Elena Mukhina : biography
Elena Vyacheslavovna Mukhina ( first name sometimes rendered "Yelena", last name sometimes rendered "Muchina"; June 1, 1960December 22, 2006), born in Moscow, Russian SFSR, was a former Soviet gymnast who won the All-Around title at the 1978 World Championships at Strasbourg, France. Her career was on the rise and she was widely touted as the next great gymnastics star until a 1979 broken leg left her out of several competitions, and the recovery from that injury combined with pressure to master a dangerous and difficult tumbling move (the Thomas salto) caused her to break her neck just two weeks before the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympics, leaving her permanently quadriplegic just one month past the age of 20.
Mukhina’s floor exercise tumbling passes were considered revolutionary at the time because they included a never-before seen combination salto (the "Muchina"), but in 1979, her coach wanted her to become one of the few female gymnasts doing an element taken from men’s gymnastics, the Thomas salto (a 1 and 3/4 flip with 1½ twists ending in a forward roll, perfected by American gymnast Kurt Thomas). Even though she won the All Around title and floor exercises at the 1978 world championship with daring bar routines, a revolutionary balance beam dismount, and a floor routine with its own signature move, she was pressured to add this element to her floor exercises by her own coach and other higher-ranking Soviet coaches. Mukhina soon realized the Thomas salto was extremely dangerous for a woman because it depended on being able to get enough height and speed to make all the flips and mid-air twists and still land in-bounds with enough room to do the forward roll, and it took near-perfect timing to avoid either under-rotation (and landing on the chin) or over-rotation (and landing on the back of the head). In the 1991 documentary More than a Game, Mukhina spoke of trying to convince her coach that the Thomas salto was a dangerous element:
"…my injury could have been expected. It was an accident that could have been anticipated. It was inevitable. I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times but he (coach Mikhail Klimenko) just replied people like me don’t break their necks."
In 1979, while training for the 1979 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, Mukhina suffered a broken leg, which kept her out of the World Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, a competition in which the Soviet team suffered its first defeat at the hands of their archrivals from Romania, with only Nellie Kim and Stella Zakharova able to medal in apparatus and All Around disciplines. With less than a year until the 1980 Summer Olympics to be held in Moscow, the pressure was on the Soviet team coaches and doctors to get the previous All Around champion Mukhina back on her feet and ready for the games. In an interview with Ogonyok magazine, Mukhina blamed the doctors at TsITO (Central Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedics) who were serving the National Team for attempting to rush her back into training too soon, saying she begged them not to remove her cast and discharge her because "they’re dragging me from home to workouts" and she knew she was not yet healed. When doctors removed her cast against her wishes and had her try walking on the leg, she said that she knew she was walking "crookedly" and that something was not right. The TsITO doctors X-rayed the leg and discovered that the fracture had not healed properly and would not be able to sustain the pounding of gymnastics in its present condition. Mukhina was rushed into surgery that afternoon, but the damage had already been done to her reputation; one of the National Team coaches, she said in the Ogonyok interview, showed up at her bed the day after surgery and outright stated that she "wasn’t conscientious" and that she could still "train in a cast." Once more against her wishes, the doctors removed her cast prematurely, and Mukhina returned to training for the Olympics while beginning a strenuous workout program at CSKA Moscow to lose the weight she had gained while laid up from surgery.