Gymnasts Who Were Role Models For a Future Olympian

Like any self-respecting gymnastics junkie, it was a thrilling experience watching Grace McCallum earn a spot on the 2021 Olympic team. Grace McCallum represents everything good there is about gymnastics. She was a gymnast of unquestionable talent who rightfully deserved her spot on the team. For years her career represented that of a young adult who always knew how to do and say the right thing. The perfect role model in a sport famed for its child athletes.

And of course, there was the nail biting finish, where Team USA had so many options for its final two spots in the six-person Tokyo delegation. With so many deserving candidates, in the end it was Grace who rose to the top. It is hard not to celebrate with Grace right now, but it is hard to celebrate Grace’s success without thinking of someone else.

Maggie Nichols

For those who don’t know, Maggie Nichols and Grace McCallum come from the same club/coach. For Maggie, her Olympic dream was the dream that nearly was. Being one of the very last names removed from the list before USAG finalized its lineup. Ending her career without any redemption, at least at the elite level.

The pain of coming so close yet so far to your Olympic dream is now compounded by the new reality that Maggie now has to watch one of her own friends enjoy the success she never had. Living the dream that was denied to her. For as painful as this new dynamic might be, it also has positive interpretations as well.

Maggie Nichols’ legacy lives on through one of her former teammates. In the coming years the success of Grace McCallum will empower the narrative of how close Maggie Nichols was to Olympic greatness if a gymnast from the same coach/club could make an Olympic team in the very next quad. But also, that Maggie Nichols’ career mattered.

That she was the perfect role model for a younger gymnast and helped show her the work required to excel in elite level gymnastics and how a leader must conduct herself. The way Grace McCallum rapidly rose up the ranks was unquestionably assisted by the career of Maggie Nichols, who provided a working template of a successful model. That model only became easier to apply to Grace because thanks to Maggie Nichols, Sarah Jantzi already learned what tactics work, what tactics didn’t work, and how to utilize their limited practice hours to maximum efficiency.

It becomes an example where the gymnasts who come after you is one of the greatest accomplishments of a gymnast’s career. One that is perhaps even more important than winning an Olympic medal. The reminder that you were the one who paved the one for others, and ensures you will always hold her head high, even if your career can’t be measured in Olympic medals.

And given what Maggie Nichol’s career represented and the way she carried herself, I can’t think of a better way for the next chapter of her story to be written. Helping others, kindness, and empowerment has long been the narrative Maggie Nichols wanted her life to represent. And in 2021 that narrative lived on as Grace McCallum and Elle Mueller donned their leotards.

What Grace and Maggie have is one of the most special dynamics there is in all of women’s gymnastics. And it reminds me of two little known examples from the past that are virtually identical to the Grace/Maggie dynamic. Examples where a gymnast came super close to the Olympics, didn’t make it, only to watch her younger teammate go on to become an Olympian in the very next Olympic cycle.

Lyubov Yudina and Natalia Shaposhnikova

Most gymnastics fans have heard of Natalia Shaposhnikova, but very few have heard of Lyubov Yudina. She can accurately be described as the lone Soviet gymnast who was truly lost to history. If this is the first time I’ve dedicated serious attention to Yudina in a TMC article, it’s because I get writer’s block every time I try to produce an article on her. Lyubov Yudina deserves an entire book chapter to do her story justice.

Lyubov Yudina was one of the most sensational junior prodigies the Soviets ever had, and Yudina went “viral” in an era where gymnastics content could only be shared via print media. Gymnastics fans could not stop talking about her in the 1970s. But unfortunately, I’m not aware of any footage of her in a competition that survived into the modern era.

All that remains of Yudina’s career is a couple of routines from various display tours which amount to maybe 1-2 minutes of footage at most. Unfortunately, Lyubov Yudina has been cursed by the YouTube copyright algorithm. It just seems to hate Lyubov Yudina and her routines will stay up for a couple of months, maybe a year if gymnastics fans are lucky, but they will always get taken down. And then it takes a while for someone else to upload Yudina routines again, and the whole process gets repeated.

Lyubov Yudina

Despite her status as the Katelyn Ohashi of the 1970s, I wouldn’t blame any gymnastics nerd for having no idea who Yudina is. But I will tell you this, Lyubov Yudina won the top junior competition of 1976, sharing a podium with two gymnasts who would win gold medals at the 1980 Olympics.

Rostov Dynamo is remembered for its famed trio of Ludmilla Turischeva, Natalia Shaposhnikova, and Natalia Yurchenko. Lyubov Yudina was younger than Turischeva, but older than Shaposhnikova in age. The three gymnasts representing three different age groups trained alongside each other from the early 1970s up until the 1976 Olympics.

The Soviet media didn’t pay much attention to the “third” gymnast in that training group. But by having not one, but two major role models to look up to, that was a critical reason why Natalia Shaposhnikova’s career was so successful. And if you are wondering which gymnast in the picture is Yudina, it’s the one with her hand on Shaposhnikova’s shoulder.

One of the little known details of Turischeva’s gymnastics legacy is that she switched cities halfway through her career. Lyubov Yudina was the only high profile training partner who was with Turischeva when she first competed in Gronzy, the Russian city located in Chechnya. When Turischeva and her coach relocated to Rostov in 1970, they made sure to bring their best child prodigy with them.

In a twist of fate that can be described as tragically symbolic, Yudina had been with Turischeva since a kindergartener and went further back with Ludmilla then anyone else. Only to be replaced in the pecking order by a gymnast discovered in their new city of Rostov who was younger and had far less history with the group. Shaposhnikova was more talented, but also younger and cuter. This was an era where the Soviets had an obsession of finding not only a gymnast who could beat Nadia, but replicate her image of the small, adorable child gymnast.

Furthermore, the Soviet women’s gymnastics program had an unofficial policy of limiting each team lineup to no more than one gymnast per club whenever possible. The analogy being, if you are cutting a pie into six slices at a party, you can’t give one person two slices when others haven’t gotten any slices at all.

Shaposhnikova and Yudina (back row)

In 1976 this was enough to hinder Shaposhnikova’s prospects for a major team assignment who was perceived as the #2 gymnast of her respective club. But for Lyubov Yudina who was considered the #3 ranked gymnast at her club, she never had a chance. Effectively ensuring Lyubov Yudina would never have a viable path to the World Championships or Olympics.

Interestingly enough, Yudina finished 8th at the 1976 USSR Cup. Svetlana Grozdova finished 9th and was named to the Olympic team, Yudina wasn’t. Lyubov Yudina had sporadic success in 1977, and her career faded away shortly afterwards. As for Natalia Shaposhnikova, 1977 was the year she first started receiving major international assignments. From that point forward Shaposhnikova never looked back and went on to become a Soviet star.

If there was ill-will or bad blood between Yudina and Shaposhnikova over the way things panned out, neither showed it. If the pictures in this article don’t do enough to demonstrate how much they loved each other, their continued friendship is on full display thanks to Facebook. Even while one lives in Ukraine while the other lives in New Jersey.

Bicherova (center) and Shevchenko (top right)

Olga Bicherova and Elena Shevchenko

For those who follow me on Twitter, you are probably aware that this is one of my favorite pictures and I love challenging fans to find the Olympian in this picture. My understanding is that it is dated to 1981 when Olga Bicherova was at the height of her career. Bicherova won the All-Around title at the 1981 World Championships.

She also went on to win All-Around titles at the 1982 World Cup and the 1983 European Championships. Only two other gymnasts (Elena Shushunova and Ludmilla Turischeva) ever accomplished this trifecta. Bicherova was also the first gymnast to score a Perfect 10 at the World Championships. And if that isn’t enough, Bicherova competed alongside Natalia Yurchenko and Olga Mostepanova. But in the four major competitions of her era, Bicherova won more individual medals (9) than both Mostepanova (3) and Yurchenko (5) won combined.

By this point, Olga Bicherova was a star gymnast, highly accomplished, and every little girl with Olympic aspirations looked up to her. What does Bicherova do? She excels in the customary of meeting and greeting young gymnasts, many of them who have extraordinary talent of their own. Whereas there are countless examples of a star gymnast taking pictures with children at the kindergarten level, this Olga Bicherova-Elena Shevchenko is the rare example of one of those pictures featuring a young child who would go on to be an Olympian herself.

Bicherova (far left) and Shevchenko (2nd from fright)

But there would be no Olympics for Olga Bicherova. During the mid-1970s the Soviets had significant success with a trio of 14-year olds (Shaposhnikova, Elena Davydova, and Maria Filatova) who didn’t suffer from burnout despite the intense workloads of the era. I’d speculate this success gave the Soviet program a false sense of security and led to the Soviets feeling they could successfully replicate their previous tactics with their next generation.

But instead, the Soviet program became plagued with the problem of burning out their young superstar gymnasts. Unfortunately, Olga Bicherova would become one of the Soviet Union’s worst examples of poor pacing and premature burnout. Olga Bicherova began to regress following her final victory at the 1983 European Championships.

At the 1983 World Championships, the gymnast who had won three consecutive All-Around titles in the last three years didn’t even qualify to All-Around after being eliminated on country limits. Nor was she included on the 1984 Olympic team, which famously competed in Olomouc instead due to the 1984 Olympic boycott.

Shevchenko (far left) and Bicherova (3rd from left) 1987

But Olga Bicherova wasn’t the quitting type and she continued to compete over the next four years despite her reduced status in the Soviet lineup. At the 1985 USSR Championships Olga Bicherova finished 16th in the standings. Coming in one spot ahead of her and in 15th place was none other than Elena Shevchenko. The ten-year old Bicherova had interacted with years before had not only become her training partner, but her competitor.

Ironically, at one of the next competitions on the schedule Bicherova and Shevchenko once again ended up side by side in the final standings. This time it was the 1986 USSR Cup where Bicherova finished 5th and Shevchenko 6th.

Olga Bicherova and Elena Shevchenko were both from Moscow, but trained at rival clubs. This geographical proximity is likely what created the above pictures in this article, but it remains unclear whether Bicherova and Shevchenko occasionally interacted with each other in the early 1980s, or if these cross-club encounters were frequently occurring.

1986 Goodwill Games

Of the two pictures I have of these meetups, one was labeled 1981 whereas the other is dated to 1982. Furthermore, Shevchenko and Bicherova are wearing different outfits in both pictures. Clearly indicating these were two different meetings and fueling the theory that the meetings between the two were quite common in the early 1980s.

But in a twist of fate, Olga Bicherova would change clubs from Spartak to CSKA Moscow, the very club Shevchenko trained at. This occurred sometime around 1984. By 1988, Olga Bicherova and Elena Shevchenko were part of the same training group and sharing the chalk bucket as they prepared for the Olympics.

For Olga Bicherova, she continued to compete simply because she loved the sport. Even while there wasn’t a realistic chance she’d be included on the Olympic team. Instead, Bicherova strived for minor team assignments. As for Shevchenko, she had finished 9th at the 1987 USSR Cup. This resulted in her being the highest-ranking Soviet to not make the 1987 World Championships team as one of the six members of the starting lineup, or its two alternate positions.

Shevchenko and Elena Gurova

Despite this, consideration was given within the Soviet program to the possibility of bumping Shevchenko into the starting lineup, bypassing both alternates in the process. In any other year it probably would have happened. The problem was that the only viable candidate for Shevchenko to replace was Svetlana Boginskaya. At the time Boginskaya was a young gymnast and brand new to the senior level.

But Boginskaya was coming off the heels of a remarkable junior career and was one of the strongest junior prospects the Soviets had seen in years. By this point in her career Boginskaya was simply too powerful of a name to be victimized by Soviet lineup shenanigans that had frequently occurred in other years. After missing her shot in 1987, Shevchenko rebounded strongly by making the 1988 Olympic team.

Despite being so young when she first interacted with Bicherova, Elena Shevchenko eventually became her training partner, and the two were even direct teammates in domestic competition representing “Team Moscow.” Bicherova ended her career in 1988, one year later Elena Shevchenko did the same in 1989.

Shaposhnikova and Yudina

2 thoughts on “Gymnasts Who Were Role Models For a Future Olympian

  1. This is a brilliant article. I’m really excited to see how many stories like this will appear as a result of this Olympics – there have been so many fantastic firsts, I hope some of the stories of this year’s athletes will inspire future generations in similar ways.

    And brilliant to see how well Grace Macallum rose to the occasion during the team final – so many gymnastics commentators and fans were so negative about her selection to a point that felt borderline cruel, this blog’s positivity is an oasis in the desert.

    Like

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