The Girl With Ice Eyes

"Do you think it is possible for a little girl to fly?"
Commentary & Images by Jacky Connolly

1.

A coach asked Mikhail Klimenko, "Hey, why does Lena look so sad? She doesn't smile during her cheerful floor routine." Klimenko replied, "Do you have parents?" "Yes." "Not Lena. Her grandmother raised her. It's difficult for her, but one day she will smile!"
(A Sensation of Lightness, May 1, 1978)

The Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina came into the public eye in the years leading up to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The world champion at that time was the Romanian athlete Nadia Comaneci, who was the first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect score at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The Soviet Union needed a victory for their home games, and to regain their reputation as the gymnastics capital of the world. Just like that, Elena came out of the woodwork, in her late teens but with the appearance of a young child. Her statuesque face and silver stare brought her the nickname “The Girl With Ice Eyes”.

Elena was an orphan. Her father left when she was very young. When she was five, there was a fire in her building and her mother burned to death. By the time she came home, everything was already cleaned up and all traces of the disaster had been removed.

2.

Mukhina: Most of the girls in my third-grade class at school #202 loved figure skating. They would cut pictures of Irina Rodnina and Ludmila Pakhomova out of the newspaper. But for some reason I liked gymnastics. I only saw a competition once on television. I don't remember the names of the gymnasts, but I couldn't stop thinking about it for a whole week. I couldn't understand how the gymnasts did such difficult things.
Like in a fairy tale, an unknown woman came to our classroom. Imagine - Antonina Pavlovna Olezhko, master of sport. And she said, "Those who want to join the gymnastics section, raise your hands." I nearly cried with joy. 
(A Sensation of Lightness, May 1, 1978)

Do you think it is possible for a little girl to fly? This is what Nadia Comaneci’s coach asks in the 1984 American biopic Nadia. Similar to Elena’s story, the coach comes into the classroom and asks Nadia if she will start gymnastics training after he spots her doing cartwheels in the school courtyard with her friends.

3.

Long ringlets neatly pinned up, arched eyebrows, a clear, almost limpid face, and large grey eyes, calm and sometimes serene – such is the portrait of Elena Mukhina, world gymnastics champion, before an ordinary training session.

She enters the gym on Moscow's Leningradsky Prospekt at 9 a.m. sharp. Clad as usual modestly – a violet woolen top and black sports pants, no bijouterie or charms – she seems a trifle mundane; it's her face that shows it all: deep down she's walking on air.
(A Statue Come to Life, A. Shelukhin, Moscow News, 1979)

Elena was often described as having an unhappy or serious visage, and yet her interviewers generally came to the conclusion that beneath the surface, she was brimming over with a joyful determination. She seemed happiest when she was with her friends Maria Filatova or Natalia Shapashnikova, napping on the airplane or dancing in their hotel room bathrobes.

None of the footage of her with her coach, Mikhail Klimenko, is translated into English. In one scene, they sit on the gymnasium floor together. He is talking to Elena about Nadia Comaneci and how her floor routine must stand out from the Romanians, combining elegance with complicated men’s gymnastics elements. Elena is wearing her maroon leotard; she smiles nervously, with the upturned gaze of a cam-girl.

 
 

4.

"What other sports are you interested in besides gymnastics?" I asked her.
"Riding.  I hope that horses stay around forever."
"You like animals. Did you have a dog when you were a child?"
"No, I was told that I wouldn't be able to take care of it – too little free time.  I would have liked having a dog."
"What forms of art are closest to you?"
"Ballet dancing and animated cartoon making.  It seems to me that cartoonists must have natures like their characters, cheerful yet somewhat naive."
(Girl Brought up on Gymnastics, Andrei Batashov, Soviet Life, October 1979) 

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Khrushchev’s Thaw period of the Soviet Union lead to cultural transformations that impacted the style of Russian animation. Soviet animators, such as Yuri Norstein, became famous for unusual techniques such as painting on multiple glass planes (which gave his animations a three-dimensional look). The animations that were popular during Elena Mukhina’s upbringing are characterized by the mournful presence of fog, flickering smoke and glassy raindrops. Horses, bears, hedgehogs, and other small Russian animals lived in these landscapes of grey fog and condensation.

The first animator in Russia was Aleksander Shiryayev, a dancer at the Imperial Russian Ballet. He created ballet films with animated puppets. Elena’s appreciation of dance, animals, and animation may leave her admirers with the desire to turn her beautiful movements into new puppet animations; it seems an appropriate homage to this forgotten talent, a sports tragedy who has disappeared into the pages of history.

5.

Lena Mukhina cried. Pain was causing her tears. Lena had hit the beam, and stepping on her foot was very painful. One event remained - floor exercise.
She made a decision: "I have to compete! I must give my all!"
So she went to the mat. It was perhaps the best performance of the entire year. Klimenko was terribly happy. "Just look, she is a fighter. That's character."
(A Sensation of Lightness, May 1, 1978)

Elena performed on a broken leg in 1979, and she never was allowed to fully recover from this injury. She was taken from the hospital by force and told that if she was truly disciplined, she would be able to train for the Olympics while wearing a cast. The doctors did not have Elena’s interests at heart, rather, they were there to serve the interests of the homeland.. Even if she was a broken doll, her body was an instrument of state power and the only instrument that had successfully defeated the world champion Nadia Comaneci at Strasbourg. When Elena fell the last time, she was instantly paralyzed. Her chin hit the ground and her spine snapped neatly, like a ruler pressed against a classroom desk. Her first thought was: “Thank God, I won’t be going to the Olympics.”


6.

"Do you like to dream on the subject of gymnastics?" 
Mukhina:  Sometimes I think: how could gymnastics be made easier?  And I imagine how nice it would be if we made our jump off the equipment into the water.
(A Dialogue of Champions, A. Batashev, Sport in the USSR, 1979)

Gymnasts perform on various apparatuses, such as the uneven bars and the balance beam. Mukhina’s most haunting routines to watch, however, are her floor exercises. She runs from one side of the mat to the other; her movements are a combination of a provocative ballet and intense athleticism. In many of her floor routines, she dives onto the floor, transitioning from a kneeling position into a pose where she momentarily lies flat like a plank on her stomach before rolling onto her back. For a moment she looks dead and lifeless. She suddenly pops back up, reanimated with her back arched in a come-hither pose. She hooks one knee over the other and throws her head back. In the low-quality television recordings of her performances, her skin tone is a pale, deathly grey against her faded Adidas leotards.

From Sex Magazine #7 Spring 2014
Labelled Non Fiction