Controversial Soviet Gold Medalist Tatiana Gutsu Reflects from West Bloomfield
In a rare interview, 1992 double Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Tatiana Gutsu talked to DeadlineDetroit.com’s Sandra Svoboda. An edited transcript of the interview appears below the column.
With her second Olympic gold medal around her neck, then 15-year-old Soviet gymnast Tatiana Gutsu, who became a lightning rod of controversy in the 1992 Olympics, stepped off of the awards podium and into the rest of her life.
While gymnasts like Michigan’s Jordyn Wieber and the rest of the “Fierce Five” of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in London have agents, sponsor contracts and a national tour this fall, Gutsu was unprepared for any life outside of the pursuit of medals and personal achievement on the gymnastics stage.
Her two decades of post-competition life have been a jumble of moves, short-term jobs and long-term adjustment.
Now 35 and still graceful, slender and intense, Gutsu lives in West Bloomfield -- a coaching gig brought her here - where she’s raising her 3-year-old son, living with her elderly parents who immigrated from Ukraine last year and planning some business ventures that she hopes to announce this fall.
This week she’s watching the London Games – especially the Americans and the Russians who are intensely competing in team competition Tuesday and in another week of individual events. She’s excited for the young women, but being a spectator causes her to reflect and hope for more personal healing. Her Olympics brought her victory and glory but little long-term opportunity or personal peace until recently.
“I have the feeling and the memory and it takes me back in time,” she said after the Opening Ceremony. “I could feel like was there, like back when I was a gymnast.”
Cold War Competition
The last prodigy of the Soviet Union’s fabled gymnastics program, Gutsu was the lightning rod of the women’s event at the 1992 games in Barcelona. Having won nearly every meet she had entered in the immediate lead up to the Games, she was expected to contend with the American, Romanian and Chinese stars for all-around gold. Gutsu was arguably the most dynamic performer as her team convincingly won the team competition ahead of Romania and the United States in those games.
But like Michigan’s Wieber last weekend, Gutsu failed to qualify for the women’s individual all-around competition during the team qualifying session.
While Wieber’s exclusion was because her near-flawless performance was judged to be not as high-scoring as two of her teammates – and only two per country move on under today’s rules – Gutsu’s failure was her own. She lost her chance at the individual all-around, the sport’s highest honor when she fell off the balance beam during the preliminary team competition. Her mistake came on one of the most difficult mounts being done: a round off onto a springboard punched backward into a back flip onto the beam.
After that disaster, she knew she had missed her chance at all-around gold, a goal she had set for herself as a six-year-old when she was first accepted into the Soviet sports program.
Throughout its broadcast during those games, NBC repeatedly carried the images of Gutsu’s tearful collapse into the arms of teammates who together were competing one last time as the “Unified Team.”
“It was an unforgettable mistake,” she says. “I felt so ashamed and so sad at the same time. I wanted to disappear.”
Then in a move still hotly discussed by gymnastics fans internationally, the Soviets announced an “injury” to the gymnast who had beaten Gutsu: Roza Galieva.
Uzbek and Russian by heritage, Galieva was the tiniest and youngest of Gutsu’s teammates. The head coach, Alexander Alexandrov told the girls Gutsu would compete. Galieva had a knee injury, he would say.
With her second chance in front of her, Gutsu made the most of it. She and American Shannon Miller battled to a finish that was ultimately just 0.012 different with Gutsu ahead. Her daredevil routines were packed with tricks that would make her competitive by today's standards.
Her gold medal was the first for the independent Ukraine, and when her new country’s anthem played for her, it was a surprise. She had expected the Soviet music.
For years to come, some gymnastics fans would cry foul, characterizing Gutsu’s substitution for Galieva as Cold War trickery. Some called for her to give her medal to Galieva.
Gutsu still finds herself defending her performance and her role -- or lack of one -- in the roster change.
“In what position, at 15 years old, did I have a right to say anything?” she says today. “You are an athlete and you are performing. You are there to show your best to the audience, to the judges, to yourself.”
After the Barcelona games, the silver medalist Miller would go on to be America’s most decorated gymnast. She took home five medals from Spain, won back-to-back individual world all-around titles in the two years following Barcelona and eventually tallied nine world medals. She led the American women’s team – the “Magnificent Seven” to gold in Atlanta and also claimed the balance beam title there.
She had commercial endorsements and continues in the sport now with commentary gigs, coaching clinics and a company, Shannon Miller Lifestyle.
Gutsu meanwhile returned home to Ukraine, took a little time to relax, did some post-Olympic exhibitions and competed one last time in Germany at the end of 1992. She missed her teammates, the world-class facilities of the Soviet-era training center and the motivation of Olympic gold. She had no commercial advantage from her accomplishments, and the system she had grown up in no longer existed. She had trouble adjusting.
And as the Soviet borders opened following the empire’s dissolution, many of the coaches streamed through them to better funded western programs. (Two of the five members of this year’s American women’s Olympic team are coached by former Soviet-bloc gymnasts and coaches.)
In 1994 at 17, Gutsu followed her Ukrainian coaches to New Orleans where they set up a gym. When she turned 18, she left, feeling like she needed to “grow up” on her own. She appeared at gymnastics camps and clinics around the United States, finally settling in Michigan where she plans to stay.
“I like everything here. Besides the Ukrainian community, we have good schools. People remind me a little bit of my hometown of Odessa,” she says. “I think why I stay here is because of the people. People are very welcoming.”
Unlike the American gymnasts of past games who are commentating, blogging and collecting on sponsor dollars at the London competition, Gutsu hasn’t attended any subsequent Olympics venues.
“I need to heal here,” she says, planting her hand on her heart.
Still, she praises the sport, regrets none of her time in it and plans to put her son in gymnastics classes some day. Right now he’s more interested in soccer and the pool.
Gutsu says she harbors no bitterness for her former coach, Alexandrov, who is back leading the Russian women this week at the games, nor for her teammates, though she hasn’t seen them in years.
“I have such a great memory of when we were together. I don’t want to change anything like that,” she says. “I don’t want to change the memory. I just want to keep that in me, in my memory, how we had that time.”
As she watches the competition this week, she’s especially following the 37-year-old woman now competing for Germany: Oksana Chusovitna. As a 17-year-old, “Chuso” was Gutsu’s teammate in Barcelona. In the 1990s, Chusovitna competed for her home republic of Uzbekistan, married and had a son. But when he needed leukemia treatment in Germany, Chusovitna moved there, gained citizenship and kept competing to pay his medical bills. She is a marvel in a sport from which competitors usually retire by their early 20s at the latest. She’ll be in the individual vault final.
“It’s not strange at all,” Gutsu says about seeing a 1992 teammate still at it. “She’s wonderful.”
Gutsu says she hopes the young women competing in London this week have much gymnastics success but also that they appreciate the whole event.
“Even though it’s the Olympics and it’s the top of and above any competition, still they need to have time to have fun and to enjoy themselves because it will go that fast,” she says.
Meanwhile, she’ll continue on her personal life stage, only occasionally handling her medals that she keeps in a safety deposit box.
“Gymnastics and my achievements are always going to be part of my life,” Gustu says. “I think that I wouldn’t change anything. I am happy, I am lucky and I am blessed.
A Q & A With Tatiana Gutsu
Just 15 years old when she was a double Olympic gold medalist in 1992, Tatiana Gutsu was also Ukraine’s first champion after the republic split from the Soviet Union. Having narrowly beaten American Shannon Miller in the all around in those games, Gutsu remains a much-discussed figure in the sport. She had failed to qualify for the all-around event after she fell off the balance beam in preliminaries. But her coaches faked an injury to another athlete and Gutsu got her second chance.
Now 35, a mother and living in Michigan, the gymnast dubbed “The Painted Bird of Odessa” discussed her competitive life and the decades since with DeadlineDetroit.com’s Sandra Svoboda.
DeadlineDetroit.com: What was it like to watch the Opening Ceremony for the London Games?
Tatiana Gutsu: It’s very exciting. In fact, it took me back in time. I didn’t do the opening ceremony in Barcelona because we took our competition very seriously.
DD: During the 1992 games in Barcelona, you won team and all-around gold, silver on uneven bars and bronze on floor exercise. What was your focus then after so much Olympic success?
Gutsu: I was only 15 and in my mind I thought I could continue more. I did not know any of what was happening out there in Russia. And when we came back it was very hard to realize that there was no more of the Soviet Union team. I wasn’t planning to quit because I was only 15. I was just at the top of my moment. But I just didn’t find strength. I would say it was the highest of the high, and then, what’s next?
DD: How well do you remember the Barcelona competition, specifically the preliminaries when you missed on beam?
Gutsu: I had done that mount thousands of times. It is so intense while you are out there. I put the chalk on the board. I put the chalk on the balance beam. I was all prepared. At that moment when I was there, something went wrong. I think I felt too comfortable. When you are so comfortable and confident, you’re always making some mistake. An unforgettable mistake. It did keep me out. I felt so ashamed and so sad at the same time. I wanted to disappear.
DD: What were you feeling?
Gutsu: I felt that I let down everyone. I didn’t think about me. I let down my country, I let down my teammates. That’s what I was thinking and that’s what I knew. I let them down. Each girl that was going to perform her routine, we depend on them, we cheer for them. We are with them when they are out there. And when something happens it’s a mistake that should have ever happened.
DD: You went on win the all-around, but with some questions about whether you deserved to be there because the coaches faked an injury to the other athlete. How do you think of all that today?
Gutsu: People do blame me. There are different comments out there. All of my competitions that I attended, I won all of them. I think I was prepared for the Olympics. I know I was prepared for the Olympics. With the decision that was made, people knew that I had a better chance to win the gold and I did. I have nothing to hide. I am who I am and I did what I did to win. I don’t know whether it was right or wrong but I think I deserve it.
DD: Your competition that night was built up as the United States v. the Soviet Union storyline of the Cold War. Were you aware of the significance of your head-to-head competition with Shannon Miller?
Gutsu: I never knew that. I see that now. While you’re an athlete you do not see those kinds of things. You are not aware of those things. You are an athlete and you are performing. You are there to show your best to the audience, to the judges, to yourself because first you are doing it for yourself. You’re no doing it for anyone else. You’re doing it for yourself.
DD: American audiences heard the TV announcers call you the “Painted Bird”. Where did that nickname come from?
Gutsu: It came from the media. I’m OK with it. I think it was partly because of my skills, such as I haven’t seen anywhere who’s done the double layout dismount from bars. Where the first half of the layout is kind of close and then second you open it up and fly like bird. Plus they looked at my always bright make up.
DD: What was it like at the national training center outside of Moscow where you spent so many years as a girl?
Gutsu: I can tell you this. Everything that was in Round Lake we earned that by we did great at competitions and we earned that to live great to eat great, to have staff to have medical staff that cared for us, to have teachers to come to us and have great lessons.
DD: What was the adjustment like after the 1992 games?
Gutsu: When I got back to Ukraine, it was tough to adjust to doing nothing. It felt like you know when you give something, you give, you give, you give, and suddenly there is noting to give but people still want. I had a hard time to go back to Ukraine. I don’t think I was ever at that point that I felt I was owed and everything else has to come to me. I was never like that. I think I just needed time to relax. I needed to find that peaceful time so I can relax physically and mentally but I think that was a mistake as I shouldn’t have done that because when I took that break I stopped. I can say that it was a mistake because when you stop intensive training your muscles and your body and your mind stop communicating with you at once.
DD: How did you get to the United States?
Gutsu: I had a letter from the United States if I would like to come with my coaches and I actually took a chance and came here. We went to New Orleans, a great city. I loved it. We were invited to open a gym and we did open it, and then when I turned 18, I thought that I need to explore who I am.
DD: What was it like coming to the United States as a teenager, speaking no English and knowing little about the culture?
Gutsu: It was very interesting process. I did have my coaches but when you are going through the teenage years, you are finding yourself, who you are and you’re learning a lot. For me, when I came here, I had to learn a new culture, I had to learn a new language, I had to learn a new life. I needed to learn how to live this life but basically I had to start everything from the beginning. In the first half of life, I always had somebody guiding me: I had my parents, I had family, I had my coaches, I had my head coach, I had my teammates. There was always guidance. When I came here, there was no guidance. I wasn’t prepared for life, no not at all. I was prepared only for the gymnastics part. My life I learned here in the United States when I had an opportunity to come here and like I’ve said, I started my life from the very beginning.
DD: Did you make mistakes?
Gutsu: Of course I did. Everybody does.
DD: Can you talk about some of them?
Gutsu: I‘m probably not going to talk about my mistakes. Those mistakes are good lessons for who I am now. Some of them are good. Some of them bad but you learn that. In time, you learn that when you start maturing in age, I’m not taking about as you get older, but the more mature you get, the more you know. That’s how you learn. There is no book with guidance in life. There is no guidebook. I took it as it was and it was a very hard road for me here. It didn’t matter if I was Olympic champion. I was just here, regular Tatiana Gutsu. But I’m OK with that.
DD: After New Orleans, you coached around the United States for several years. Are you continuing with that?
Gutsu: I am getting back to it. I took a little time for me to enjoy raising my son. My son is 3 ½, and I’m raising him with great pleasure.
DD: How did you end up in Michigan?
Gutsu: I was offered a position here in Michigan coaching. Besides coaching I did seminars, I did clinics that why I was saying I went from state to state. Besides that my main job I have here I had time to go do camps. I did seminars, clinics, I did floor routines, I did private lessons by people who were interested to have me as a coach for their kids.
DD: When did you start gymnastics?
Gutsu: When I started gymnastics, I was 6. I think at that time, you’re 6, you’re fearless. When I started, I didn’t know personally where it was going to take me although I already knew I wanted to be Olympic champion.
DD: How did you know that?
Gutsu: I really don’t know how to explain that but I think the trigger was my father and my mom they traveled to Moscow in 1980 for the Olympics. We were home and we were watching. It was so much fun and I think that triggered me to want be there, to perform, it was like the excitement of the whole ceremony, the opening ceremony and the whole competition, I remember, my father gave me a present, a teddy bear from the Olympic games that was the mascot. I still have it in my home, the teddy bear from Moscow Olympic Games.
DD: Do you remember your first time in the gym?
Gutsu: My first day when I came to try out we did we had to climb up on the ladder to see how many lifts you could do, chin ups, how fast you run, if you can walk on the balance beam, if you can do the splits, if you can do the bridge, if you can climb the rope, and the last thing that triggered me: the trampoline. That was it. I couldn’t wait to get in. I couldn’t wait. I was asking my mom, “Mom, do you think I’m going to go back? Do you think they chose me?” I was so anxious.
DD: When did gymnastics get serious for you?
Gutsu: I think when I got serious I was 8 years old. I can say that now it was a job. It was a fun job.
DD: Did you have a favorite event?
Gutsu: I loved balance beam. I loved it from the very first time although it was a terrifying event, still now. But it was just something that I felt comfortable with.
DD: What was training like when you were young?
Gutsu: Besides all four events we had different classes for tumbling. We had different classes for ballet. We had different classes of just dancing to see how comfortable you are in front of everybody to dance. Then sometimes some days we would take athletic days just like field and track, some days we would have half gymnastics day and for a half day we would go to the beach and do our gymnastics on the beach.
DD: Do you remember when you moved from your home in Odessa to the national training center outside of Moscow?
Gutsu: I think I was about 9 or 10. I remember that day very well. My whole family was standing at the train station. I did cry but I didn’t want to show my tears to my parents and I didn’t want to show my tears to my teammates or anybody else. You have no time to relax. There is always another girl who wants to be in your spot. That’s how intense it was. Because today you are on the national team, tomorrow you can be not.
DD: Looking back at the skills you were performing 20 years ago, many of today’s gymnasts are doing them, although in combinations and sequences. Does that surprise you?
Gutsu: I think that if I would compete my 1992 routines right now, I think I would have enough difficulty. Except I would need to change a few things on bars and a few things on vault. It’s just the connections. I can tell you this, when I was 11, 12, 13, I was actually doing all those connections. Just the other day I was looking up on youtube thinking maybe they have some of the video. In Round Lake at the national training center, they had a video archive of every routine we learned. All of that was on videotape. I was trying to see if there’s anything like that out there on the Internet.
DD: I bet there are plenty of fans and gymnastics historians who would love to see all that footage. Do you know if it’s still at Round Lake?
Gutsu: I don’t know.
DD: Speaking of gymnastics fans, the Internet has really created a community of them. Does it surprise you they still talk about you so much?
Gutsu: You can’t stop fans. Fans are fans. They are the same probably as when I watch hockey or when I watch tennis. When fans set their mind, you can’t do anything about it. But you can agree and disagree, they have their own minds.
DD: Why don’t you attend Olympics or other gymnastics events?
Gutsu: I need to heal here (she pats her heart). It’s a healing process.
DD: From what?
Gutsu: Well, as soon as you step down from the podium, the next star is growing. You’re either a competitor and you continue to do it or you step out. At 15 it’s hard to realize that the 10 years you put in, the hard work you put into it and being noticed at every competition and performing and seeing different countries and seeing different cultures, that one minute it just stops. Here it’s a little bit different. It’s just a different set up. Back then when I finished, that’s was it. From Round Lake, from all of what I had there, what I and my teammates had built, what we had there, to come back home and then what’s next? Nothing.
DD: In 2003 you announced an attempt at a comeback for the Athens Olympics in 2004. Why?
Gutsu: I felt like I had unfinished business because every time that I would come to the gym and teach girls, I sometimes had to show them my elements and I did it with great pleasure. I felt like maybe I could try to come back.
DD: What was training like more than a decade after your retired?
Gutsu: It was very intense. I hadn’t touched the beam. I hadn’t touched the bars. I hadn’t touched the floor. Anything I think the easiest event was to come back to the balance beam. Right away. On the beam: back handspring layout, no problem. Just like yesterday. I was 60-40 on what I got back. I got back to my three back handsprings to layout dismount. I was going to double backs. The standing full on the beam was a little bit difficult to get back.
DD: What happened with the comeback attempt?
Gutsu: I trained for four or five months and you know when you’re training on the team you feel the competitiveness and that helps you climb to where you wanted to establish your routines or yourself mentally or physically. It’s very important that you’re established in both places. If you’re not established and one link is missing, it can be a mistake, big mistake. What happened is I woke up one morning and I understood finally that I did exactly what I needed to do and I didn’t need to show or prove to anybody what I already did and achieve. And do you really think it would be possible, not being in the gym for 12 years, to get back in perfect shape in four months? But it was my passion and it is still my passion.
DD: What are you doing now?
Gutsu: I am working on some business projects. We are working on a business project right now, establishing a few details, what needs to be done. It’s involved with sports and it’s involved with wellness and that is the project for right now. For more details, I will definitely let you know in the future.