By 1987 the Soviet Union was experiencing a wave of political reform emphasizing accountability, honesty, transparency, and a pivot away from corrupt decision making. This change in political thinking had an immediate impact on the Soviet WAG program.

It was in 1987 that Elena Mukhina resurfaced and the Soviet press started dedicating real attention to the biggest tragedy of Soviet WAG. It was also the year Tatiana Groshkova and her training partners were featured in a documentary called Are You Going to the Ball? Even to this day it remains one of the best examples of filmmakers gaining direct access to a gymnastics training hall and not doing much to whitewash how the sport is presented.

It was also in 1987 that Soviet WAG did something else. They were going to select a team based purely on results. The Soviets choose their sixth highest ranking gymnasts from the USSR Cup for the starting lineup. They also named Aleftina Pryakhina who had finished 7th as the alternate. On Tuzhikova’s page on Gymnastic Greats, it explains this unusual selection as a democratic experiment pioneered by Soviet coach Leonid Arkaev.

At the last four consecutive World Championships the Soviet gymnast who had finished 5th at the USSR Cup was not selected to the team. Not only had Tuzhikova peaked in a World Championships year, she had peaked in the one year where it actually seemed her results would matter. Gymnasts typically strive for peaking in the right year of a 4-year Olympic quad. Tatiana Tuzhikova peaked in the right year of an entire century.

(From L to R) Svetlana Boginskaya Tatiana Tuzikhova, Elena Shushunova, Svetlana Baitova, & Elena Gurova

In spite of her weak resume, Tuzhikova was still an incredibly talented gymnast and she was going to prove it at the 1987 World Championships. Tuzhikova finished 15th in qualifying despite the handicap of having to compete early in the lineup due to the Soviet depth. It was a very respectable result given the circumstances. With teammates like Elena Shushunova, Baitova, and Oksana Omelianchik, competing for an individual medal wasn’t a viable option due to country limits. But one of the beautiful things about gymnastics, a gymnast doesn’t need to win a medal to leave her mark on the sport.

Now that she was competing in a World Championships, Tuzhikova had the opportunity to get a skill named after herself in the Code of Points. The process is rather simple, do a move that has never been done before, and the skill belongs to you. It doesn’t matter if you finish first or last in the competition. Nor do pesky things like country limits deny a gymnast the opportunity to literally make a name for herself.

For many decorated gymnasts, their eponymous skills have done more to advance their legacy than the medals they won. In some cases, it makes their name immortalized as young gymnasts all over the world learn these skills and by default, the gymnast they were named after. Gymnasts who never made it to the Olympics will still have their names repeated by Olympic broadcasters as they discuss the routines being performed at the Games.

Earlier in the article I said Tatiana Tuzhikova was going to be given a once in a lifetime opportunity by making the 1987 team and then milk it for everything it was worth. Well, she did. At the 1987 World Championships Tuzhikova got a skill named after herself, and not just any move, but one of the hardest moves there is. The floor skill is currently valued at an H and Spencer over at The Balance Beam Situation has not one but two different mentions to it on his site. Known as the Double layout 1/1, his description of it:

“Among the most difficult skills available to be performed on floor exercise, the double layout with full twist was quite rare until about…2018?…because only the most powerful and acrobatically proficient would even attempt to perform it.”

But there is a catch. The move has since been credited to Oksana Chusovitina even though Tatiana Tuzhikova competed it first. Spencer has done a good job dispelling the myth that Tuzhikova was never credited for this move. Tuzhikova and Chusovitina were originally interpreted to have done two similar, but slightly different skills. Over the years the FIG merged these two separate skills into one move and gave the name to Chusovitina. Spencer isn’t the first website to have pointed this out. Gymn-Forum which is one of the oldest websites there is on the Gymternet has always listed Chusovitina and Tuzhikova as having performed separate skills on their “innovators” page.

It is very nice that still, somewhere, they remember and even write about my element in a magazine.

-Tatiana Tuzhikova

In the end Tuzhikova lost her trademark skill, but in the spirit of Olga Mostepanova, there are plenty of commentators who will gladly point out who the “real” credit should be given to. The irony that one of the most difficult skills in WAG was pioneered by a gymnast who by all accounts, never should have appeared at the World Championships in the first place is one of the many absurd stories to come out of the Soviet program and the sport itself.

Despite Tatiana Tuzhikova being a minor member of the team, she clearly had immense talent if she could pull off the double layout 1/1. Nor was Tuzhikova an outlier Soviet gymnast far below its high standards. Her 15th place finish was exactly where a Soviet gymnast in her situation was expected to perform. Seeing an obscure and frequently passed over gymnast perform so well is a testament to how much talent the Soviet program truly had.

Tuzhikova may have lost her eponymous skill, but the legacy of her unusual career remains elsewhere. Tatiana Tuzhikova has her own profile page the website for the Russian gymnastics program because of her appearance at the 1987 World Championships. And its almost entirely blank. For comparison, here are all six members of the 1987 Soviet World Championships team:

While Svetlana Baitova and Elena Gurova appear to have profiles that are only marginally bigger than Tuzhikova’s, per the way the Russian website is setup this size difference has a significant visual impact. Tuzhikova is the only WAG in the entire database whose profile is so small.

Svetlana Baitova
Tatiana Tuzhikova

It is also worth noting that Baitova finished in 4th place on four different occasions at the 1987 World Championships. Meanwhile Gurova had one of the craziest junior careers in WAG history. But by the time Gurova turned senior she had become burned out and her senior resume doesn’t come close to demonstrating how much talent she truly had.

Note: In 1984 Gurova became the first WAG to perform a DTY and won the 1984 DTB Cup. Two of her competitors won AA medals that year at the Olympics and Alternate Olympics. Elena Gurova was 11 years old at the time.

Both Gurova and Baitova were far better than their actual results show. And even with that in mind their results sections are still four times as long as Tuzikova’s. Tatiana’s results section is a single 8-word sentence stating she attended the 1987 World Championships and won a silver medal in the team competition. That seems to be where Tuzhikova’s legacy appears to both start and end.

I was very proud that I could make one of the strongest teams in the world, together with Elena Shushunova, Oksana Omelianchik, Svetlana Boginskaya, and the others.

-Tatiana Tuzhikova

Tuzhikova & Shushunova

But Tatiana Tuzhikova does have a couple of victories to her name, even if the Russian gymnastics federation don’t consider them prestigious enough to mention. Tuzhikova won some team medals in the USSR Championships and USSR Cup, but these generally aren’t included in Russian/Soviet medal tallies.

The seven gold medals Tuzhikova won at the Russian Championships are the only record of her ever winning an individual medal. But this was effectively a regional competition as only Russian gymnasts were eligible and Russia constituted just 50% of the Soviet population at the time. Top Russian gymnasts frequently skipped this competition and their absences were a key reason for Tuzhikova’s victories. The competition itself was rarely covered by the media and Russian Gymnastics does not count medals from this competition towards the career medal totals of Soviet gymnasts.

At the 1986 USSR Championships Tuzhikova took advantage of a depleted field to contend for a medal, but came up just short with a fourth place finish. This was the closest Tuzhikova ever came to winning an individual medal at a competition prestigious enough to be covered in news sources such as International Gymnast.

Tuzhikova went five years without missing a USSR Cup or USSR Championships. On every occasion she finished inside the top-20. Maintaining a top-20 result for five straight years was no easy feat and that result alone is enough to make Tuzhikova’s career impressive. The irony here is that even without the 1987 World Championships, Tuzhikova’s career was unusual just for the amount of times she appeared in these competitions.

(From L to R) Natalia Laschenova, Aleftina Pryakhina, Natalia Kalinina, Elena Sazonenkova, Tatiana Tuzhikova, Olga Krapchatova, & Vera Kolesnikova

Between the USSR Cup, USSR Championships, and Russian Championships, Tuzhikova’s 15 appearances are more than any other 1980s Soviet gymnast. Tuzhikova’s abnormally high participation levels is most likely the byproduct of her being passed over for international competition. Without an international assignment, Tuzhikova made these competitions her most important competitions instead.

Tuzhikova finished 9th at the 1988 USSR Cup and did not make the Olympic team. The 1987 “democratic experiment” had resulted in a Soviet defeat and the program reverted back to its old way of selecting teams. Once again, the gymnast who finished 5th at the 1988 USSR Cup did not make the Olympic team. Like so many of her Soviet contemporaries, Tuzhikova has only the most positive attitude towards missing out on the Olympics:

“And even though I did not make the Olympic team, I was very proud that I could be among those preparing for that team.”

-Tatiana Tuzhikova

But Tuzhikova did have one interesting appearance in 1988.

In 1988 a Japanese photographer captured a picture of Tuzhikova at the World Sports Fair. Part of the caption notes it was the only time he had seen this gymnast in Japan. Tuzhikova was not one of the Soviets listed in the standings of the 1988 World Sports Fair. Tuzhikova was either an alternate or was eliminated in the qualifying round on country limits. This lone picture is the only indication Tuzhikova ever competed in a major international competition outside the 1987 World Championships.

Tuzhikova’s career is similar to that of her clubmate Vera Kolesnikova. Both gymnasts seemed to come from out of nowhere and put up a strong run, only to fall from the top of the standings very rapidly. This may raise the possibility that coaching tactics were the reason for their lack of sustainable results.

Tuzhikova finished her career in 1990 where she won her 7th and final gold medal at the Russian Championships. Ironically, Tatiana Tuzhikova was still active in 1990 at a time when the Soviet team had five other gymnasts with that the same first name (Tatiana Gutsu, Tatiana Lysenko, Tatiana Groshkova, Tatiana Ignatova, and Tatiana Toropova).

Tatiana Tuzhikova and Vera Kolesnikova helped revitalize the legacy of Voronezh WAG in the 1980s. Both gymnasts have connections to Voronezh gymnasts competing in modern times. Vera Kolesnikova is best known for being the mother of Viktoria Komova. Tatiana Tuzhikova is married to Angelina Melnikova’s coach. I could not find any indication that Tuzhikova is directly coaching Melnikova alongside her husband.

There are many things Tatiana Tuzhikova’s story represents. She is an example of the massive talent the Soviet program had in its arsenal that a gymnast who was constantly passed over was capable of demonstrating such skill against the best gymnasts in the world. Tuzhikova going from a passed over gymnast to a member of the 1987 Soviet team is a reminder that anything is possible.

But above all, Tatiana Tuzhikova is an inspiration not for being lucky that all the stars aligned in her favor in 1987, but that when opportunity presented itself that year, Tuzhikova seized it for everything it was worth. Not stopping until she had done the best a gymnast in her situation could possible do in her situation and making history by being the first to perform a legendary move at the World Championships. The gymnast with no prior international experience or any notable success still found a way to write her name into the WAG history books. In doing so, Tuzhikova became the best example of a gymnast who didn’t throw away her shot.

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