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The Tragic Story of Elena Mukhina

The Tragic Story of Elena Mukhina, And Twisted History of Gymnastics ...

Research by producer John Kelly, from the podcast ...

We start with Elena Mukhina, a Soviet gymnast, who was born June 1, 1960 in Moscow, Russia. Both her parents died when she was five years old. She was raised by her grandmother, Anna Ivanovna, and took an interest gymnastics from an early age.

Up until 1975, Elena Mukhina was an unremarkable gymnast, and Soviet coaches largely ignored her. Then, two separate incidents brought her skills to the forefront for the Soviet team: Romanian domination of the Soviet gymnastics machine at the 1976 Olympics, and Mukhina's transition to working with men's coach Mikhail Klimenko, who transformed her into one of the most show-stopping gymnasts of her time. 

She burst onto the scene at the 1978 World Championship in France, and in one of the most stunning all-around performances in history, she won the gold medal, beating out Olympic Champions Nadia Comăneci (remember that name) and top-ranked Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim, among others. She also tied for the gold medal in the floor exercise, as well as winning the silver in balance beam and uneven bars.

She made history in this competition by unveiling her signature moves: a full-twisting layout Korbut Flip on bars; a tucked double back salto dismount on beam (a move that is still being used over three decades later); and a full-twisting double back somersault on floor dubbed the "Muchina." Yet, in spite of these innovations, Mukhina maintained the classic Soviet style, inspired by ballet movements and expressive lines.

She quickly established herself as an athlete to watch for at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Her career was on the rise, and she was widely touted as the next great gymnastics star - until 1979 when a broken leg left her out of several competitions. The recovery from that injury, combined with pressure to master a dangerous and difficult tumbling move (the Thomas salto) before the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympics, led to tragedy.

The Thomas Salto

She was pressured to add this element to her floor exercises by her own coach and other higher-ranking Soviet coaches. Mukhina soon realized the Thomas salto was extremely dangerous because it depended on being able to get enough height and speed to make all the flips and mid-air twists, and still land in-bounds with enough room to do the forward roll, and it took near-perfect timing to avoid either under-rotation (and landing on the chin) or over-rotation (and landing on the back of the head). 

In the 1991 documentary More than a Game, Mukhina spoke of trying to convince her coach that the Thomas salto was a dangerous element:

"…my injury could have been expected. It was an accident that could have been anticipated. It was inevitable. I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times but my coach Mikhail Klimenko just replied: people like me don't break their necks.

Alas, two weeks before the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympics, Elena Mikhina broke her neck practicing the move, leaving her permanently quadriplegic. Her first thought as she lay on the floor with her neck severely broken was, "Thank God, I won't be going to the Olympics."

The "Thomas salto" was eventually removed from the Code of Points as an allowed skill for women. It remained an allowed skill for men as of 2013, but it is now banned for both men and women.

SOVIET COVER UP

Mukhina was injured on July 3rd, but it would take nearly a week for news of the accident to spread to the Western press. The inconsistency from the Soviets was laughable.

But, the inconsistency wasn’t the root of the problem. The real issue was since the Soviets were unable to engage in a complete coverup, they pivoted to spinning the narrative instead. The new Soviet strategy had a distinct characteristic: blame Elena.

USSR Newspaper articles emphasized Mukhina “practicing difficult acrobatic routines by herself.” They had gone as far as to say she had done it “in disregard of orders from her coach.” None of which was true. Mukhina was being slandered in the press, but she was unable to defend herself, or have her version of events told to correct the narrative. 

There was one quote from a Soviet team official that was printed in both the Washington Post and the Associated Press. It is perhaps the most damning:

“She was only an Olympic team candidate anyway. We have plenty of others to take her place.”

Elena Mukhina eventually died of apparent complications from quadriplegia on December 22, 2006, at just 46 years old.

Now here's where it gets interesting …

Remember Nadia Comaneci? She was the Romanian who crushed the Russians in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. In those 1976 games at the age of just 14, Comăneci was the first gymnast in history to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 and won three gold medals.

After the 1976 Olympic games, Comaneci defended her all-around title at the 1977 world championships, but the Romanian Gymnastics Federation then removed Comaneci from her longtime coaches, the Károlyis. (keep them in mind)

Bella Karolyi

Al Bello. Getty Images.

She did not find this change positive, and was struggling with bodily changes as she grew older. Her gymnastics skills suffered, and she was unhappy. 

Just one year after her Olympic triumph, Nadia was in a hospital. “I was glad because I didn’t have to go to the gym,” she told Life Magazine. The news broke and was heard around the world. Nadia Comaneci, the sweet face of the Montreal Olympics, attempted to kill herself by drinking bleach.

Nadia Comaneci

Don Morley. Getty Images.

Comăneci survived, and competed in the 1978 World Championships in France, BUT, she was seven inches taller and 21 pounds heavier than she was in the 1976 Olympics. A fall from the uneven bars resulted in a fourth-place finish in the all-around, behind none other than the aforementioned Soviet, Elena Mukhina

So, Elena Mukhina beat Comaneci in the 1978 world championships, but never got to face her in the 1980 Moscow Olympics because she broke her neck two weeks before opening ceremonies. Comăneci went on to revive her career, and won two more gold medals at those 1980 Olympics. In total, Comăneci would win NINE Olympic medals.

So, about those 1980 Olympics that Elena Mukhina never competed in …

As a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States would boycott the Olympics. According to Comăneci, the Romanian government "touted the 1980 Olympic games as the first all-Communist Games." 

REMEMBER: THIS WAS A UNITED STATES BOYCOTT, KAROLYI AND COMANECI WERE ROMANIAN, SO THE GAMES WENT ON …

During the games, controversies arose concerning the scoring in the all-around and floor exercise competitions. Her coach, Bela Károlyi, protested that she was scored unfairly. His protests were captured on television. According to Comăneci's memoir, the Romanian government was upset about Károlyi's public behavior, feeling that he had humiliated them. 

Life became very difficult for Károlyi from that point forward, so he defected with his wife (Marta Eross, sometimes translates to Martha) to the United States in 1981. Since their arrival in the United States, Béla and his wife Márta Károlyi have been credited with transforming the coaching of gymnastics in the US, and bringing major international success.

Three years after his defection in 1981, he attended the 1984 Olympics as the personal coach of Mary Lou Retton, who won all-around champion, and Julianne McNamara, who won the gold medal for uneven bars. Olympic rules at that time did not permit a gymnast’s personal coach to be present on the competition floor. Only the actual national coach, who was Don Peters, and his assistant were allowed on the floor. 

Mary Lou Retton

Giphy Images.

So, Károlyi obtained a maintenance man's pass (a janitor job essentially) so he could be near Retton and McNamara during the competition. ABC television network commented on this controversy during its broadcasts and often showed Mary Lou Retton and Julianne McNamara running over to the stands to speak to Károlyi. 

During these 1984 Olympics, Károlyi did not even have an official position with the delegation, so he slept in his car, and ignored Peters' instructions by holding supplementary workouts for his gymnasts. 

Károlyi's clout in the United States increased after the victories of his students in 1984, but so did resentment against him. After Retton's success in 1984, Károlyi purchased the Karolyi RanchIn Texas, attracting many of the country's top gymnasts.

Karolyi Ranch

Giphy Images.

Shit, this is it:

Bob Levey. Getty Images.
Bob Levey. Getty Images.

Quick left turn on Karolyi Ranch:

The athletes stayed with Bela, Marta and their daughter, Andrea, in a cabin Bela renovated. He later built the gymnasts their own cabin to share — with an outhouse. 

“Who wants to go to an outhouse in the middle of the night?” said 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack-Marcella. “We would just pee off the side of the porch.” 

Over the next 10 years, the Karolyis would amass 2,000 acres, which Bela filled with horses, deer, dachshunds, camels, peacocks — and a bull named Gorbachev.

1988:

Bela, along with his wife Martha, devised a decentralized training system in which gymnasts would train with their individual coaches but come together for a week, once a month, to train as a team under the Karolyis’ guidance. The system was a hybrid of the siloed U.S. coaching structure and the centralized eastern European strategy that seemed to produce consistent results.

So now, heading into the 1988 Seol Olympics, the Karolyi's are at the helm of U.S. Gymnastics. This takes us to the sad story of Julissa Gomez.

Julissa Gomez was born in San Antonio, Texas, the older of two daughters born to a pair of former migrant farm workers from Laredo, Texas. Her parents, mother Otilia and father Ramiro, worked their way up from their farm working days to become a teacher and a welder, respectively, and struggled to keep their family together while giving 10-year-old budding gymnast Julissa a chance to train with renowned gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi in Houston. 

Getty Images. Getty Images.

At the 1986 U.S. Championships, she placed fourth in the all-around in the junior division and won a place on the U.S. National Team. By 1987, Gomez was considered a legitimate contender for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

However, In mid-1987, Gomez, wanted to move further up the rankings and was reportedly frustrated with Károlyi's sometimes abusive training methods (more on that later).

She decided to leave the Károlyis. Gomez's search for a new coach led her to select Al Fong:

Stephen Dunn. Getty Images.

In May 1988, several months before the Olympics, she traveled with her coach to Tokyo, Japan, to compete in the World Sports Fair. During the all-around competition, Gomez qualified for the vault finals. However, observers had noticed her struggle with the apparatus over the months leading up to the competition, including her former coach Béla Károlyi, past and present teammates, and even her present coach Al Fong. 

Gomez's technique on the extremely difficult Yurchenko vault had been described as "shaky at best," and Gomez was unable to perform the vault with any consistency during practices, sometimes missing her feet on the springboard. A teammate from Károlyi's ranch, Chelle Stack, later stated:

"You could tell it was not a safe vault for her to be doing. Someone along the way should have stopped her."

However, Julissa's coaches insisted that she needed to continue training and competing the Yurchenko vault in order to achieve high scores.

During warmups for the final, held on May 5, 1988, Gomez raced toward the vault on one of her practice runs, her foot slipped off the springboard and she slammed head first into the vaulting horse at high speed. The resulting impact instantly paralyzed her from the neck down. 

The video below is not of Julissa Gomez, but rather Russian gymnast Natalia Laschenova. It shows you what can do wrong on a vault like this:

A subsequent accident at a Japanese hospital, in which she became disconnected from her ventilator resulted in severe brain damage and left her in a coma. Gomez's family cared for her for three years before she succumbed to an infection and died in August, 1991. RIP

Now, Karoli wasn't her coach at the time, but she had apparently left him due to "abusive training methods," and had selected Al Fong as coach. 

Why did she select Al Fong? 

Fong was the trainer of another up-and-coming gymnast eager to make the 1988 Olympic team, Christy Henrich:

David Bresslauer. Shutterstock Images.

What happened to Christy Henrich?

Al Fong's elite gymnasts are renowned for the hours they train: one three-hour session at six in the morning, and then four more hours at five in the afternoon. On meet days they are in the gym to work out two hours before the meet begins. 

"He pushed them really hard," says Sandy Henrich, Christy's mother. "He wanted them to train no matter what. He didn't want them to get casts [for fractures] because it took away their muscle tone."

For intensity Fong met his match in Henrich. Her nickname at the club was E.T—Extra-Tough —and she more than lived up to it, competing with stress fractures and placing second all around in the U.S. nationals just three months after she broke a bone in her neck in 1989. 

"No one can force someone to train 32 hours a week unless they really want to," Fong said last week. "The sacrifices are too great. Christy worked five times harder than anybody else. She became so good because she worked so hard and had this kind of focus."

Henrich made sensational progress. In 1986, at age 14, she finished fifth at the national junior championships and competed in her first international meet, in Italy. In early 1988, when she finished 10th in the all-around competition at the senior nationals, her dream of making the U.S. team at that year's Olympics seemed attainable.

But Henrich didn't make the Olympic team in 1988. She missed a berth by 0.118 of a point.

It was around this same time, when a U.S. judge remarked that Henrich would have to lose weight if she wanted to make the Olympic team. Sandy Henrich recalls meeting her daughter at the airport upon her return: 

"The minute she got off the plane, the first words out of her mouth were that she had to lose weight. A judge had told her she was fat. I had a look of panic on my face. She weighed 90 pounds …"

Henrich began eating less and less, an apple a day at first, and then just a slice of apple—this while continuing to work out six, seven hours each day.

Henrich's boyfriend says Fong should have spotted the danger signals of anorexia and bulimia earlier:

"I find it hard to believe Al would not notice that every day Christy would work out, run five miles and come back. She truly loved Al and would have done anything for him."

Fong would say things to Henrich like:

"Tuck your stomach in. You look like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

Fong denies ever harping on Henrich's weight or making the Doughboy comment:

"It's just not true," he says. "I've heard those comments. Where in the world does that come from?"

As coach Bela Karolyi once put it:

"The young ones are the greatest little suckers in the world. They will follow you no matter what."

Eventually, her battle with anorexia took such a toll on her health that she was no longer strong enough to compete, and she was asked to leave. 

Despite many early treatments and hospitalizations, her weight deteriorated to 47 pounds. The hospital staff had to confine her to a wheelchair to prevent her from running everywhere in an attempt to lose weight.

Henrich died of multiple organ failure on July 26, 1994. RIP

American television channels broadcasting gymnastics competitions, such as NBC-TV and ABC-TV, made a concerted effort to stop commenting about or listing gymnasts' weights in captions in the mid-1990s. Television stations from other nations have adopted similar policies.

SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE KAROLY'S

In 1996, the Karolyis had become U.S. citizens and were preparing for the Atlanta Games with their own club athletes. But, instead of training 18-year-old Kerri Strug and 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu at their state-of-the-art gym in Houston, the Karolyis moved them onto the Texas Ranch full time. The isolated locale afforded the Karolyis 24/7 oversight of their gymnasts.

The Ranch became the official training base for USA Gymnastics in 2000, when Bela got the position he had always wanted: head director of the women’s national team. 

As national team coordinator, Bela mandated monthly camps at the Ranch and eventually entered a lucrative lease arrangement with USAG. But, the Bela experiment foundered at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and Martha replaced him in 2001. She encouraged fierce competition among team members, withheld praise and constantly evaluated their fitness and weight. Marta required athletes and their coaches to arrive at every practice, twice a day, looking competition-ready — full makeup, hair done, leotards and warm-ups pristine — and extended those exacting demands to the after-hours social scene at her home. 

Her system took a physical toll on athletes, but the U.S. won its first team gold at the 2003 world championships.

Under Bela, the Olympic selection process had become more subjective. He — and a three-person committee he oversaw — chose the team. In 2004, Marta added yet another step: a weeklong camp and competition at the Ranch. Temperatures reached 92 degrees, and the gym was not air-conditioned. 

The Karolyis invited local coaches and club gymnasts to watch, causing traffic jams on the dirt road leading to the facility. Afterward, Olympic hopefuls and their coaches waited two hours for the committee, headed by Martha, to announce the team. Martha later told journalists it took her only 10 minutes to choose, but she had to wait for the live TV window to open. 

As the gymnasts and coaches sat shoulder to shoulder, squeezed onto metal bleachers, Marta read out the names of the chosen. The TV cameras, however, focused on the faces of the girls who were not called.

In spring 2015, Marta, then 72, confirmed rumors that the 2016 Rio Olympics would be her last. The months leading up to Rio became something of a victory lap for her, as she sat for exit interviews and invited TV crews into her home. 

Ten days before the Olympics, USA Gymnastics announced it would buy the training facilities at the Ranch for $3 million, cementing the Karolyis’ legacy in the sport. 

In Rio, Martha oversaw the greatest team in U.S. history. The Final Five, as they called themselves, won the team gold. Simone Biles won the individual all-around, as well as gold medals on floor and vault. Aly Raisman took silver in the all-around and on floor. Martha gave one final sit-down interview, gushing about her incredible teams before concluding: 

“All good things must come to an end.”

A month after the Rio Olympics, an Indianapolis Star report revealed that two former athletes had accused national team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. That number now totals more than 500 — including several dozen national team members who said they were abused by Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch. 

In November 2016, a Texas Ranger and a detective with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office showed up at the Ranch and were turned away by a USA Gymnastics employee, Amy White. 

She and two other USA Gymnastics officials later told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that USAG president Steve Penny had instructed her to remove any medical records bearing Nassar’s name and deliver them to him at the federation’s offices. The authorities returned to the Ranch the following day with a search warrant, but the records were missing, and to date, have not been found.

In May 2017, USA Gymnastics called off its $3 million purchase of the Ranch but continued to send hundreds of athletes there for training camps. Then, in January 2018, the great Simone Biles added her name to the growing list of survivors of Nassar's abuse. 

On Twitter, she wrote: 

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”

Three days later, USA Gymnastics ordered the facility closed permanently, effectively cutting ties with the Karolyis and their Ranch.

The Karolyis were never charged with a criminal offense but are named in at least a dozen civil lawsuits. They have mostly remained out of public view, maintaining their innocence and ignorance. 

In 2018, they sued USA Gymnastics for backing out of the deal to buy their property. Today, the gyms, once full of Olympic hopefuls, are empty. The power is off. The animals are gone. The Karolyis, along with daughter Andrea and her family, still live at the Ranch.

In total, Károlyi has coached nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists, and six U.S. national champions. Béla Károlyi was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997. Béla and Márta Károlyi as a coaching team were inducted into the US Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2000.

Larry Nassir was sentenced 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes, capping an extraordinary seven-day hearing in 2018, that drew more than 150 young women to publicly confront him and speak of their abuse.

Rich Pedroncelli. Shutterstock Images.

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