The Girl With Ice Eyes

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


Mukhina: It happened on July 3, at a workout at the Minsk Palace of Sport. My coach Mikhail Klimenko had gone away for a few days and I was left with the coaches of the national team - virtually with no one. But that's not the point. The injury was still inevitable. Not necessarily that it had to happen on that day. I think they'd even have carried me off the competition floor. Because I just wasn't able to do that element.
(Yelena Mukhina: Grown-up Games, Oksana Polonskaya for Ogonyok magazine, 1988)

Elena was paralyzed while training at the Minsk Sports Palace in Belarus, a large, indoor sports arena that is now used for concerts. The building is large, white, and foreboding. Here is how it is described on the Palace's official website:

“The Palace of Sports √ is a big complex and constantly evolving body of work which depends on a clear and sports glory of the republic, and the future of those young athletes that grow here, and a healthy lifestyle, many residents of Minsk, who always promoted the Sports Palace. Palace team loves his guests, athletes and just Minskers and always happy to meet with them. Welcome to the Republican Palace of Sports of all who are willing to cooperate with us and all lovers of culture and sports!”

Since the late nineties, many Western metal and hard rock bands have performed at the Minsk Sports Palace (Nazareth, Deep Purple, Motörhead, Whitesnake, Jethro Tull, and Limp Bizkit are a few). Elena’s favorite Russian pop star, Alla Pugacheva, has also performed here, in the same building where the young gymnast met her fate thirty years prior. I imagine the tears of all of the fallen child gymnasts... their ghosts floating up from the arena floor, performing tricks endlessly on a loop to a soundtrack of Fred Durst.


"Behind me is a reinforced concrete wall, on the wall is pink flowered wallpaper, and on the wallpaper is a large photograph of an enormous gym, thousands of people in the stands, and a girl with tousled bangs is flying, flying, and it seems that she will never be able to land. She sits in front of me in a wheelchair, her hands resting on its arms, her hair neatly combed, and she is even slightly made up. She is Elena Mukhina."
(Yelena Mukhina: Grown-up Games, Oksana Polonskaya for Ogonyok magazine, 1988)

After her injury, Mukhina lived another 26 years in Moscow. She granted journalists only a few interviews about her story, and appeared in the A&E documentary More Than a Game. In the late 1980s, she was a guest columnist for Moscow News. Before her injury, Elena had intended to become a trainer and work with gymnasts after retiring from competition; she always had an interest in working with children, as well as a love of horses and animated cartoons. She passed away in 2006 from her condition, shortly after the death of her grandmother, Anna Ivanova. She lived with the orphan Mukhina for her entire life, eventually lying bed-ridden next to her in their apartment.


Mukhina: If only we started sports at age 16-18, when a person can consciously choose his path, but at age 9 or 10 we don't see anything around us except sports, in which our interest is so skillfully kindled. It seems to us that it's some kind of special world. We don't yet know how narrow that three-dimensional existence of the gym, home, and competitions is. And even though athletes get to travel and see so much, they are terribly deprived spiritually. Work, work, work. Nothing exists except work and pressure, which constantly increase, and sometimes it seems that that's it, you haven't got any more strength. But my coach once told me, "Until you break, no one will let you go."
(Yelena Mukhina: Grown-up Games, Oksana Polonskaya for Ogonyok magazine, 1988)

The Soviet Gymnastics Federation was secretive about Mukhina’s injury– the team coach Yuri Titov discouraged speculation and played coy with interviewers, blaming Mukhina’s injury on her own carelessness and saying she would not be making a comeback in 1984 because of her age. The truth about her injury did not come out for many years, with fans writing to the reclusive Mukhina and asking when she would be competing again. Elena’s trainer Mikhail Klimenko was traumatized by her injury and emigrated to Italy shortly after it occurred. He lived there until his death, one year after Mukhina’s, in 2007. She never wanted to be visited by him.


Mukhina: There are such concepts as the honor of the club, the honor of the team, the honor of the national squad, the honor of the flag. They are words behind which the person isn't perceived. I'm not condemning anyone or blaming anyone for what happened to me. Not Klimenko or especially the national team coach at that time, Shaniyazov. I feel sorry for Klimenko - he's a victim of the system, a member of the clan of grownups who are "doing their job". Shaniyazov I simply don't respect. And the others? I was injured because everyone around me was observing neutrality and keeping silent. 
(Yelena Mukhina: Grown-up Games, Oksana Polonskaya for Ogonyok magazine, 1988)

The Thomas Salto element consists of a 1 ½ salto backward in a tucked or piked position with 1 ½ twists or a 1 ½ salto backward in a layout (straight) position with 1 ½ twists. This move is now banned for women, as it has been removed from the Code of Points, the rulebook that defines the scoring system for each level of competition in gymnastics. Young gymnasts are still paralyzed relatively often– a Google search of the phrase "paralyzed gymnast" returns hundreds of thousands of results, with the most recent news stories dating back to 2013.

The United States led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, following President Jimmy Carter's ultimatum that Soviet troops had one month to withdraw from Afghanistan after their 1979 invasion. The closing ceremony of the Moscow Olympics shows a giant effigy of the mascot, Misha the Bear, floating over the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium. The bear was released into the sky while mounted on multicolored balloons. Misha's head appeared on the card stunt, tears falling from his cartoon eyes. The audience was crying. Elena was in her apartment. 

From Sex Magazine #7 Spring 2014
Labelled Non Fiction