The Soviet athlete was destined to regain the throne of the sport for her country, but a few weeks before the 1980 Moscow Olympics she suffered a terrible fall. She died at the age of 46.
The situation that Simone Biles is living and exposed makes one think of the pressure that elite athletes receive from their federations to achieve their goals to the maximum: “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,” said the American. And it dusts off old stories. Like that of Elena Mukhina, the athlete who was called to make great history in artistic gymnastics.
The Soviet athlete had overcome a difficult childhood and had found her place in the world in sport. In the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, she was the great candidate to dethrone Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. But just two weeks before the big event, she became a quadriplegic at the age of 20 when she fell on her neck during a too-demanding exercise. Her story is heartbreaking.
At the 1978 World Championships, Mukhina had beaten Comaneci, Olympic gold medalist at Montreal 1976. She was the hope to bring glory back to the Soviet Union. That was what she had been preparing for for years. However, her severe neck injury in training ended her career and left her in a wheelchair for the rest of her days. She was the symbol of the pressure of a physically and emotionally abusive regime, which sought success at any cost.
The Biggest Tragedy in Gymnastics History (Story of Elena Mukhina)
Born on June 1, 1960 in Moscow, Mukhina grew up without her father, who abandoned the family when she was just two years old, and without her mother, who died three years later in a fire. She was raised by her grandmother and took refuge in gymnastics. And when a coach from the CSKA club in the Russian capital visited her school to look for girls with talent for that discipline, she, at the age of 12, was one of the chosen ones.
Talented and dedicated, she stood out among her classmates. But it wasn’t until she was 14 that she began training under Mikhail Klimenko that she made a leap in quality. Mukhina incorporated extensive and demanding sessions, which gave her no respite and forced her to push her body to the limit.
She became a different kind of gymnast, capable of performing complex but equally elegant movements and executing combinations of elements that were almost impossible for other athletes.
It came as no surprise that after Comaneci swept the board in Montreal 1976, winning three golds, a silver and a bronze for Romania and unleashing a crisis in Soviet gymnastics, everyone’s eyes were on Mukhina.
For the communist regime, which saw sporting success as an exhibition of strength and a tool to sustain its political power, the petite gymnast with blonde hair, big blue eyes and a sad look was the only one with the potential to put that country back at the top of world sport.
With Moscow ’80 as the ultimate goal and under the directives of the Soviet government authorities, Klimenko further intensified Mukhina’s training sessions and began to incorporate more and more elements of men’s gymnastics into the routines on the different apparatuses.
Elena’s hard – and sometimes excessive – work bore its first important fruits at the 1977 European Championships in Prague, where the Russian scored her first victories over Comaneci. She took gold on beam, floor and uneven bars, silver in the all-around and bronze on vault.
The following year, Mukhina made her first international breakthrough. At the 1978 Strasbourg World Championships, she won the all-around title and led the Soviet team to the gold medal in the team event, leaving Comaneci and Romania on the second step of the podium. In that tournament, she also won gold on floor and silver on bars and beam.
Mukhina had little time to enjoy her conquest. The Moscow Olympics were less than a year away and a defeat at the hands of the Romanians on home soil was something the gymnastics federation and the government of the former USSR did not even want to imagine.
Klimenko and Elena began to work even harder, adding more and more difficulty to their routines. One of the elements that the coach introduced on the floor was the “Thomas jump,” an exercise of such difficulty that only men performed it, because if it was not executed with sufficient height and speed, there was a risk of serious injury.
And it also required perfect timing to land with enough time to perform the final forward roll and not hit your pear or head.
Years after she was injured, Mukhina admitted that she never felt comfortable performing that jump and that she told her coach many times, but he pressured her to keep trying because he claimed it was the key to ensuring success in Moscow.
In late 1979, while preparing for the World Championships in the United States, Mukhina suffered a broken leg and spent a month and a half in a cast. At the tournament on U.S. soil, Romania regained the team gold, and concern grew in the former Soviet Union about what might happen in Moscow 1980.
Pressure grew for Mukhina to return to training as soon as possible. To speed up times, she was even forced to undergo surgery on her leg to help her bones recover faster. The gymnast, who had already experienced a similar situation in 1975 after a cervical injury, returned to work much earlier than doctors recommended.
“In terms of risk, a human life is worth little compared to the prestige of the nation. We have been taught to believe this since childhood,” Elena commented much later, now confined to a wheelchair.
Two weeks before the opening of the Olympics, Mukhina was practicing her floor routine when she suffered the accident that ended her career. The injured leg, which was not yet fully recovered, did not allow her to take sufficient height or perform the full rotation, and the athlete landed with her chin on the floor.
The diagnosis, complete fracture of the cervical vertebrae, which meant complete paralysis from the neck down, ended her Olympic dreams and her career and changed her life forever. He was 20 years old.
“My injury could have been anticipated. Everyone knew I wasn’t ready for that jump and kept silent. No one stopped to tell me to stop. I had said more than once that I was going to break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself a lot several times, but he (Klimenko) simply answered me: ‘Gymnasts like you don’t break their necks,'” Elena said a couple of years later, in an interview with her country’s media.
Although she also took some of the blame. “I was stupid. All I wanted was to justify the trust they had placed in me and to be a heroine.”
As a result of her injury and other serious injuries that occurred at the time, the “Thomas vault” was banned for women’s gymnastics. A few years ago it was also eliminated from the men’s scoring system.
The seriousness of Mukhina’s condition was not immediately known. The Russian federation took care to conceal what had happened and reported that Elena would miss the Moscow Games because she was recovering from an injury, but would soon return to compete.
It was not until almost a year later that it became known that the gymnast had become a quadriplegic. And even then the federation accused her of “attempting an exercise for which she was not prepared”.
Mukhina lived the rest of her life in a wheelchair, under the care of her grandmother. During the first year after she was injured, she underwent several experimental treatments to try to regain mobility, but eventually decided to accept her fate.
“I realized that if I wanted to live, I had to radically change my attitude. Not to envy others and learn to enjoy what was available to me,” said the man who became interested in helping and advising young gymnasts and even became a commentator on Russian television.
In 1981, the International Olympic Committee awarded him the Silver Olympic Order, the second highest distinction given by that organization. It was not for her contribution to gymnastics, but for “the courageous way in which she faced her paralysis and rebuilt her life”.
Mukhina died on December 22, 2006, at the age of 46, from heart complications resulting from her paralysis. She never became a sporting legend, as many predicted during the early years of her career, but she did leave her mark on gymnastics.
For a brief time, he was the greatest threat to Nadia Comaneci’s reign. And she became the visible face of a Soviet regime obsessed with success at any cost. She acknowledged this herself, after being crowned world champion in 1978, when she said: “They train us to be the best in the world. If we fail to be the best among the best, all the effort is worthless”.