Worked to death

I’ve always been interested in gymnastics and as a child in the 70’s and early 80’s I loved watching the greats such as Nadia Comaneci, Nellie Kim, Olga Korbut, Elena Shusahunova, Elena Davydova, and many more whose names I can’t remember.

I used to get the Gymnast magazine every month, poured over the photos, read all about the championships I would never see on TV as in those days there were only 3 channels and gymnastics didn’t get much air time, and found out random facts like Nadia Comaneci liked to put butter on her chips!!!  I daydreamed about being able to somersault and fling myself around the uneven bars like all of amazing gymnasts of this era.

So imagine my joy when I was able to join a group on Facebook called  Gymnastics – A golden era, focusing mainly on gymnasts from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, sharing photos, videos and information about all my favourites.

Since reading the posts I have a discovered a gymnast from the 1970’s I hadn’t heard of. Her name was Elena Mukhina and her story is a tragic tale of a career cut very short by injury. There isn’t a lot of information about Elena online, when I did a search the limited sites about her all seemed to have the same content almost word for word.

Elena was born on June 1st 1960 in Moscow and was brought up by her grandmother from the age of 5, after her mother died in a house fire. She became interested in gymnastics at a relatively late age and trained at the Central Red Army Sports Club.

Her coach was Mikhail Kilmenko who was well known for coaching the male soviet team. He was keen to bring in elements from the men’s competition in Elena’s routines especially in her floor work and on the uneven bars.

The hard work paid off for Elena and she shone at the 1978 World championships in Strasbourg, showcasing a full twisting double back salto dismount on beam, twisting Korbut flip on the uneven bars and a full twisting double back somersault which she did in her floor routine combined with the beautiful and graceful ballet inspired artistry that the Soviets were famous for.

Despite the successes in the 1978 World Championships, the Russians were still reeling from their defeat at the hands of the Romanians, in particular Nadia Comaneci, in the 1976 Olympic games in Montréal. The pressure was on for the women’s team to do well and win big in the next Olympic games in Moscow in 1980.

Unfortunately Elena broke her leg in training in 1979 and was put in plaster to recover. But Mikhail was under orders from senior soviet coaches to get her training as soon as possible so that she would be ready for the games. To that end her cast was removed too early, Elena knew that her leg was not healed properly and told him that it was crooked and not strong enough to train on. An Xray revealed that the bones had separated again and she was sent immediately for surgery.

Once more the race was on to get Elena championship ready, in addition to perfecting her routines, she was also doing gruelling weight loss training to lose the extra pounds gained while recovering from her surgery. Her coach wanted her to include more complex moves into her work, only really performed by men at that time. His idea was to add the Thomas Salto to her floor routine. This was a move perfected by American gymnast Kurt Thomas, a one and three quarter flip with one and a half twists finishing with a forward roll. This required a lot of strength and speed to achieve the necessary height to be able to complete all the twists and flips and be in the correct position to safely finish in the roll. Hence why it was considered a skill for the men’s competition.

Elena knew that this element was extremely dangerous and repeatedly told her coach that she risked serious injury. But despite the weakness in her leg and her exhaustion from the extra weight-loss training, she was heavily encouraged to continue to try and perfect the move. Just two weeks before the Moscow games Elena was training in Minsk, her coach was away for a couple of days, so she was left under the supervision of other coaches from the national team. While practising the Thomas Salto she couldn’t find the height required and crashed landed on her chin, snapping her cervical spine. The accident left Elena a quadriplegic and she remained in a wheelchair until her death from complications of her paralysis at the age of 46 in 2006.

In one of the posts on the FB group somebody raised the question if Elena hadn’t been injured would she have continued to excel in the national team, do well in the 1980 Olympics and become even greater than she was in those few short years of her career. The obvious answer is we’ll never know, but looking at some of the quotes from a rare interview she gave to Ogonyok Magazine after years of silence about her time in the Soviet gymnastic programme, it seems to me that she was never happy and always felt very pressured during her career. She said “We’ve always placed a high value on risk, and a human life was worth little in comparison with the prestige of the nation; we’ve been taught to believe this since childhood“, she also said “Apart from the gym and gymnastics nothing existed, I didn’t have the right to be ill, problems outside sports simply didn’t exist“.  From these quotes I believe she felt like a cog in the wheel, just doing what was expected of her, whatever the cost. I think her  most profound quote though was the one immediately after her injury, as she lay on the floor she thought to herself “Thank God, I won’t be going to the Olympics“. She never criticised Mikhail, her coach, for what happened to her. She always believed that he was also a victim of the system.

Here is a compilation video of Elena in action, some in competition , some in training. In the training footage I see an exhausted, pale and thin girl trying her very best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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