The Russian Team: Post-Worlds Reflections

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Following the conclusion of the World Championships last month, all of the national federations rightly took a hard look at their teams, assessing the performances of their athletes and identifying what needs to be improved at the revelatory midway mark between Olympic years. Russia was no different, though the verdict was mostly unsurprising and similar to the one given last year: we’re still suffering the absence of some of our top athletes, and our girls did the best that they could.

That’s a fair assessment, and I’m always pleased to see head coaches publicly praising their athletes, highlighting their successes and minimizing their mistakes, somewhat acknowledging that those struggles are a shared responsibility anyway, not exclusively the fault of the gymnast but rather an indication of something lacking in the training and preparation for competition.

Despite the official attempt to minimize the team’s comparably weak performance in the shadow of very strong years, however, additional voices have spoken and changed the tenor of the discussion, most notably the iconic Svetlana Khorkina. Speaking with, Khorkina didn’t hold back expressing her dissatisfaction with the team’s recent performances:

“To be honest, the results sometimes make me feel ill. I watch a lot of videos from competitions and notice, for example, that at the American Cup almost every athlete vaults a 2.5 twist (yet) we consider it some special skill/feat. I watch our girls finish their floor routines with tucked double backs, a skill I did a decade ago. It’s the same on bars, where none of our girls show anything special. On vault and floor exercise, we generally lag behind the leaders by a whole order of magnitude. Did you ever imagine that the Russian team could lose to the British at the European championships? I didn’t. “

Her words become all the more interesting when one considers that it was exactly 20 years ago that Khorkina competed for her first team medal in the world championships. The year was 1994, the championship was in Dortmund, Germany, and for the first time in 42 years (in a fully attended meet), there was no Soviet Union team in the running. It was the first time Russia would compete as Russia.

And although the comparisons must be taken with a grain of salt considering the changes in the sport, it’s at least noteworthy that there are some similarities between performances in 1994 and 2014:

Like the Russian team in Nanning, the team in Dortmund finished third overall. Like the team in Nanning, they were led by a woman who placed or easily could have placed first among her teammates on every apparatus. And like the team in Nanning, they were covering an unenviable spot in the Olympic cycle, suffering the loss of valuable athletes while trying to set the tone for (hopefully complimentary) future expectations.

Unlike the team in Nanning, however, the Dortmund team was composed almost entirely of rookies, and their recent losses weren’t due to a perfect storm of injuries but to the break-up of the Soviet/Unified Team. Of the six who competed in Barcelona, only one (Elena Grudneva) was Russian, and it wouldn’t be until 1996 that Uzbekistan’s Rosa Galieyeva would be granted Russian citizenship, just in time for the Atlanta Olympics.

And although this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the now elevated role of specialization, the Dortmund team (unlike the Nanning team) boasted more all-arounders: With the exception of vault, Svetlana Khorkina and reigning Russian Champion Dina Kotchetkova went 1-2 on every event in the Team Final with the next highest scores posted by Elena Lebedeva and Oksana Fabrichnova.

In contrast, the Nanning team only boasted one consistently high-scoring all-arounder: Aliya Mustafina led the way on every apparatus except balance beam in the Team Final, and she was followed or preceded by a different specialist on each.

Although both strategies can be successful ones, it’s certainly worth pointing out (yet again) that only having one consistent high-scorer on all of the events is a team deficit. It explains the federation’s insistence that every athlete be able to perform on at least two events in order to be placed on the team this year.

All of that aside, however, to me the most revealing difference between the 1994 and 2014 teams was the contrast in reactions following the competition. In 1994, bitter tears flowed. It was devastating to be beaten not only by their Romanian archrivals but perhaps especially by the blossoming USA. In 2014, tears of joy flowed. It was a relief to have medaled at all, and the possibility of placing ahead of the USA had scarcely been considered.

Perhaps Khorkina’s frustration isn’t misplaced. The times have certainly changed since 1994, but her words seem to indicate that desire and the belief that you can win are necessary ingredients to any team effort. If the team had approached the competition with the benchmark set just a smidge higher, they might have been able to capitalize on China’s missteps. What I saw in Penza at this year’s Russian Cup certainly suggested that they were capable of more than their careful words would have you believe. A bolder approach, merely in confidence, might have made a difference. As it turned out, they ended up just scooting past Romania for a podium-finish, the very goal they set out to accomplish.

In the details, they know what needs to change to be more competitive: the bars need to be milked, the beamers need to relax, it would help to have another athlete with something higher than a 5.8 start value on vault, and someone needs to figure out how to get out of this floor funk, beginning with improved execution and ending with a higher endurance level. (Increased tumbling value would help but among the top floor workers I don’t think it’s any more urgent than simply cleaning up what they already do.)

In general, however, the sharpest growing edge may simply be moving beyond the grief of having “lost” so many top athletes from the previous cycle. That doesn’t mean forgetting about the rest of the London team or giving up hope for their competitive return, but it does mean truly investing in the athletes who are currently competing. They deserve to be celebrated for what they contribute and to perform freely without a big sign that spells “Reserve” pasted across their foreheads. It’s worth mentioning that every athlete who contributed in the Team Final performed very well on the events that bought their tickets: Alla Sosnitskaya brought the Cheng to her feet, Tatiana Nabiyeva nailed her DTY, Daria Spiridonova performed a beautiful bar set, Maria Kharenkova came back from a disastrous qualifications routine to deliver an outstanding beam routine, and despite a fall from the beam in the Team Final, Ekaterina Kramarenko did her job, competing on every event to help qualify Russia to the Final in third place, and rounding out their best event with a solid uneven bars routine. (Until Spiridonova’s very nervy beam performance in qualifications, Kramarenko probably hadn’t counted on performing that apparatus.)

As this group looks toward 2015, there might be something to learn from the group that inherited the sport’s greatest dynasty. The women who first competed for a Russian team title in 1994 did so as rookies. They had all the pressure of proving that Russia would honor and continue the tradition they had helped to mold, and although they struggled to find their way back up (in 1995 they failed to medal), perhaps it was a blessing that they had to do so without waiting for the return of the previous era’s stars. By the time the 1996 Olympics arrived, they had rebuilt with an almost entirely new squad.

The current Russian team isn’t competing in the shadow of a 40+ year winning streak, but they are competing in the shadow of a very promising era gone a bit awry. It would delight me to see all of the London team in the mix next year, but it’s probably best for National Team as a whole to train and perform as if they are starting from scratch.

Original Khorkina Interview:

English Translation of Khorkina Interview:

Article by: Sara Dorrien

Photo Cover: Nadia Boyce

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