Gymnastics Bios #9: Maria Tyshko

Over the course of this blog I’ve written about “old school” gymnasts from deep in the past. Among the gymnasts I’ve covered were Maria Gorokhovskaya, the top gymnast of the 1952 Olympics who was present at the siege of Leningrad. I also covered Galina Urbanovich the top gymnast of the 1940s. But Urbanovich never achieved Olympic glory for herself. For most of her gymnastics career Urbanovich had been handicapped by the Soviet refusal to join the Olympic movement prior to 1952.

By the time the 1952 came around an aging Urbanovich was only a shell of her former self and had been usurped by a younger generation of gymnasts. But Urbanovich found solace in the fact that she at least got to the Olympics, became an Olympian, and even managed a 4th place finish. Her contemporary Maria Tyshko was not as fortunate. Maria Tyshko missed out on the 1952 Olympics because she was even older than Urbanovich. Whereas Urbanovich was the top gymnast of the 1940s, Tyshko had been the top Soviet gymnast of the 1930s.

Maria Tyshko hailed from an era where women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) was in its extreme infancy. Tyshko was born in St. Petersburg in December of 1909. The city experience numerous name changes during the 20th century. It was renamed “Petrograd” during World War I, only to be renamed “Leningrad” during the Soviet era. The city was then renamed back to St. Petersburg after the Berlin Wall fell. It is a popular Russian joke to say “I was born in St. Petersburg, grew up in Petrograd, lived in Leningrad, and died in St. Petersburg.” That joke can be accurately applied to Maria Tyshko’s life story.

When Tyshko was nine years old her family moved 1,280 miles South to the Russian city of Krasnodar. The move was described as being related to her father being transferred, and it had occurred right as the the Russian Revolution was overtaking St. Petersburg/Petrograd. The move did little to shelter the family from the political instability of the era. Krasnodar experienced heavy fighting during the Russian Civil War. The Russian Civil War was devastating for the country. Its death toll was in the millions and the death count disproportionately impacted the civilian population. This was on top of the Spanish Flu, World War I, and a brutal famine in the early 1920s.

It was in Krasnodar that Maria Tyshko first found an interest in athletic activities at the age of 15. At the age of 19 Tyshko made the switch to gymnastics. In modern times it is unheard of for a gymnast to take up the sport at such a late age and still achieve success, but in Tyshko’s era this was actually the norm. As soon as Tyshko started gymnastics in Krasnodar, she moved again. This time to Moscow where opportunities in gymnastics were far more plentiful.

The year was 1929 and the USSR National Championships wouldn’t be opened to women until 1932. Maria Tyshko would have to settle for a regional competition where all the top gymnasts from the Moscow squared off against each other. In 1930 Maria Tyshko won the top prize. In 1932 Maria Tyshko was finally given the opportunity to compete in the USSR Championships for the first time.

The competition was held in Leningrad, the very city where Tyshko was born. Tyshko did not win any medals, but she did lead her Moscow team to a 1st-place finish over the Leningrad team. Humorously, the Leningrad team was beaten in Leningrad, by a Moscow team that was lead by a gymnast who had been born in Leningrad.

Earlier in the article I described Maria Tyshko as the top Soviet gymnast of the 1930s. But she didn’t win a majority of all the available medals. Tyshko not only failed to win any individual medals in 1932, but over the next few years would continue her losing streak. Once again this was the norm for Soviet gymnasts of the era. It often took gymnasts years to build up enough competitive experience where they were finally able to achieve breakout success.

Tyshko spent most of the early 1930s losing to gymnasts who were even older than herself. But by the late 1930s her fortunes had changed. The bulk of Maria’s wins came from 1937-1946. And even then Tyshko wasn’t a shoo-in for a title. Tyshko was more likely to win a silver or bronze than she was to win a gold medal. Often times she didn’t medal at all. But Tyshko was still far and away the most decorated Soviet gymnast of the era.

Tyshko is 10th on the all-time list for the most decorated gymnast at the USSR Championships. That is an impressive mark considering she was ineligible to compete prior to her 23rd birthday, and also dealt with a career hiatus because of World War II. Prior to 1952 the Soviet Union competed in neither the World Championships nor the Olympics. Instead Soviet athletes competed in events called “International Workers’ Olympiads.” They were effectively an alternate Olympics for Communist countries and political parties.

Maria Tyshko (1937)

In 1937 a Workers’ Olympiad was held in Belgium and for the first time ever, a Soviet WAG team participated. Among the members of the Soviet delegation was Maria Tyshko who earned the highest score. In doing so Tyshko became the first Soviet WAG to win an All-Around (AA) title in international competition. Even though the opposing field couldn’t be considered Olympic caliber, it was at this precise moment that Soviet WAG’s high standards of excellence in international competition was born.

Tyshko wasn’t just a pioneer in international competition for the Soviets, but in domestic competition as well. Tyshko was one of the very first WAGs to appear in the standings of the USSR Championships on a regular basis. This was a milestone for Soviet WAG because it meant three things:

(1) Athletes have a viable career path to participate in the sport for extended periods of time, as opposed to taking up athletic activity on an informal basis.

(2) Major events/competitions have become prestigious enough to attract the top athletes in the sport every time they are held.

(3) The athletes participating have bona fide competitive resumes and true athletic talent rather than random individuals who were entered into the competition as “walk-ons.”

When a young, emerging sport develops athletes who win on a repeat basis and over an extended period of time, that is when the sport has achieved its breakthrough moment. It is at this point the sport is seen as having legitimate athletes and a real foundation is being laid to grow the sport in future years.

By the late 1930s Maria Tyshko was starting to hit her stride. Now an established veteran, her win rate was increasing and she appeared to be getting better with each passing year. But right as Maria Tyshko was starting to achieve breakout success, the commencement of World War II would derail her career. In 1933 Tyshko had returned to Leningrad for “family reasons.”

As a result Maria Tyshko found herself caught in one of the most brutal battles in all World War II. The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and the Soviets would suffer more casualties at this one city than the British and Americans 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.

During the siege Tyshko helped dig trenches and at night she worked on the rooftops as a firefighter putting out fires caused by German incendiary bombs. According to the Russian Gymnastics Federation, Maria Tyshko had even trained soldiers in skiing and hand-to-hand combat. Maria Tyshko wasn’t the only gymnast present at the siege of Leningrad, 1952 Olympic All-Around Champion Maria Gorokhovskaya was present as well. And Maria Tyshko may have saved her life.

Urbanovich (5th from Left) and Gorokhovskaya (2nd from right). Tyshko is listed in the picture description, but it is unclear which one she is.

While conducting research on Gorokhovskaya’s biography, I found a Russian blog that cited a story of Gorokhovskaya suffering from severe malnutrition and was evacuated to Kazakhstan. The person who had forced Gorokhovskaya’s evacuation was “her teacher” by the name of Maria Tyshko. The blog can’t be classified as a strong source, but elements of the story lineup. It would have been highly unlikely for two gymnasts to live in the same city and not have interacted with each other. Furthermore, Maria Tyshko was in fact the head gymnastics teacher in the city making it accurate to say Tyshko was Gorokhovskaya’s teacher.

During wartime there wasn’t much distinction between “student” and “teacher.” When the services of the gymnastics school was needed as a labor force to clean up debris or fight fires, the entire school went together. The blog appeared to have made a casual reference to a “Maria Tyshko” without realizing the significance of the name. The implication being, two legendary Soviet gymnasts served in wartime side by side, and one may have played a role in saving the life of the other.

Maria Tyshko also suffered from the starvation that was plaguing the city. Like Gorokhovskaya, Maria Tyshko would also be evacuated to Kazakhstan for reasons of “chronic malnutrition.” Then Maria Tyshko did what a gymnast does best. Two years after her evacuation she won a silver medal in the All-Around at the 1944 USSR Championships, and a gold medal on vault. The two-year recovery period is perhaps an indication as to just how dire her condition had become prior to her evacuation.

But Maria Tyshko’s historic comeback was out shinned by Galina Urbanovich who won her second consecutive AA title. Based out of Moscow, Galina Urbanovich was living in a city that hadn’t experienced the same disruption and “hell on Earth” as Leningrad. It had been easier for Urbanovich to balance wartime service and her gymnastics training. During the war Galina Urbanovich had risen to the top of Soviet gymnastics and never looked back. Over the next 15 years Galina dominated the USSR Championships with such impunity that she won more medals than even Larissa Latynina.

Maria Tyshko continued to compete as a high level gymnast until 1952 when she retired at the age of 42 after failing to make the Soviet Olympic team. Maria Tyshko had put up a 10th place finish in domestic competition as late as 1950. By the early 1950s the Soviets were clearly the dominant WAG program. Even while she was in her early 40s, Maria Tyshko was likely one of the top-40 gymnasts in the world.

The average age in WAG had been on a steep decline since the early 1950s and long before the arrival of Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics.

Tyshko, Urbanovich, Gorokhovskaya, and Latynina were all active in 1952. They represented four different generations of Soviet WAG. But the first three were “old-timers” whereas Latynina was young and represented the trend of a massive age decline that was about to overtake the Soviet program. Tyshko’s retirement kick started the Soviet WAG tactic of jettisoning their veterans, and replacing them with a new generation of gymnasts who were younger than any previous generation when they came of age. Urbanovich and Gorokhovskaya would also succumb to it in the ensuing years.

Question: So what does a gymnast do next after failing to make the Olympic team?

Answer: She goes to the Olympics.

Maria Tyshko was a member of the Soviet delegation not as a gymnast, but as a judge. In a modern context such a prospect would sound reckless and irresponsible for a gymnast to immediately become an Olympic judge. But in the case of Maria Tyshko, she was well qualified for the role.

Maria Tyshko had been functioning as a gymnast, a gymnastics instructor, and even a judge in the 1930s. She had been performing all three roles simultaneously. Tyshko is reported to have judged competitions with international competitors as early as 1934. Because the 1952 Olympics marked the debut of the Soviet program at the Olympics and World Championships level, the Soviets didn’t have anyone with prior experience judging in major competition.

As a gymnast, Tyshko had more competitive experience than anyone else in the entire Soviet program. That alone probably made her the best qualified Soviet for an Olympic judgeship. As a result Maria Tyshko was able to personally witness the Soviet team win their first Olympic title. Kickstarting the dynasty she helped create.

Maria Tyshko next to Ludmilla Turischeva in the “Champions” section on the official website of the Russian Gymnastics Federation.

There would be no Olympics, no World Championships, no World Cup, and no European Championships for Maria Tyshko. Only an obscure competition in Belgium is what exists of her international career. But one of the traits of Russian gymnastics is that they pay homage to their gymnasts from the past. Maria Tyshko is frequently cited in official lists naming the all-time greats of Soviet/Russian gymnastics. Various Russian sports organizations she was affiliated with have also created profile pages for her on their websites. This includes the Russian gymnastics federation website.

Maria Tyshko passed away in 1994 in her hometown of St. Petersburg at the age of 84. In doing so she completed the Russian expression of having been born in St. Petersburg, grew up in Petrograd, lived in Leningrad, and died in St. Petersburg. The city she helped defend in World War II.

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