Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Couch Gymnast's Very Own Cold War

Well folks, The Couch Gymnast’s newest gym-musing has involved pitting the old Soviets, who I think I can safely say reign supreme in the minds of most gymfans who have a knowledge of the sport dating back anywhere past the mid-nineties, against who I believe are their modern counterparts in gymnastics to see who comes out on top. This week it's been all about.....

Aleftina Priakhina vs Shawn Johnson!

It took me a long while to realise who it was, when Shawn Johnson first burst onto the gym scene, exactly that she reminded me of from the old days. Then, watching some old performances of Aleftina Priakhina, it finally came to me. Shawn has a resemblance to that young dynamite, who I always think of as the Little Soviet That Could-n't.

Priakhina, the little Soviet with the big tricks

As far as I am concerned, they look alike. They flip alike.
For starters both were short, compact and as cute as buttons! Shawn and Aleftina share a lot of qualities as gymnasts as well as similar body types. They were both tiny with intensely muscular builds, moved quickly and had explosive leg power, meaning they were both capable of strong tumbling and and dynamic work in the air.

Chudina and Pryakhina (right)

They both had excellent coaches. Priakhina trained under the ground breaking techniques of Mikhail Klimenko, coach of the tragically injured (not under his watch, he was away at the time) Elena Mukhina. Klimenko was an expert tumbling coach and was known for innovation, inventing many new moves for his gymnasts. Johnson was trained under Liang Chow, a former Chinese National team member and also a groundbreaking (more in finding ways to teach gymnasts in less coaching hours) methodologist.

Klimenko and Mukhina

Both Johnson and Priakhina are renowned for the high degrees of difficulty in their gymnastics. Johnson had one of the most difficult programmes prepared for Beijing last year and Priakhina, though coming second to Silivas, had the most difficult program presented at the 1987 European championships held in Moscow.

Johnson and Chow

They were/are incredible tumblers. Aleftina is renowned for being the first gymnast to compete a double double, a pass Johnson now competes. Both compensated for their lack of general grace and dance ability by competing high energy floor routines with dazzling tumbling. Priakhina, in good Soviet tradition still paired her astonishing tumbling with some impressive extension and flexibility, but without any of the flair of her compatriots. Johnson basically skipped dance altogether in favour of dynamic leaps, massive tumbling and a little bit of skipping around looking cute.
Shawn posing on floor

On beam, both were highly competitive although they lacked the finesse of their fellow competitors. But because of the wonderfully high level of skill in their routines they always did well. Priakhina was the first gymnast to compete a full twisting back salto from a standing position, Twenty years later, Johnson was wowing judges with the same move. Priakhina also performed an insane mount, a gainer Rufolva and a full-in dismount in her routine. Johnson had a wonderful tumbling series in her beam set too- two back handsprings into a two-footed layout backs salto and a full in dismount.

Watch this dynamite routine from Priakhina on beam at the 1987 Euros

While they were both highly competitive because of their difficulty, they both lost to gymnasts whose difficulty was slightly less, but who were lauded for their more graceful and well executed gymnastics in major competitions. Johnson lost to Liukin because of execution scores in Beijing, as did Priakhina to Silivas at the '87 Euros (where Nastia’s dad, Valeri, won the men’s AA!)

Both tended to fall down in the execution department in competition. Their short statures meant their gymnastics did not look as graceful as some of the leggier gymnasts. Both tended to come up short in their leaps and jumps on beam and floor, never quite achieving full split positions. Priakhina was probably a far worse offender, however, than Johnson.

Johnson leaps on beam

Shawn Johnson was consistent enough, even with her lack of finesse, to become World Champion all-around gymnast in Stuttgart. And there are those who believe that with her level of insanely high difficulty in the eighties (and possibly a little less sloppiness) Priakhina had the goods to be competitive enough to go for the same crown TODAY!! It is hard to fathom that the Soviet team was SO DEEP, however, that Priakhina never made a world or Olympic team (the mind boggles, it really does).

I would have to say that if they were to go head to head that Johnson would definitely come out on top. Priakhina’s form, though considered horrible compared to her Soviet teammates, may be on par with Johnson’s (though that too is arguable). Johnson definitely has one edge (aside from much better training techniques, better gym equipment, and a free country in which to practise her sport of course!) over Priakhina, and that is CONSISTENCY! As one viewer commented on a youtube video of Priakhina, there is no point having the best and most difficult skills in the world unless you always land them. Johnson rarely missed a skill, which is why she became world champion and Priakhina was only second reserve for the 1988 Olympics. She was, however, utterly, utterly incredible for her time.


  1. "they both tended to lose to gymnasts whose difficulty was slightly less"

    That might be a stretch. Given her overall record I'm not sure Shawn has a tendency to lose to anyone.

  2. Shawn's difficulty in Beijing was only .1 higher than Nastia so there wasn't a huge difference there (I think she was planning a little higher but didn't get credit for a leap on floor). I agree with the person above that she didn't tend to lose that often but that was usually because Nastia either fell or was injured and didn't challenge her.
    Priakhina did a full in dismount off beam in the video you posted (the same as Shawn) not a double full.

  3. A full in. My bad
    Okay peeps, It seems you are upset. Lets take away "tended", and just say they lost to people (as in a collective noun meaning "people" between the two of them). Happy?! :-)

  4. This posting is a great example of how your blog is a remarkably well-written, informative, hilarious webtreat!

  5. Good blog; but i happen to disagree with the "Both tended to come up short in their leaps and jumps on beam and floor, never quite achieving full split positions." observation. And here is why... watch this small clip i've made of screenshots of of her Balance Beam routine at the Event Finals in Beijing.


    P.S. forgive my English, i know, is bad.

  6. I would much rather watch Aleftina over Shawn.

  7. Aside from Shawn's tumbling and leaps, people seem to really criticze her dance. I don't find it so appalling. I always thought what she presented wasn't the most artistic compared to obviously fabulous dance from other gymansts, but her moves were polished, they flowed, and I found them to be quite non-offensive and pleasant. I didn't hear anybody knocking Liukin for not having the world's hardest tumbling, although she had (imo) some of the best dance. So why pick on the dance of someone w/super high levels of tumbling ability....I guess that's just our human nature to critically tear each other apart....good post though, interesting!