from the March issue of IG.
by John Crumlish
Eleven years after their historical triple triumph at the '85 world championships, Yelena Shushunova, Oksana Omelianchik and Yuri Korolyov poke, provoke and evoke favorite memories and fresh perspectives with the sentimentality and sass of the siblings they seem to be.
The legendary gymnasts, reunited for the first time during last December's Cup of Buratino tournament in Novgorod, Russia, are simultaneously wistful and boisterous as they reflect and project on their private and public honor.
Shushunova, the St. Petersburg stalwart who went on to win the '88 Olympic all-around gold medal, is rowdy and philosophical as she examines her compulsive commitment to the sport. The mirthful Omelianchik, a Ukrainian who shared the '85 world crown with Shushunova, cackles and sighs as she traces her temperamental career. Two-time global titlist Korolyov slyly dodges the good-natured jabs of his "younger sisters" on either side and shrugs about what was, is and might have been.
Reminiscing, the trio is amused and flattered by questions about their competitive achievements, but vociferously eager to discuss more recent professional and personal conquests.
Shushunova smirks, then refers to herself as a "bookworm" at the sports committee headquarters in her hometown. Mother to five-year-old "bandit" Misha, she met her auto-mechanic husband Yuri at his garage, into which she pulled her wrecked car after an accident. ("So I wouldn't have to pay for the repair, I married him," she jokes.) Shushunova has adapted to family and professional life with wry practicality. "When I retired from gymnastics, I immediately got married because I had to do something," Shushunova says. "I went to the other extreme -- from the fire into the flame."
Omelianchik, who worked in the U.S. and Belgium before returning to Kiev, is preparing a dissertation on the new Code of Points as she pursues her Masters degree. She cheerfully shares photos of daughter Anastasia, 5, and husband Dmitry, a company manager in Kiev whose family hails from Moscow. Working abroad divided the family among three countries -- Oksana in Belgium, Dmitry in Ukraine and "Nastia" in Russia with her paternal grandparents -- because she Oksana could not get permission to travel with her.
"Then, I decided I didn't want to work apart from them," Omelianchik recalls, "because the most important thing in my life is my family." Like Shushunova and Korolyov, she is also a judge.
Korolyov proudly notes that, after a coaching stint in France, he has spent the past five years developing talent in his native Vladimir. He and his wife Galina have two children: son/gymnast Aleksei, 13, and daughter Yelena, 10, who studies English. One of the four rooms in the family apartment doubles as a museum of Yuri's awards. "When friends come to visit, they can see I accomplished something in my life," Korolyov says, modestly.
As parents, they are humble and realistic about the value their children will place on their dusty trophies and tarnished medals. "So far, I haven't told Misha anything, but he's seen my photos," offers Shushunova. Korolyov says his children are aware of his gymnastics successes, with the family's makeshift shrine. Omelianchik admits her daughter is too young to understand elite sports -- yet. "Nastia doesn't know, but she should know, what I accomplished in gymnastics," she proclaims.
Shushunova, Omelianchik and Korolyov appear surprised when told that Western fans needn't be reminded. Then they casually confirm the apathy which cast them off and aside at the end of their careers.
"I think I could have competed until I was 30," says Korolyov, who retired at 28 after missing the '88 Olympics due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, and a snub which kept him off the Soviet team at the '89 worlds in spite of his fifth-place finish at nationals. "But (team officials) said, 'Thank you, your work is finished, you're free now," he recalls. "The same thing happened with the girls. They said, 'Goodbye, girls. Thanks, now go off and do something else."
Omelianchik puffs, pauses and concurs. Alternate to the '88 Soviet Olympic squad, she had revitalized her routines as a member of the winning regional team at the '89 nationals. "In December there was a training camp, but I didn't know about it," she says. "Just by happenstance, I read in Sovyetsky Sport that nobody needed me anymore. It was really hard to come to terms with this. The worst thing was, they didn't even invite me."
Ever the compassionate teammate, Shushunova amplifies Omelianchik's lamentations with another logical validation. "Sport is like a narcotic that your body contantly needs," she comments. "It's dangerous to simply stop right away. If for five years you've been very active in elite sports, then to get your body back to a normal state takes 10 years -- twice as long. Otherwise, if you don't gradually decline, your whole system is disrupted."
All three ex-gymnasts continue to train (and competed successfully in the Cup of Buratino veterans' meet), and would welcome a welcome back to other age-appropriate international competitions. Shushunova still vaults a bold handspring front. "I want to go to the gym, because I'm sitting at the computer all day and my back hurts," she explains, hunched and typing furiously over an imaginary keyboard. "I need to stretch out."
Korloyov jokes that he's tired of the sport only "when 30 little kids need my help at once," but his motivation is vivid, even when he's asleep. "Sometimes I dream I can still do a triple off the rings, and it's very difficult to wake up," he snickers. Korolyov, who snapped his Achilles again at the first professional meet in '90, is again interested in such post-youth events.
Referred to as the "Olga Korbut of the 1980s," the mature Omelianchik of the '90s is as vivacious and adroit a performer as ever. "For the past seven years I've had dreams of competing, but in the dreams it's hard!," she says. "I wake up and I think of what I didn't do right in the dream, and what I could have done better."
Omelianchik, whose jubilant floor routine at the Novgorod meet had the audience shouting for an encore, longs for more veteran participation. "I wish there were two kinds of competitions -- one for difficulty, and another for veterans who perform with beauty for the pleasure of the spectators," she says.
Shushunova smiles and agrees. "But you have to award bonuses for age," she adds. "Did you see how pleased everyone was," Shushunova muses rhetorically, "when *women* competed?"
As coaches, judges and administrators for the generation following their heroic examples, Shushunova, Omelianchik and Korolyov have adamant viewpoints on rules and the constantly edited Code of Points. Korolyov simply says the age minimum of 16 for women is "fine," while Omelianchik believes the Code's latest difficulty obligations are pertinent with the times. "The Code gets more difficult with every Olympic cycle," she notes, "but the level of performance is rising all the time."
Shushunova, meanwhle, is certain the new Code manifests a return to integrity. "Under the old rules, some highly rated moves were like compulsories which beginners should be able to do," she explains. "Under the new Code, it's like we've gone back to the way it was 10 years ago, when 'real' elements of difficulty were rewarded. I think under the new Code, things will get back on track."
Despite the temptations to head westward, Shushunova, Omelianchik and Korolyov are loyal to their homegrown prospects. Shushunova's St. Petersburg is rallying to host the 2004 Olympics, and she credits much of the American team's success in Atlanta to the influx and influence of Russian coaches. "Getting to heaven using someone else's accomplishments," she sniffs.
Omelianchik's Ukraine has produced the past two Olympic all-around champions, Tatiana Gutsu and Lilia Podkopayeva. Korolyov, patriotically training boys at the school which molded him, is guardedly optimistic. "If I don't go abroad and continue to have enough money to train them," he states, "I can bring them up to the world level."
With that, the old friends toast to new champions, hopeful that steadfast fans are toasting to eternal ones.
IG contributor John Crumlish lives in Los Angeles. He thanks Beth Squires for interpreting, and Dmitry Trofimov for his hospitality in Novgorod.