In the current era of gymnastics a skill known as the “wolf turn” is widely performed in major gymnastics competitions. It is performed with such frequency that gymnastics fans have become fatigued by it after seeing the skill performed over and over again. One YouTuber titled it “the most hated skill of this quad” while another posted a video of gymnasts botching their wolf turns for a minute straight, and within a week it had already achieved 50,000 views.
Over the past five years it has become something of cause célèbre within the gymnastics community, uniting fans together as they find common ground on the issue that unites them. In this case, their mutual disdain for the wolf turn. Even 2008 Olympic All-Around (AA) Champion Nastia Liukin has openly commented on her dislike for this skill. And yet, despite its recent reputation, it would surprise fans to learn just how much history the wolf turn has in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG).
Even more surprisingly, the wolf turn may not have achieved its peak in popularity during the 21st century. At the height of the Cold War gymnasts were performing this skill just as frequently as they perform it today. In an era where moves were quickly rendered obsolete, not only did the wolf turn survive, but it actually achieved widespread acceptance in the era of Ludmilla Turischeva and again during the era of Simone Biles.
It is one of the most insane storylines in WAG history that such a skill experienced this trend fifty years apart. Few gymnastics skills have as much history as the wolf turn. Even fewer skills have contributed so much to development of the sport. In Part I of this article I’m going to cite all the gymnasts who performed wolf turns. In Part II I’m going to discuss the lasting impact this skill has had on the development of WAG, while also analyzing the early development of the wolf turn.
Natalia Kuchinskaya performed a wolf turn at both the 1966 World Championships and the 1968 Olympics. At the height of her career, Kuchinskaya was the most popular athlete in the sport. Fans adored her and she was seen as the future of gymnastics. But it wasn’t to be. Kuchinskaya shocked the gymnastics community by opting to retire early. It was a tough blow to the sport, but WAG would quickly bounce back.
The early 1970s produced a wave of superstars such as Olga Korbut, Ludmilla Turischeva, Nadia Comaneci, and Nellie Kim. Their success quickly made Kuchinskaya’s story irrelevant. No gymnast saw their legacy undergo a greater fall from grace than Kuchinskaya. She went from a WAG icon to a niche gymnast only brought up by gymnastics history buffs.
So significant was Kuchinskaya’s legacy that Minot Simons II, one of the finest WAG historians of all time opted to start his series on the history of women’s gymnastics in 1966. He did this not because of Vera Caslavska, but because of Kuchinskaya who won six medals in her debut at the World Championships that year. It was the success of Kuchinskaya in 1966 that he considered more significant to the development of WAG.
Kuchinskaya was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Her 1966 performance which featured a wolf turn makes her one of just nine gymnasts to have swept a competition (win a medal on every event) since 1952.
Zinaida Voronina also performed a wolf turn at the 1968 Olympics. Voronina won the silver medal in the AA at the 1968 Olympics and at the 1970 World Championships she finished third in the AA.
Larissa Petrik was the third Soviet gymnast who performed a wolf turn at the 1968 Olympics. She also performed this move at the 1966 and 1970 World Championships. Petrik performed a wolf turn at three major competitions and won a medal on the balance beam on all three occasions.
But Petrik’s greatest contribution to the sport is not the medals she won. While Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci are commonly credited as the gymnasts who started the trend of WAG pivoting towards younger gymnasts, it was actually Larissa Petrik. Petrik famously upset Larissa Latynina at the 1964 USSR Championships while only 15 years of age. It was this specific event that sent shockwaves throughout the gymnastics community and caused coaches to start focusing on their younger gymnasts in an attempt to find the next Petrik. I wrote an article about this incident.
Petrik defeating Latynina is not just the greatest upset in the entire history of WAG, but one that should be rightfully considered among the greatest upsets in all of sports history. During her famed 1964 defeat of Latynina, Petrik performed a wolf turn. She also performed a wolf turn on beam at the 1965 European Championships in what was the first major competition of her career. It was the only event in which Petrik medaled on at the 1965 European Championships.
Petrik finished fourth in the AA at the 1968 Olympics in a tie with Erika Zuchold. Speaking of which…
Erika Zuchold of East Germany performed a wolf turn at the 1971 European Championships and medaled on the balance beam with this routine. During her career Zuchold went to two Olympics, won five Olympic medals, won an AA medal at the 1970 World Championships, and would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But Erika Zuchold was far better than her actual medal record suggests. She finished fourth in the AA on three different occasions (1966 World Championships, 1968 Olympics, and 1972 Olympics).
Zuchold also did a wolf turn at the 1968 Olympics. She is one of four gymnasts who finished in the top-five of the 1968 All-Around who performed a wolf turn during those Olympic Games.
And then there is Olga Karaseva who finished seventh in the AA at the 1968 Olympics. Karaseva didn’t distinguish herself at the Olympic games with so many Soviet teammates ahead of her, but 1969 would be different. That year at the European Championships Karaseva finished second in the AA and also medaled on every apparatus in Event Finals. Among them, a silver medal on balance beam with a routine (shown above) that included a wolf turn.
Rusudan Sikharulidze did a wolf turn in this footage from 1973. She finished 5th in the AA at the 1974 World Championships. It was an especially difficult accomplishment given that the 1974 World Championships didn’t have country limits and Rusudan had to go up against all of her Soviet teammates in the AA final.
Before there was Nadia at the 1976 Olympics, entering the 1972 Olympics the Soviets had a 14 year old child prodigy of their own by the name of Nina Dronova. Nina had made a name for herself by recording a Perfect 10 in a competition while rising up the junior ranks. But she would be pulled from the 1972 Olympic team shortly before the start of the games and sources give conflicting reasons as to why. Some sources say food poisoning whereas others cite an injury.
Nina performed a wolf turn at the 1975 World Cup. It was part of her attempt to make the 1976 Olympic team. But Nina’s window of opportunity was the 1972 Olympics and by the time of the Montreal Olympics she was past her prime and failed to make the team. Nina’s story is incredible and I did a full length feature on her titled “The Nadia before Nadia.“
At the time of the 1976 Olympics the Soviets had a highly renowned junior class called the “New Wave.” Its four members all shared the same birth year as Nadia. Among them was Olga Koval who performed a wolf turn at the 1975 World Cup.
Olga Koval has the distinction of being the right gymnast for the wrong decade. A growth spurt would derail Koval’s promising career. In previous Olympic quads Koval would have had success, but not in the mid-1970s when the sport was undergoing a rapid overhaul in body type preferences as coaches sought out smaller gymnasts.
Had Koval been born even a few years earlier, she could have at least made the 1974 World Championships team. Had she been born a decade earlier, she could have been a great 1960s gymnast as that era was better suited to her body type. Koval is the first notable example of a great junior prospect having her career ruined by a growth spurt and the first casualty of WAG pivoting towards smaller gymnasts.
The other three members of the New Wave all went on to have successful careers and are now in the Hall of Fame. They were Maria Filatova, Elena Davydova, and Natalia Shaposhnikova. That is the talent Olga Koval was being compared to, it was those very same junior prospects that Olga Koval had been chosen ahead of as she was assigned to the 1975 World Cup.
Like Nina Dronova, I did a full length feature on the career of Olga Koval.
Elvira Saadi also performed a wolf turn at the 1975 World Cup. If you haven’t been counting, she is the third Soviet gymnast who performed a wolf turn at this single competition. Saadi would win a medal for this beam performance. Saadi competed at two Olympics and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But Saadi was even more successful as a coach. Her first major success was working with Tatiana Groshkova. Saadi would later move to Canada and has been consistently producing Canadian national team members ever since. Her latest pupil is Brooklyn Moors. If you watched the 2019 World Championships you would have seen Saadi as she was frequently captured on the sidelines during the television broadcasts.
But I’m still not done with the 1975 World Cup as there is yet another Soviet who performed a wolf turn at this competition. Ludmilla Turischeva won nine Olympic medals and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. She competed in three Olympics from 1968-1976.
Maria Filatova performed a wolf turn at the 1976 Olympics. Filatova would go on to be a two-time Olympian, won a silver medal in the All-Around at the 1981 World Championships, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The television broadcast of Filatova’s beam routine at the 1977 European Championships is in far better quality.
If there is one Soviet gymnast that every WAG fan should know, it’s Elena Mukhina. Mukhina was the top ranked gymnast of the 1978 World Championships. Her quest to make the 1980 Olympics was cut short by an injury that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Complications stemming from that injury resulted in her premature death at the age of 46. It would be accurate to say that Mukhina gave her life to gymnastics. And on Mukhina’s gravestone is an image of her performing a wolf turn.
The image used for Mukhina’s gravestone was taken directly from her performance at the 1978 World Championships.
And it was the above photo that was engraved onto her headstone.
Lyubov Yudina won the top international junior competition in 1976 and performed a wolf turn while on tour in the United States in that very same year. Yudina was something of a highlight reel before highlight reels were feasible in an era where only the major competitions have footage readily available. Magazines and articles go in depth about Yudina’s exploits as she often performed moves that had either never been done before, or were rare for her age. Footage of Yudina’s routines are incredibly difficult to come by and of the few that exist, one includes a wolf turn.
While Olga Korbut and Nadia dominated the 1970s gymnastics scene, members of the American program were wondering what if? Before either of them gained widespread spread attention in the 1970s, back in the 1960s the Americans felt they had a gymnast by the name of Hali Sheriff who was destined to have the same level of success.
While traveling home from a gymnastics competition Hali died at the age of 14 in a plane crash that also took the lives of her mother and father. This footage comes from 1964 when Hali was 12 years old. Like the Yudina footage, it is another example of a gymnast where little footage of her career exists, but in the small amount that we do have of her, a wolf turn can be found.
Like the Soviets, the Romanian program also had an infatuation with the wolf turn. Prior to Nadia’s arrival in 1975, the two most established gymnasts of the Romanian program were performing wolf turns.
The first was Alina Goreac who performed this wolf turn at the 1973 European Championships. Alina was the first Romanian to have success as the Romanian WAG program underwent a rapid rise in the early 1970s. Goreac won a silver on beam with this routine and won five medals at the European Championships in total.
While it was Nadia who had famously upset Turischeva at the 1975 European Championships, it was Goreac who had been chosen as the other Romanian to compete alongside her at this very same competition. In 1975 Goreac medaled on two events and could have had a third medal if not for a fourth place finish on floor exercise. Among the medals she won at the 1975 European Championships, a medal on the balance beam for the second time in her career.
At 23 years of age, Goreac missed out on making the 1976 Olympic team as Bela Karolyi had opted to emphasize 14 and 15 year olds and was unwilling to go past selecting gymnasts who were older than 18 years old.
While Alina missed the 1976 Olympic cut, her teammate Anca Grigoras didn’t. Anca was Romania’s “Nadia before Nadia” as she had made the 1972 Olympic team at the age of 14. Anca would serve as a vital veteran figure for Nadia at the 1976 Olympics. During those Olympics Anca performed a wolf turn, albeit without fully extending her leg. Anca finished 4th in the beam qualifications during those Olympics, but failed to make Event Finals after being eliminated due to country limits. To add insult to injury, the 1976 Olympics was the first time country limits were in effect.
Anca continued performing the wolf turn until her retirement in 1979. At the 1973 European Championships Grigoras won a medal on balance beam alongside Goreac and Turischeva. The beam podium featured three gymnasts who all performed wolf turns at that competition.
The wolf turn survived into the 1980s. Elena Polevaya was a member of the 1981 World Championships for the Soviet Union. The above footage came from 1983 when Polevaya was on the tail end of her career and it probably wasn’t her best wolf turn. It was merely the best I could find. That is if the above footage can even qualify as a wolf turn due to the leg not being extended. Elena Polevaya is the gymnast in the header image of this article.
Even though the wolf turn rapidly fell out of favor following the 1976 Olympics, Soviet gymnasts were performing this skill until the very end. This footage comes from 1990 when the Soviet Union was in its final years of existence. The gymnast in question is Svetlana Kozlova who fans will recognize from the 1992 American Cup.
But if there is one non-Soviet who should be mentioned before I conclude Part I of this series, it is Japanese gymnast Keiko Ikeda. She won eight medals at the World Championships, which would be a significant even in the modern era. Keiko Ikeda did it in the 1950s and 1960s when the World Championships were held just once every four years. In an era where the Eastern Bloc won roughly 90% of all available medals, Keiko Ikeda is the gymnast responsible for most of the remaining 10%.
Her best event was the balance beam. Keiko Ikeda won medals on that apparatus every time she appeared at the World Championships from 1954-1962. This include the gold medal in 1954. Unfortunately, the above footage comes from 1966, one of the few instances in which Keiko Ikeda failed to win a medal on beam (she finished 4th). However, she did win an All-Around medal at this very competition. Nevertheless, it is one more example of a legendary beam worker from this era who performed a wolf turn.
The gymnasts featured in all of the above examples accounted for the bulk of the medals won on balance beam from 1965-1977. During this era of the wolf turn it would be accurate to say a top gymnast on beam was more likely than not to have a wolf turn in her routine. And your typical beam medalist was extremely likely to have performed the move at some other point in her career, if she didn’t perform it in the very year she won a medal. There are some cases where gymnasts performing wolf turns made up half of an Event Finals start list, if not two-thirds of the gymnasts that qualified to beam finals.
But the wolf turn didn’t come from out of nowhere. Part II will cover the early origins of the wolf turn and a style of moves that I like to call “quasi wolf turns” that were also prevalent during the Cold War. Lastly, I will discuss the history behind the wolf turn and how it is one of the most influential and historically significant moves in the sport.