Back in the days of the Soviet Union, the women's gymnastics competition was highly predictable — the Soviet squad won the team gold medal at every Olympics it participated in.
Even when Nadia Comaneci was reeling off perfect 10s at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, she and her Romanian teammates had to settle for second in the team competition behind the legendary Olga Korbut and her Soviet comrades.
But since the Soviet breakup two decades ago, Russian gymnasts have fallen on hard times. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Russian women didn't bring home a single medal in artistic gymnastics, though the Russians did take the team and individual golds in rhythmic gymnastics.
The young women and coaches of Russia's team today are going through a painful rebuilding process as they prepare for the games this summer in London, which are barely three months away.
At a well-appointed Sports Ministry complex outside Moscow, a dozen Russian gymnasts begin their practice on a recent day with slow stretches and splits.
On cue from their coach, the girls stand on their hands and bounce across the gym mat in rows — their bodies pencil straight, bandaged feet and ankles aloft. Then, three abreast, they whiz by in a series of somersaults and back flips before dispersing to practice on the various equipment.
Tiny tweens from the junior team encourage each other as they take turns flipping and flying on the uneven parallel bars.
The uneven bar routine is a strong point for Russia's Aliya Mustafina — the 2010 all-around world champion. While Mustafina did well at the recent All-Russia championship, she had to trim down her program because of a torn cruciate ligament and knee surgery last year.
Capitalizing On Elegance
Women's head coach Alexander Alexandrov is worried.
Because of injuries, Mustafina and her teammate Victoria Komova can't currently manage the 2 1/2-turn vault he expects the Americans will be showing off in London.
Mustafina and Komova are regarded as Russia's best hopes for gold, and Alexandrov doesn't want to push them too hard, too fast.
This morning, just days after the Russian nationals, the dark-haired Mustafina isn't pushing herself either. She winces after a back flip on the mat and spends a long time testing her strength on the balance beam before finally managing a cartwheel.
Her coach acknowledges his girls don't have the strength and power of the Americans.
"American gymnasts are more athletic now. They have their commercial gyms and every coach has to make money, so he can't afford to keep a big staff with special trainers for choreography," Alexandrov says. "Here, we're supported by the state, and we've got choreographers, so our girls are more elegant.
Alexandrov is in a good position to make that comparison. After a career as a top coach in Russia, he spent 15 years in Houston and Florida, and worked with American Olympian Dominique Moceanu.
Alexandrov returned home four years ago, and last fall coached the Russian women to second place, just behind the Americans, at the World Championships in Tokyo.
Cautious Optimism For London
The oldest member of his team, Ksenia Afanasyeva, took first place in Tokyo in the floor exercise. Now 20, she has come back again and again from injuries she's suffered since being recruited as a gymnast in kindergarten.
She spent a long time in treatment for a back injury and lists the surgeries she had on her knee, ankle and elbow.
But Afanasyeva is in good shape on this morning. She, Mustafina and Komova are considered likely picks for the Olympic team, to be finalized just before the games open in July.
Coach Alexandrov says his team's odds for medals in London are roughly 50-50. He thinks their best chance is on the uneven bars. The vault will be a problem, he repeats, as the Russians go up against China, America and Romania, the teams that won medals in Beijing.
A Long Tradition
Back in 1956, Lidia Kalinina Ivanova was on the Soviet gymnastics team that won Olympic gold in Australia. She has been coaching and judging the sport ever since.
In an interview in downtown Moscow, Ivanova takes the long view, from the years of Soviet triumphs to the breakup of the USSR and the loss of top athletes in republics beyond Russia.
The Soviet sports establishment was renowned for the money and resources it poured into training its elite athletes — as well as notorious for the strict training regime and discipline. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union went the funding and institutions that supported that system.
The biggest blow, Ivanova says, was the exodus of coaches like Alexandrov, who had to make a living and took their knowledge and skills to the West.
But given new funding the team has received from Russia's big VTB bank, Ivanova is optimistic about London.
"Our women's team has very good chances," she says. "You Americans should be getting nervous."
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