Nadia Comaneci’s very first gymnastics teacher, when she was in kindergarten, was Mr. Duncan, a master of motivation. When his young gymnasts did well, he would appear before them at the end of their exercises with his hands behind his back and ask, “Who thinks they did well today?” All hands would go up into the air, and Mr. Duncan would reveal the bag of chocolates he was hiding behind his back and allow each gymnast to have a chocolate. (But if the young gymnasts did not perform well, then there were no hands behind Mr. Duncan’s back, and no chocolate.)
In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska did not want the Soviets in her country, so she was not permitted to train in a proper facility. She ended up practicing her floor exercise in a field and tree limbs substituted as bars during her training. Nevertheless, despite the lack of proper training facilities, she triumphed at the 1968 Olympics Games, winning four gold medals, including one in the All-Around competition, and two silver medals, including one in the Team competition.
When the Romanian junior women’s gymnastics team flew to New York to participate in the 2000 Pontiac Women’s Gymnastics Team Championships, the flight attendants were happy to have such celebrities on board and took photographs of the team. Later, the flight attendants brought coloring books to the Romanian gymnasts, offending them deeply. The gymnasts, who were tiny 14- and 15-year-olds, said, “Hey, we’re small, but we’re not that young.”
Being a world-class gymnast involves long, grueling workouts, and the resulting exhaustion means that the gymnast sleeps really well. For example, when Mary Lou Retton was training with Bela Karolyi in Texas, she slept through a tornado that cut her host family’s house in half. During the tornado, one of the host family’s sons, Preston, came into her room and said, “Get up. Get out of bed.” Mary Lou replied, “Get out of here. I’m sleeping.” He finally carried her out of the house.
Success in gymnastics makes a huge improvement in some athletes’ lives. Tatiana Gutsu used to live in a two-room apartment in Odessa, Ukraine, with her parents and three sisters. However, after achieving great success in gymnastics, including winning all-around gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (beating the USA’s Shannon Miller by .012 point), she was rewarded with a three-bedroom apartment for herself and her family.
At the Melbourne, Rome, and Tokyo Olympic Games, Muriel Grossfeld competed in women’s gymnastics for the United States. After retiring, she began to coach and opened her first gym in New Haven, Connecticut in a building that had been an A&P grocery store. Because the ceilings were so low, she cut holes in them above the uneven bars and the vault so that gymnasts wouldn’t crash into them.
After gymnast Kurt Thomas won a gold medal in floor exercise at the 1978 World Championships — thus winning the United States its first gold medal ever at this level — he became an instant celebrity and even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. During his appearance, Johnny asked him, “Kurt, have you ever had any injuries in gymnastics?” Mr. Thomas replied, “Nothing serious, although I did fracture my neck once.”
Kelly McCormick won her Olympic medals in springboard diving, but she started out as a gymnast. She did become an elite gymnast, but she used to go on vacation to ski and whenever she returned from vacation, she would be dropped a class. Finally, she grew angry enough to quit gymnastics and take up diving.
Gymnasts frequently show enormous dedication to their sport. In 1994, an earthquake shook California, but elite gymnast Vanessa Atler continued to practice even though her family was forced for a while to sleep in a tent in their backyard. According to Ms. Atler, “Rain or earthquakes, we still have practice.”
In 1972, Nikolai Andrianov competed for the Soviet overall title in men’s gymnastics. Going into the last event, he had a commanding lead and his coach suggested that he do a less difficult routine so that there would be less chance of slipping up, but Mr. Andrianov refused to water down his routine. He hit the routine and became national champion.
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut performed strongly and won several medals, but she was not always perfect in every event. As she sat crying after receiving a low score, a TV camera started to focus on her, so fellow gymnast Elvira Saadi causally strolled between Olga and the TV camera, shielding her.
Before her first Olympic Games, in 1988, 15-year-old Svetlana Boginskaya did not understand how important a competition it was, and because she was tired, she nearly dropped out. She says, “My coach nearly had a heart attack.” Fortunately, she competed and won two gold medals: in the team competition and on the vault.
The best gymnasts know not to quit, no matter what. Larissa Latynina competed during a storm at the 1968 European Championships. The storm knocked out all the electricity, causing the lights to go out, but Ms. Latynina continued her floor exercise even though the judges and audience could see her only when lightning flashed.
Some gymnasts do odd exercises. In the late 1970s, to build up the strength in their legs, some of coach Muriel Grossfeld’s young girl gymnasts used to push cars up a slightly slanted driveway. Sometimes, drivers would see them and stop, thinking that they needed help because their car was stalled.
At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, American gymnast Mary Lou Retton won the all-around competition with a vault that scored a perfect 10. Under the rules of the time, there was no need for her to attempt a second vault, but she did — and earned another perfect 10 score.
Gymnasts have different ways of motivating themselves before meets. Soviet champion Ludmilla Tourischeva used to mark the days of the World Championships on her calendar — and on each day she would mark “VICTORY!”
People tend to have a lot in common no matter what country they are from. When 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania was asked what was her favorite place in the United States, she replied, “Disneyland.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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