The Greatest Team That Never Went to the Olympics (Part II)

In Part I of these series, I explained the historical significance of the 1983 Soviets and how unusual it is that not one member of this team went to the Olympics. Below is an overview of each of the six members who comprised the 1983 Soviets.

Natalia Yurchenko

Natalia Yurchenko

The oldest member of the 1983 Soviets, this was actually Natalia Yurchenko’s debut in Group-1 level competition. Yurchenko first rose to prominence in the Soviet national program as early as 1978 when she was invited to train alongside the senior members of the Soviet national team. In 1979 Natalia was an alternate for the World Championships that year. Yurchenko was expected to compete for one of the last spots on the 1980 Olympic team before a devastating injury knocked her out of contention in early 1980. The lingering effects of which took Yurchenko two years to fully recover from.

Natalia Yurchenko returned to competition in 1982 where she was All-Around co-Champion of the World Cup that year. After winning the All-Around at the 1983 World Championships, Yurchenko was genuinely on an unprecedented hot streak and had even qualified to Event Finals on all four apparatuses. But an injury on her first event knocked Yurchenko out of the competition and marked the end of Yurchenko’s reign as the top-ranked WAG of the Soviet program.

In later years Yurchenko would find herself being eclipsed by younger teammates. The final years of her career would also be defined by a string of costly mental errors that would prevent Yurchenko from winning medals any time she appeared to be in contention for a podium finish. Despite being the oldest member of the 1983 Soviets, Yurchenko was the last member of the 1983 team to appear in one of the four most prestigious competitions of the era, which occurred at the 1986 World Cup.

Natalia Yurchenko (center) taking instructions from her coach. Natalia Shaposhnikova is 3rd from the left.

Natalia’s status as an All-Around champion as well as her innovation on vault made Yurchenko one of the most well-known gymnasts amongst gymnastics fans. Yurchenko became the first non-Olympian to ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the women’s side of the sport (WAG or women’s artistic gymnastics), as well as the only gymnast this was ever done for prior to 2021. No other member of the 1983 Soviets has been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Note: I did a full career recap of Natalia Yurchenko’s career on Patreon which can be found here. It is a three hour recording recapping the life and career of Natalia Yurchenko.

Natalia Ilienko

Natalia Ilienko

Natalia Ilienko crashed onto the scene as a 1st-year senior in 1981 and had more than enough talent to make a name for herself. At the 1981 European Championships she finished 4th in the All-Around (AA) and 4th on bars. But her greatest accomplishment was winning a silver medal on beam. This particular detail would be important to remember later on.

At the 1981 World Championships Natalia Ilienko got off to a strong start. On Day #1 of qualifying Ilienko was leading the entire field in the All-Around standings, she also had the highest qualifying score on balance beam by a significant margin and was in the qualifying lead on floor exercise as well. By this point in the competition, Natalia Ilienko was in a viable position to win four gold medals. One in the team competition, one in the All-Around and a pair on beam/floor. But on Day #2 of qualifying disaster struck.

Ilienko fell on the uneven bars on the second day of qualifying. If she had fallen on just one event, her All-Around prospects may have been salvageable. But Ilienko also fell on beam. This ruined any hope Ilienko had of advancing to All-Around Finals, but it also meant something else. Beam was the event Ilienko was a runaway medal favorite on. There was even a possibility she would beat out Maxi Gnauck for the gold medal.

But a mistake on beam meant the young Ilienko had lost the chance to even contend for two medals she was in the lead for. As Ilienko walked off the podium following her disastrous beam routine, she didn’t appear angry or sad. Despite Ilienko’s young age she maintained full composure and the only indication that anything was wrong was measured by how quickly Ilienko bolted from the area. No one near her even attempted to look in Ilienko’s direction as Natalia made it clear she simply wanted to be left alone.

Natalia Ilienko in 1980

Natalia Ilienko was down on two of her three events, but one still remained. Natalia Ilienko took the gold medal on floor in one of the greatest examples of a strong rebound in gymnastics history. The 1981 gold medal on floor is a particularly special stat line as it ensured Natalia Ilienko didn’t walk away from the 1981 World Championships without any medals at all in the five individual events. But it also reflects just how talented Natalia Ilienko was and suggests she really could have won four gold medals at those 1981 World Championships if not for a pair of costly errors.

Ilienko would represent the Soviets at the 1982 World Cup, the 1983 World Championships, and the 1984 Alternate Olympics. She was the textbook example of a supporting cast member of the lineup who appeared in all the critical competitions and was a boost to the team score, but wasn’t around much when individual medals were contested. In each of these years from 1982-1984, Ilienko would only show further and further regression before abruptly disappearing from the scene altogether following the 1984 Olympic boycott.

Between the 1983 and 1984 USSR lineups which fielded eight different Soviet gymnasts, Ilienko is one of two Soviet WAGs who never competed past the 1984 boycott. While her career may seem short at first glance, Natalia Ilienko’s career was actually rather long considering she competed in a World Championships held in the first year of an Olympic quad, and stayed around long enough to make the next Olympic team. Only Elena Shushunova and Svetlana Boginskaya can say the same amongst Soviet gymnasts.

Olga Bicherova (left) holding the Chunichi Cup

Olga Bicherova

Of the six members of the 1983 Soviets, two of them did not make the 1984 Olympic team and even if there hadn’t been a boycott, they still wouldn’t be Olympians. The first of which is Olga Bicherova. She was from the same generation as Natalia Ilienko. Whereas entering the 1981 season it appeared Natalia Ilienko was the USSR’s best chance for a young breakout star, it ended up being Olga Bicherova who won the All-Around at the 1981 World Championships.

Olga Bicherova would win the AA at the World Championships, World Cup, and even the European Championships. This feat was only ever achieved by Ludmilla Turischeva and Elena Shushunova. Olga Bicherova even won these AA titles consecutively, meaning she went three years while being undefeated in major All-Around competition. Bicherova’s dominance was so staggering, she actually won more individual medals (9) than both Yurchenko (5) and Olga Mostepanova (3) won combined in the four major competitions of the era.

But injury problems which first began to appear in the middle of 1983 would slow Bicherova down. Culminating with the 1983 World Championships being the last time Bicherova ever received a major assignment from Soviet coaches. Even though Yurchenko in 1986 was the last of the 1983 Soviets to ever receive a major assignment in a “Big Four” competition (World Championships, Olympics, World Cup, and European Championships), Olga Bicherova continued competing in televised competitions all the way until 1988. This made Bicherova the last of the 1983 Soviets to retire.

Albina Shushova

Albina Shishova

Albina Shishova is the example of a gymnast whose talent and reputation for said talent isn’t reflected in her results. Shishova is the only member of the 1983 Soviets who never appeared in an All-Around or Event Finals at the World Championships level. However, Albina was technically eligible for 1983 beam finals as a last-minute injury replacement for Yurchenko, but Soviet officials did not substitute her in.

At the height of her career Shishova was one of the most popular and respected gymnasts within the Soviet program, with many expecting her to be a medal threat at the 1983 World Championships. This was due to Albina’s membership to one of the most prestigious gyms in the Soviet program and descriptions of all the skills she was training. At the 1983 European Championships Shishova tied Ecaterina Szabo for bronze in the All-Around. That particular stat line being proof that her reputation as a first-rate All-Arounder was more than justified.

But for various reasons, Shishova just wasn’t the same medal threat at the 1983 World Championships later in the year. But even making the 1983 World Championships team was impressive in its own right. Shishova was training partners with Natalia Yurchenko and for political reasons, it was rare for the Soviet program to award two spots on one team to the same coach. For Shishova to make the 1983 team, she had to prove she was substantially better than any alternative option, which clearly was the case.

But Shishova’s moment in the limelight was exceptionally short. After failing to make the 1984 Olympic team, Shishova disappeared from competition reports and as far as I’m aware, never resurfaced in any notable competition. Although Albina does appear in a 1987 documentary profiling Natalia Yurchenko and her former gym. Albina Shishova joins Olga Bicherova as one of two members of the 1983 Soviets who was not brought back for the 1984 Olympic team.

Tatiana Frolova

Tatiana Frolova

Tatiana Frolova was very much the opposite of Albina Shishova. There are a lot of great things to say about Frolova and her career was much better than her results would otherwise indicate. Whereas Shishova has something of a cult following and her name is frequently mentioned amongst aficionados of 1980s and/or Soviet WAG, Tatiana Frolova doesn’t get the same treatment. At least not to the same extent that Albina enjoys.

Tatiana Frolova was a core member of the Soviet program for nearly an entire Olympic quad. She was an alternate on the 1981 World Championships team. Frolova was also a member of the boycott 1984 Olympic team. In 1982 she was the Soviet representative at the American Cup, an assignment the Soviets typically only gave to those who they felt were likely to be one of their top gymnasts in future competition. As for 1983, it was Tatiana Frolova who took the #3 qualifying spot in All-Around Finals, knocking defending AA Champion Olga Bicherova out of AA Finals entirely.

Frolova would finish 5th in AA Finals and narrowly missed out a medal with a 4th place finish on the uneven bars. But what makes Tatiana Frolova’s performance particularly noteworthy was what she did on beam. Tatiana Frolova’s best event was the uneven bars. She was only the #4 ranked Soviet on beam and wasn’t expected to be in beam finals. But at the very last moment, and despite having a sizable disadvantage due to carry-over scoring, the Soviets selected Frolova to be Natalia Yurchenko’s injury replacement for 1983 beam finals.

Frolova didn’t win a medal, but a 5th place finish in such unusual circumstances was a great representation of Tatiana’s overall talent. With little advanced warning, no prior preparation, on an apparatus that wasn’t her strongest event, and with a low qualifying score in an era where carry-over scoring punished low ranked qualifiers, Frolova still managed to pull off a 5th place finish.

Frolova never won a medal in an individual event, but she does have three top-5 finishes to her name. In an era with so many big names, with the technology of the day only giving fans footage of the headliners while supporting cast members like Tatiana Frolova fell below the radar, Tatiana was a gymnast who never got the proper recognition she deserved. Tatiana Frolvoa is often incorrectly confused with Natalia Frolova, a gymnast she shares no family relation with. If you were to ask me who are the most undervalued/underrecognized members of the Soviet WAG program from 1952-1992, I’d put Tatiana Frolova towards the very top of the list.

Olga Mostepanova

Olga Mostepanova

For most readers, Olga Mostepanova is the name most commonly associated with the 1984 boycott. She is widely considered to be the athlete who would have won the All-Around title at the 1984 Olympics. Mostepanova is held in such high regard that gymnastics fans don’t just speculate as to whether she would have won in 1984, but feel it is a given that Olga Mostepanova would have achieved star power comparable to Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut.

Olga Mostepanova is effectively the poster child of the 1984 boycott and all the injustice that occurred to the Soviet WAGs. Had Mostepanova attended the 1984 Olympics she likely would have joined Yurchenko and Bicherova as the third member of the team who would win an All-Around title at some point in their careers. This would have made the 1983 Soviets one of the most historic lineups in WAG history that a single team could field three AA Champions who all won their AA titles in the very same quad. But because of an Olympic boycott, this stat never happened.

Olga Mostepanova has three gold medals and two silver medals at the World Championships, four of which came at the 1983 World Championships. The 1983 season isn’t even considered the best year of Mostepanova’s career, and yet this one competition single-handedly propels her towards the very top of the list of the most successful gymnasts in World Championships history to never appear in the Olympics. In World Championships history the 1983 Soviets account for six medals won in an individual event, half of those medals belong to Olga Mostepanova.

Then there was 1984 where Olga Mostepanova won five gold medals at the Alternate Olympics. This occurring at a competition that fielded a stronger lineup of gymnasts than the “real” Olympics that year. But the five gold medals Mostepanova won at the 1984 Olympics is often overshadowed by her staggering twelves Perfect-10s and the highly coveted “Perfect-40” where Mostepanova scored a Perfect 10 on all four events during All-Around Finals at the Alternative Olympics. It would be her numerous Perfect 10s in 1984 that would immortalize Mostepanova as a gymnastics legend.

Mostepanova has the unusual distinction of never falling below 2nd place on every occasion she competed in a Team Finals, All-Around Finals, or Apparatus Finals in major-level competition.

Link to Part I of this series.

(From L to R) Olga Bicherova, Olga Mostepanova, Tatiana Frolova, Albina Shishova, Natalia Ilienko, and Natalia Yurchenko

One thought on “The Greatest Team That Never Went to the Olympics (Part II)

  1. Bueno, con respecto de que Natalia Yurchenko fue la primera soviética no olímpica al entrar al Salón de la Fama Internacional, creo que es justo mencionar que Elena MUKHINA fue inducida antes que Yurchrnko al salón de la fama internacional, en el año 2000, pero por razones obvias no pudo asistir a ese evento.
    Hipotéticamente hablando Mukhina se llevaría ese honor, sin desmeritar a Yurchenko.
    Gracias Dios, que se acordaron de Mukhina en 2021.


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