Friday, July 13, 2012

Tatiana Lysenko's Mature Perspective

Despite beating my favorite Shannon Miller at the 1992 Olympics for the gold medal in the balance beam final, I've pretty much always loved Tatiana Lysenko. She was stylish and performed with so much difficulty--much more than she needed at the time. And many years later when I learned that she is Jewish, I was proud to mentally welcome her to the Tribe of Jewish gymnasts. She's pretty much the best we've ever had. (I was also pleased to see that we both had a similar sort of bushy, unruly hair.)



Gymnastike caught up with her twenty years after Olympic performance in Barcelona and it's evident that she remains as poised as she ever was on the balance beam.

She now lives in San Francisco and works as a lawyer. A lawyah!

It always pleases me when I hear about gymnasts such as Amy Chow, Kerri Strug, and Lysenko--great champions all--who have managed to move onto careers out of the gymnastics sphere. This is not meant as a criticism of those that don't. That many elites stay with a sport in their professional lives is proof that they may have been among the lucky ones who have found their lifelong passion at a young age. But it's just nice to see gymnasts move into careers where their youthful accomplishments don't matter.

Lysenko also seems to be well-adjusted with a healthy perspective on the difficult training of her youth. As an adult, she has an appreciation of the process that made her an Olympic champion. I imagine that training as an elite in the ultra-competitive Soviet system under the tutelage of Oleg Ostapenko couldn't have been easy.

But fortunately for Lysenko, her family had the right attitude about gymnastics and helped her keep things in perspective. After reading this interview, watching Aly Raisman's documentary, and Dominique Mocean's memoir Off Balance, the idea that keeps being driven home is how important the family is in this high-level training, high stress situations.

For Raisman and Lysenko, their families countered these stresses of gymnastics, buffering the athletes from the pressure. I can't imagine that either Raisman's or Lysenko's training was that much easier than Moceanu's during her time at the Karolyis. I think these stories demonstrate how important a part the family plays in the overall development of a female gymnast. A supportive one that acts a defense against the harshness of the elite world can be a tremendous asset. Parents that collude with the sport will make the life of a teen athlete hellish.

Not that I in any way consider the Karolyis to be angelic or their training methods to be benign, but I don't think they're the cardboard villains she makes them out to be. Rather, in Moceanu's book, the biggest culprit seems to be not gymnastics or the Karolyis but a stage father who didn't act as a buffer for his child. (And a mother, who was cowed by her domineering husband, didn't intervene and protect her.) And if it's unfair to lay the blame solely on the shoulders of the family, I think it would also be unfair to say that harsh coaching and the sport was the root of Moceanu's unhappiness. After all, other gymnasts have had a different perspective on the Karolyis.  

Moceanu, at times, seems to come to some sort of understanding of her parents' actions and motivations as she has gotten older largely because she has had to. Those people are her parents and no one wants to go through life angry and resentful of their family. As for former coaches who are not as important to your emotional well-being and your future--it's not nearly as urgent to try to understand their perspectives because once you leave the sport behind, you can leave them behind, too.

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