When Anastasia Grishina and Viktoriya Komova first appeared on the scene as juniors fans were excited. They were excited both by the continuing depth of the Russian juniors but also the wonderful contrast between the two. One was a brilliant young athlete, capable of extraordinary, difficult feats at a young age. The other was not quite as advanced in difficulty but stood out as a delightfully elegant, leggy little dancer. Would they both emerge as the next big thing of Russian gymnastics? Would one outdo the other when they hit their senior years? Many assumed the superstar would be Komova, with her gorgeous form and high levels of difficulty. She would also turn senior earlier. But, as we have learnt what explodes early in gymnastic does not always stay alight. Early difficulty can lead to early burnout or injury and both have suffered injuries. It remains to be seen if they both, with their contrasting talents, will prevail.
In fact, this contrast in the nation’s two most exciting gymnasts seemed eerily familiar. Russia has had a habit of providing us with these dual, dueling talents over time.
Here are four more ‘chalk and cheese’ partnerships of Russian and Soviet gymnastics;
The Komova vs. Grishina debate was so, so reminiscent of the rise of Aliya Mustafina and Tatiana Nabieva on the junior scene oh so long ago (long in ‘gymnastics years’!). As a baby gymnast, Nabieva, the snub-nosed cutie was already capable of the big tricks and reigned in international competition. Her partner in crime, Mustafina was instead renowned for her elegance and style and some wondered if she would ever achieve the difficulty to match her “whoopsie I accidentally did a TTY’ team mate in the future. Strangely, after an absence to injury, Mustafina re-emerged, stronger and more dynamic and capable of a difficulty that exceeded early fans’ expectation. And while Nabieva continued to wow with the big skills, she also began to lose the consistency that had made her a star of her junior years.
The emergence of Produnova and Khorkina as teammates was a partnership to behold. On one hand was Khorkina, the elemental, elegant and fragile-looking gymnast who found skills to match her ill-fitting body type. On the other hand we had Produnova, the warrior princess of the Russian team who dared the world with the difficult skills, showing consistency and strength of mind. They complemented each other perfectly. This was extreme Nastia and Shawn without the fan-fighting over who was better. Instead, their contrasts were appreciated. Never, ever has their been a moment so infused with drama as when the the skinny Khorkina and the muscle-bound Produnova tore their medals from their necks in Sydney. Khorkina not only rose to stardom first, she also outstayed Produnova(and everyone else!) in the sport.
Although bred in the Soviet gymnastics factory, they were anything but cookie cutter. One was a tough, original performer who brought new skills, new difficulty and an edge of toughness to the Soviet gymnastics style, a style which would begin to dominate the sport. The other was a charmer, a teeny butterfly whose talent for difficulty was great but less lauded than her charismatic talent for performance. When they shared the top of the podium at the 1985 World Championships, it was like two opposite ends of the spectrum would finally meet. It was Shushunova who lasted the distance, however, adding another World AA title and an Olympic AA title to her name in the years that followed while Omelianchik was the Olympic alternate. It was Omelianchik who was beloved, though.
This was the first, ultimate chalk and cheese competitive partnership, and the one that would herald the greatest shift in gymnastics history. Tourischeva was the archetype of the old gymnast; elegant, regal, mature- her gymnastics wasn’t as difficult, but everything she did was beautiful and polished. Then, along came Korbut, with a new brand of power and daring and some mercurial, heart-on-her-sleeve performances. While she wasn’t able to challenge her adversary and team mate, her contrasting style of gymnastics would be the one to change the sport.
Khorkina and Produnova photo (with Canada’s Kate Richardson) courtesy of Grace Chiu (her website).
Cover photo of Komova and Grishina courtesy of www.gymbox.net.