Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hard Times......

....Great Talent

Little Olga Roschupkina always broke my heart a little.  This tiny, talented gymnast was exquisite to watch, had lovely lines and such great natural talent.  But she grew up in tough times.  

Olga began gymnastic at age five when, like many sickly Eastern European children, her parents thought doing a sport would help improve her health. 
As well as doing gymnastics, Olga loved reading and listening to Russian pop.  Her favorite gymnast was Lilia Podkapeyeva.  Olga, funnily, came to be nicknamed "Little Lilia" by her team mates due to her similarities with independent Ukraine's most successful gymnast.  Roschupkina had appeared on the world scene in a time when Ukraine was still looking pretty good, like they had a chance as an individual nation at staying near the top despite the bad financial situation at the time. Olga had a very successful early career, proving her talent at her first junior European Championships.  Her rapid improvement took her right into the 2000 Olympics where she was one of the youngest athletes in the competition.  

I always got the feeling things were very difficult for this young girl.  Many commentators during the Sydney Olympics talked about how, back in Olga's hometown of Zaporozhye her parents were so, so poor, they were reduced to selling dairy products by the side of the road to make enough money to eat. This, of course, is not necessarily an uncommon Ukrainian story, not even nowadays, but i find it particularly sad because in comparison to the poverty at home, the life training in Kiev may have actually been a happy one. And I feel fairly safe in saying that the training centre in Kiev in those days was not a happy place. 

I mentioned in a post recently, about the Tianjin World Team finals, about her painful tears after crunching her ankles on vault when she was still a wee scrap of a gymnast.  The Ukrainians were very weak on vault back then, and even so, I got the feeling they were being pushed to do more difficult vaults than they could actually perform.  Olga fared quite well individually at this competition, however, taking 13th place in the AA and winning a bronze medal on the balance beam.  At the Ukrainian Cup before the Sydney Olympics, Olga proved herself to be a top medal contender when she won the AA and finished top three in all events but, surprisingly, beam.

Olga competed on the Sydney 2000 team with one of Ukraines greatest concentration of talents since the break up of the Soviet Union, Viktorya Karpenko, Anastasia Koval and Tatyana Yarosh.   Little Olga wound up being the highest finishing Ukrainian in the AA competition, finishing seventh, after Karpenko's disastrous turn on floor finished her hopes of winning the coveted spot and dropped her well down on the AA rankings.  Olga also came in 6th on her favorite apparatus, the bars helping to carry the Ukrainian tradition of lovely swinging work.

It wasn't Olga's results or performances in Sydney or other competitions that makes me so sad.  It was the situation she was in.  As far as I concerned, the Ukrainian team in Sydney all looked  sad.  And I don't necessarily mean their gymnastics.  That team was a bunch of the most morose, unhappy, and bedraggled looking gymnasts I have ever witnessed competing at an Olympics.   Time after time, I saw a girl whose performance had been less than stellar, come off the podium only to be ignored by their coach AND their team mates.  Then, when Roschupkina got up and did an absolutely wonderful beam routine, she stepped down to claps from the crowd, but to absolutely no congratulations from her team mates at all.  My heart felt for her.  Of course, at this period, many of the girls were only training together for some of the year, but one would think, after such an intense decade of nationalism in Ukraine, the girls would have been encouraged to feel like they were competing as a team.  It certainly didn't look that way.

In fact, I felt for all those girls who sat quietly, looking glum, and barely speaking between the routines.  This gloomy energy was even more obvious in contrast to the newly rejuvenated Spaniards, who Ukraine competed the first two rotations alone with in the arena before the other teams came out.  The Spaniards shouted and cheered for each other and were ready with encouraging hugs and high fives wether a gymnast did badly or well, carrying each other along on what proved to be a great competition for them.

It is no wonder Ukraine dropped to sixth in the team finals.  Their performances were unsteady, and despite the usual beauty that comes with Ukrainian gymnastics and body lines, they seemed uninspired.  They were graceful and original as always, but their vaulting was very weak, their pretty floor routines marred by vacant faces and they just didn't seem to have the fire it takes to get a medal in such stiff international competition.  It was only their raw talent that pulled them along as far as it did.

 And Olga Roschupkina, who seemed like such a sunny little person, letting a smile sneak out here and there, like all of those Ukrainian girls, deserved to be part of a system, one that Ukraine could not provide in those days.

I just wish Olga- in fact I wish all of these Ukrainian gymnasts got to learn their craft in better times.  A news article about Ukraine's readiness to compete at Sydney before the Olympics referred to the training situation over there as "disastrous" alluding to even a lack of decent equipment.  The new pieces that had been promised by the state sports committee several times were only finally due to arrive, ironically, on the eve of the team's departure for the Olympics.

Ludmila Turischeva, who resigned her position as head of the Ukrainian Gymnastics Federation after the Sydney Olympics, described the hellish pre-Sydney period as the thing that "broke" her and caused her to hand in her resignation.  Turischeva said the floor area in the Kiev training Centre was completely worn out before the Olympics and  federation officials, who mostly did not even come from a sporting background, could not understand the importance of good equipment being necessary for the gymnasts' training.

Remember when you wouldn't eat your dinner, and your Mother would say, "Eat it.  There are starving children in Africa?".  I feel the same about the Ukrainians in the late nineties and now.  If i was a coach and my student complained about less than great equipment or strict coaching, I would say, "get on with it, at least you aren't training in the Ukraine."  They'd probably look at me as blankly as I looked at my mother back then. 

I wonder how Olga and her Olympic team compatriots would have been if they had the facilities and finance for better training. There was clearly no lack for talent, just means to harness it properly.  Considering all the hell the Ukrainian federation has been through recently with funding cuts, the Ostapenko turnaround, the lack of training camps and World Cup trips, we just need to hope that one day I am not wondering how Ukraine would be doing if they had any facilities or money at all.

Olga was last seen competing (to the best of my knowledge, at the 2002 Cottbus Tournament of Masters. I hope whatever Olga Roschupkina is doing now, she is happy and well.  She was a magnificent gymnast who trained in less than magnificent times.


  1. Nice post. I wasnt really into gymnastics while this was going on, but after i read this, i went and was watching the TF in beijing. And you could have been desbribing the Brazil girls to a tee. I may have been the only one to see but as Jade finished a (solid) floor routine, she just kinda marched off and sank into herself, no smiles, just kind of a blank cold expression. There has also been no lack of training drama from brazil in the recent which i think also contributed. Again, Jade and many of her Brazilian compatriots are fabulously talented, but Its HARD to be a fabulously talented athlete in Brazil at the moment.

  2. Olga is actually coaching at my gym in Canada and she just had a baby!