The Unlikely Gymnast and the Unlikely Coach (Part I)

Note: This article has a Part II

To start this article off, I want readers to put themselves in the shoes of someone else.

Imagine you are a star Soviet gymnast and as talented as they come. You win the Junior National Championships, but you never make it to the next level. You suffer a career ending injury and your senior career is over before it could even begin. Then, to add insult to injury your little brother usurps you and goes on to win five Olympic medals. Living the dream you never had. Proving how destined you were to become an Olympic champion, before fate had other plans.

The lingering soreness in your body from that career ending injury serves as a daily reminder to the dreams which were stolen from you. Your little brother gets to enjoy all the perks of a successful career, including marrying an iconic Soviet gymnast. Your little brother allows you to coach him, but you are not considered his primary coach nor the one who made him great. The gymnastics community does not credit your coaching ability as having a significant part in the medals he won.

Viktor Klimenko and Mikhail Klimenko

At this point, you don’t have any accomplishments that are truly yours. But rather, the accomplishments which were granted to you because of that superstar brother. Then your brother hits a rut for the first time in his career. Your brother already has two Olympics under his belt and he is getting old. Perhaps his retirement is near? At this point, it is only through your famous brother that you have any status at all in the Soviet program. And when he eventually retires which appears to be getting near, you will be without a job and forced to fend for yourself for the first time in your coaching career.

In 1974 at the age of 32, that is how life was going for Mikhail Klimenko.

Up until this point in his life, Mikhail Klimenko had demonstrated no interest in women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). Mikhail was the stereotypical men’s coach who didn’t give any thought to the other side of the sport. But as his life was approaching a crossroads, it wasn’t Mikhail Klimenko who went searching for a way to solve his problems. But rather, it was WAG that had gone searching for someone who could fix one of their problems. And they found the answer in an obscure men’s coach known mostly for being the brother of a famous Olympic gymnast.

Elena Mukhina (left)

Her name was Elena Mukhina and the Moscow WAG clubs had no idea what to make of her, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with her. She was an obscure gymnast that virtually no one had pegged for future success, but many seemed to agree that this wasn’t a gymnast who should be thrown away either. Mukhina had enough athletic talent to walk the halls of one the most prestigious athletic centers in the country. It was an opportunity that was granted only to those who were considered the top athletes in the Soviet Union and had maintained that reputation.

By this point, Elena Mukhina had gone through numerous coaches and was constantly being given away. If Mukhina was being passed around, it was not because she wasn’t good enough, it was because she was too good for every coach she came into contact with. Numerous coaches who worked with her realized they had something special on their hands, but none of them had the coaching ability to take Mukhina to the next level. It seemed the ones who cared for Mukhina weren’t top coaches, and the ones who were top coaches didn’t care.

It remains a mystery how Mukhina’s career was still alive at this point in time. She had openly been labeled a coward, a gymnast who struggled to manage her fears on the apparatus. In Eastern Bloc gymnastics, this label was usually a death sentence. Coaches had little tolerance for gymnasts who didn’t have the right mental attributes for the sport, and most coaches would have kicked Mukhina out of their gym for that reason alone.

Mukhina’s physical attributes were also lackluster. She was frequently cited as being unable to keep pace with the girls in her age group during training sessions. And then there was the biggest problem of all, Mukhina’s age. By this point in time, her age was 14 years and 6 months. This occurring at the height of the “little girl” era in the mid-1970s when gymnasts were as young as they ever had been.

This was an era where WAG was dominated by child prodigies. Girls who had been identified as future greats when they were around the ages of 6-9. By the time they turned 14 years old, they already had years of experience at high-level juniors competitions and were usually already veterans of international competition. Many had even been to the Olympics by this age. Mukhina was 14 years old and hadn’t even started down the path towards a viable career. If she hadn’t achieved breakout success by now, conventional wisdom was to assume she never will.

Mikhail Klimenko didn’t seem all too thrilled to grant Mukhina a tryout. At the time he was serving as a coach of a boys group. It wouldn’t have made sense for him to take Mukhina under his wing and be the lone girl in his all-male training group. Plus, Klimenko was aware of Mukhina’s reputation for lagging behind in training sessions and mental struggles. But advocates of Elena Mukhina had pressured him into taking a look at her.

The first meeting between Klimenko and Mukhina came on December 28th, just three days before the end of the year. It was not a coincidence that it was in late December that the pair first crossed paths. It occurred during the holiday season. At a time where Soviet training halls had a more relaxed attitude and people had more time on their hands. Creating the perfect conditions for a junior men’s coach to go out on a limb and do something he had never done before, give a tryout to a WAG who was already eligible for senior level competition.

In spite of everything, Klimenko was impressed enough with Mukhina that he took her on as a pupil. As to what exactly Klimenko saw in her, he noted that she was coordinated, but was particularly impressed in her obedience/listening to directions, and what he would later call “intelligent eyes.”

Elena Mukhina, Maria Filatova, and Natalia Shaposhnikova

The Soviet Crisis

While Klimenko and Mukhina were joining forces, elsewhere in the Soviet program trouble was brewing. At the time, Soviet WAG was experiencing a criss that was one part athletic, one part political, and had grown to become such a problem that it was impacting the Soviet Olympic program as a whole.

Its origins can be traced to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia shortly before the 1968 Olympics which sparked international outrage. At the time Czechoslovakia had a gymnast by the name of Vera Caslavska who wasn’t just the greatest gymnast of the era, but was one of the all-time WAG greats. She remains the only gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal in every individual event. Caslavska had well known anti-Soviet sentiments, and made sure to express those views during the 1968 Olympics.

Vera Caslavska used her dominating performance at the 1968 Olympics to not only make a mockery out of Soviet WAG, but used her platform at the Mexico City Games to protest the injustice the Czechoslovakian people were facing as a whole. And when questionable judging occurred at the 1968 Olympics to Caslavska’s detriment and it was the Soviets who had benefited from it, now Soviet WAG found itself being directly accused of contributing to Caslavska’s struggles.

Vera Caslavska

Caslavska’s Olympic medals and strong political stance made her a Czechoslovakian heroine, the voice of the people, and was celebrated all over the world for her open display of resistance to the Soviet invasion.

The whole affair made Soviet WAG look like villains on the world stage and the program sought to change that image. Starting in 1969 the Soviet Union went on a public relations campaign trying to paint a more likable image of their female gymnasts. It had even included Hollywood-style movies covering gymnastics storylines. The tactic worked as expected, but what the Soviets hadn’t been expected was Olga Korbut.

In retrospect, the breakout success and worldwide stardom of Olga Korbut could not have been more perfectly timed for the Soviet Union. Under Olga Korbut, Soviet WAG reached the peak of its popularity and had restored itself as a program so dominant, it wasn’t worth mentioning who had finished in 2nd place. But most importantly, amongst international audiences Soviet WAG had suddenly become the most popular team in the entire Eastern Bloc, and they were seen positively and came off as lovable.

Elena Mukhina (waving) and Nadia Comaneci (right) during the AA Podium Ceremony at the 1977 European Championships

That all changed in 1975 and 1976 when Romanian superstar Nadia Comaneci took the gymnastics world by storm. Nadia would achieve greater amounts of fame than even Olga Korbut. It wasn’t just that the Soviet Union had lost the initiative to another country, they had lost it to a geopolitical rival. In 1968 Romania was the lone Eastern Bloc country to openly oppose the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. From that point forward, Romania’s entire geopolitical strategy was to embarrass and oppose the Soviet Union at any opportunity, and sought to prove that Romania’s version of communism was superior to the Soviet version. Understandably, the Soviets were doing everything they could to not let that happen.

That battle between two countries was being played out in the sports world with Nadia and Korbut on opposing sides, and in 1976 the Romanians had won. For the second time in less than a decade, Soviet WAG found itself facing a foreign gymnast it couldn’t beat, and one for geopolitical reasons, it couldn’t afford to lose to. If Olga Korbut in 1972 was perfect timing for the Soviet Union, the emergence of Nadia Comaneci four years later came at the worst possible time.

The Soviet Union was slated to host the upcoming 1980 Moscow Olympics. The last thing the Soviets wanted was to see Nadia repeat her 1976 success and embarrass them at “their” Olympics in 1980. And the Soviets wanted to neutralize Nadia’s clout/fame sooner rather than later. So that a Soviet star could dominate the press coverage that comes with a pre-Olympic buildup.

In both 1972 and 1976, WAG had produced one of the most visible stars of the entire Olympic Games. For both Romania and the Soviet Union, it was logical to conclude that 1980 would be no different. The Romanians doubled-down on Nadia while the Soviet program had come to realize that beating Nadia was its top priority.

But finding a gymnast who could beat Nadia was no easy task. In fact, the Soviets had already tried everything they could think of in an attempt to stop Nadia Comaneci in 1976, and none of it seemed to work.

Nadia Comaneci and Elena Mukhina (1979 European Championships)

Nadia proved more than capable of beating the returning Olympians of the Soviet program (Elvira Saadi, Ludmilla Turischeva, and Olga Korbut). She also made easy work of their top juniors from the early 1970s who had recently come of age, (Nina Dronova and Nellie Kim). So the Soviets tried to fight fire with fire, they had three gymnasts who were identical to Nadia in age and size and were the current child prodigies of the Soviet system (Natalia Shaposhnikova, Maria Filatova, and Elena Davydova).

When that didn’t work, the Soviets tried yet another high profile junior, Olga Koval who matched Nadia in age, but was more of a throwback to the 1960s. Finally, there was a trio of mid-level Soviet gymnasts who couldn’t be classified as veterans, but weren’t exactly fresh young juniors either. Lidia Gorbik, Ludmilla Savina, and Svetlana Grozdova. Like everything else, it just didn’t work.

By this point, the USSR had tried every combination of gymnast there was in the Soviet program. Young gymnasts in the classical style, old gymnasts in the classical style, gymnasts who were a hybrid of both, and then repeated the cycle trying new era tricksters of various ages. The Soviets had tried in the box thinking, outside the box thinking and no matter what they tried, Nadia always came out on top. All out of options, the Soviet Union had no answer for Nadia. The only option left was to just roll over and give up.

But while Nadia had been trouncing on the Soviets in international competition, in domestic competition the Soviets had a new gymnast who was starting to make a name for herself. As the Soviets sought to figure out how to break Nadia’s streak of dominance, the Soviets suddenly found their answer. It wasn’t another child prodigy. It wasn’t a returning Olympic veteran. It was someone who by every conceivable metric, lacked the talent, age, experience, and reputation to be a high caliber gymnast. Let alone be someone who was going to take down Nadia herself. This gymnast didn’t even have a traditional WAG coach to help guide her.

It would be the unlikely gymnast and the unlikely coach, two outcasts in the Soviet program, who were now going to be its savior.

Link to Part II

Tatiana Arzhannikova, Elena Mukhina, and Elena Naimushina

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