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Natalia Yurchenko - an exclusive interview



Natalia wins gold at the World Championships in Budapest, 1983


1983 World Champion Natalia Yurchenko speaks directly to readers of RRG in this exclusive interview.  

Early years:
In the summer of 1976, at the age of 11, I was accepted to a sports boarding school in Rostov-on-Don. I remember it was a 4-level building with the cafeteria on the first floor, academic classrooms on the second floor, rooms for girls on the third floor and rooms for boys on the fourth floor. There was one TV on the ground floor and the kids who stayed at school over the summer (about 20-30 kids), were able to watch the Olympics. Nadia Comaneci’s outstanding performance made us feel jealous because usually the Soviets were the unbeatable favorites. We did feel some relief with amazing performances from Nellie Kim and Ludmilla Tourischeva. Besides Ludmilla, there was a gymnast from Rostov-on-Don, Svetlana Grozdova! And, we were really thrilled to see the very little and cute Maria Filatova. But, the most surprising thing was to see the Romania team with their clean, expressive and very aggressive gymnastics! Even more surprising was to see Vladislav Rastorotsky visit one of our practices just a few weeks later. I knew that I was more advanced than the other girls in my group. So, I had a feeling that he may pick me. 

The first time being in a famous gym was something unforgettable!! It was really the next level of what we'd seen on TV. Many of the girls could do tricks that none of the Olympians could do. Practice started on the trampoline into the pit every day. Double somersaults with twists forward and back, double and triple twisting front and back, triple front and back tucks were the top and something only the bravest could achieve. It was the same for the other events. When I saw the back handspring layout step-out on beam, I was shocked. I could not even imagine such a thing was possible. Everything was very intensive - conditioning, warm-up, tumbling, working on bars and beam - just go, go, go! There were pits, mats and safety pads everywhere. When trying new things, they made sure it was safe and not painful to fall. 
Natalia at the age of 7, when she began gymnastics

Rastorotsky's idea of winning was to develop his athletes with signature moves to be different from other gymnasts. It was a great time in gymnastics with a lot of innovations and creative coaches. I think there was more competition between coaches for being the most innovative. I was probably the most brave, hardworking and coachable kid. That was my talent. Information about how my signature moves were created can be found on my Web site (Yurchenko vault and Yurchenko loop). Rastorotsky was only my coach at Rostov-on-Don with support from assistants. The most helpful was my former teammate Irina Bendasova. Irina now lives in the Unites States and is married to Vladimir Artemev (father of Alexander "Sasha" Artemev).

Artistry

We were raised in our country in a time when almost every girl dreamed about being a ballerina. We were all under classical culture - music, dance, art and literature. There were only "appropriate" TV shows and movies, no advertisements. I remember that I was collecting reproductions of famous paintings. Those were my treasures. We read a lot of books about the most influential people in the world. We were striving to become the best in everything we did (although, maybe I'm just speaking for myself). So, artistry in gymnastics was as equally necessary as being a trickster. Unfortunately, I felt that I struggled with expression with music. I always loved, loved, loved my ballet class which was 1 hour every day - only classical bar, middle, adagio and jump combinations. It was a joy! But, I was never as natural looking as some gymnasts of my time like Natalia Shaposhnikova. I knew I was never going to be like her. Her floor routine "Nutcracker" was the reason I stuck with gymnastics! I was trying my hardest to develop dance basics while staying true to myself - shy but confident, quiet and inconversable but full of deep feelings inside. I had several choreographers during my career and I loved them all! They were all very interesting and emotional people who taught me how to put soul into the dance. My main choreographer, Alexandr Karasev from "Dinamo" Rostov gave me the most knowledge of classical ballet. The funny thing was that he had me work on the leap combinations from many of the male parts.
Natalia during the beam compulsory, 1983 Worlds

Favorite performances

My favorite performance was the 1982 World Cup. 1982 was an amazing year for me. I was finally able to hit all four events at several meets which is something I'd struggled with previously. I was in very good competitive shape for the World Cup, both physically and mentally. I felt confident and really enjoyed that meet which was my first appearance on a big, international stage. I was over excited and felt very confident. However, there were some problems with my participation at the World Cup due to the rules - only World Championship participants were allowed to compete. There were some protests about my participation from other country officials. I actually don't know how things were resolved. Our coaches and staff were so good and never told me about the problem. So, at the time, I never knew there was one.  Everything went so well on the podium it was beyond anything we could have imagined. Ending in first place and sharing the giant World Cup with my favorite person on the team and my very best friend Olga Bicherova. What could be better! 

My second favorite tournament was the 1985 World Universiade in Kobe Japan. I kind of knew that I would never get to compete at the Olympics so I felt the Universaide was my "mini Olympics". The atmosphere at the student's village was amazing. The gym podium, the audience and the ability to compete against Ecaterina Szabo, Lavinia Agache and other world class gymnasts made this tournament unforgettable. We made friends with so many different athletes from all over the world. Every evening there were the celebrations for the new medalists with the entire delegation. I enjoyed every moment!

Soviet system

The most special and unique aspect of the Soviet system was selection. To make any of the competitive sports teams you had to match a lot of criteria, both physically and mentally, work ethic and championship character. For gymnastics, body type, flexibility, toe point, feet, knee structure, level of natural strength as well as the height and body type of the gymnast's parents were all factors. Coordination was simply checked by making kids run fast - you see right away if it looks proper and natural. So, coaches selected nearly perfect kids and strove to make them be the best. 

Gymnastics has changed a lot since my time. For better or for worse? It has been a difficult adjustment to the new rules. But, I really like that tricks are now rewarded. I think that makes for more fair scoring - combining difficulty and execution is very logical and clear. I like that Russian gymnastics has stuck with what gymnastics has to be - Artistic! Although they were struggling for a while with the lack of high difficulty scores. But, I see these beautiful gymnasts and feel very proud of how they are carrying our Soviet/Russian traditions through the history of this amazing sport. Artistry, execution and passion are what make Russian gymnastics so unique. I do not know what they need to improve right now. They always capture your attention even if they fail or suffer. I love them for who they are. Maybe we should just enjoy watching them.

After retirement

After retirement in 1986, I started coaching in my home gym, assisting Vladislav Rastorotsky. We had several girls on the Junior National Team so I spent some more time on Round Lake. When I came to the United States, I started working for Lehigh Valley Sports Academy in Allentown PA. It was a very new club so I had to start from ground zero. I remember my first pre-team with 4, 5 and 6 year old gymnasts. They were so cute and worked so hard. I enjoyed every minute in the gym. I learned a lot with them and I'm glad I was able to do everything from developing children to coaching at a high competitive level. We competed through all levels of the USA Gymnastics program - State, Regional and National Junior Olympics. I am very proud of my first Elite gymnast Annette Miele who made the Junior National team in 2008 and is now competing for the University of Michigan on a full ride scholarship. I am very proud of all of my gymnasts who are now competing for various universities or working as coaches and who remember being on our team as the best time of their lives. 

After Lehigh, I worked for Parkettes for a while. It was much different from what I did myself. But, I learned a lot from Donna and Bill Strauss and I am grateful for that experience. Due to family matters, I took a break from coaching in the U.S. and had to go back to Russia for several years.  While in Russia, I considered working at Round Lake with the Junior National Team. But, I never did start working there. Why? Times changed, I changed. My mentality changed and my life priorities are different now. 

If I were coaching in Russia

What would I change if I were a National Team coach in Russia? It is hard to say. There is a lot of drama in a gymnast coach relationship and a lot of suffering. But, maybe that is the way to produce beautiful gymnasts. In Russia, we have an expression: "The artist has to be hungry and suffer to be able to create a piece of art that will touch your soul". So, this is the way to live our lives, very emotionally, sometimes over the top. We are who we are.

Natalia and her family, daughter Olya and husband Igor, in 2007
Current…

I feel that I have unfinished business in coaching and I’m exciting to be building a new team at my Chicago-based gym C.I.T.Y Club Gymnastics Academy ().
Along with my partners, I just opened
my first gym called C.I.T.Y. Club Gymnastics Academy - International Team
Yurchenko, located in the heart of Chicago, Illinois which
I am extremely excited about! At this gym, I am planning to build a
very serious and strong gymnastics program focussing on Optional, TOPs and Elite programs. This is not going to happen overnight. So, my team is
ready for a long, hard journey. Wish us success!

In addition, with another partner, I am building a company called Yurchenko Gymnastics which will soon be releasing a new collection of gymnastics gear. Our first appearance will be at Chicago Style 2016 which will be held from February 12-14, 2016 at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago."

Thank you!
Natalia Yurchenko

Natalia with the Team Yurchenko gymnasts and coaches, Chicago IL, C,I.T.Y Club Gymnastics Academy, September 2015


Natalia, I (and all RRG readers) would like to thank you and Kerry for all your work in replying to my (very long) questions - and for the use of the pictures from your website!  We wish you much success in the future and will continue to think of you and your wonderful gymnastics as you progress in your life. Hope to see you at a competition soon!

You can read an appreciation of Natalia's gymnastics here.

Comments

  1. Awwww Queen Elizabeth YOU INTERVIEWED A LEGEND!!!!! That's really so kind of Natalia to share her career and thoughts with us, and of course, a big THANK YOU to you to let us know much more about her. I wonder how did you make it? Do you personally know her?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Coach Vladiir Zaglada made the introduction :-)

      Delete
    2. LOL our well-connected QE!!!! Can't wait for your next interview! Btw any updates on the Russians? I am particularly worried of their tactics for 2016, the past quad had not been a smooth transition, and it really seems like they can't go without Aliya who provides them with consistency and leadership, yet Aliya is not invincible and she too is experiencing physical issues, I feel like she is getting more and more tired. Wana hear from an expert like you on what they are planning for Rio.

      Delete
    3. To be honest dear Yellowbanana I am avoiding commenting on this until closer to the time, when there is more concrete information. An interview with Sergei Starkin has just appeared and I am appealing for a translation - http://youtu.be/aL8rnDFwO6I. Can anyone help, please?

      It may as well be about his interest in origami ...

      If the four Olympic veterans make it to Rio in good form, the fifth place will be taken by whoever can fill in the weak spots best. Look out for the ambitious Spiridonova to make improvements. Andrei Rodionenko has said that this year they may be able to accommodate a one-piece specialist - could this mean beam? (Kharenkova/Tutkhalyan have a chance there if they can achieve reliability.) Or will Melnikova be necessary? Where they finish depends on (a) the availability of all the A-listers (b) the team's ability to stay on the apparatus, or in bounds on floor and (c) what the other teams are doing. If Biles does not compete, the game is blown right open and there could be a surprise in the team competition. I am expecting Romania and China to be strong.
      Nothing ground breaking or unobvious here. Don't speculate - it is too soon. Just support the gymnasts!

      Delete
  2. Does anyone have a link to a video of Natalia Shaposhnikova's "Nutcracker" floor routine she references? I tried to look it up on youtube but came up with "Carmen"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      I will look up, could it be the 1976 music?
      In the meantime, you might like this:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h3hpL-U7kg

      Delete

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