Elena Mukhina: The Thomas Salto Tragedy

Elena Mukhina performing a jump during a floor routine

I hope everyone had a great holiday and New Year’s. I also hope 2022 is a lot better than the past two years have been. I think I mentioned before that I wanted to be a gymnast growing up but didn’t have the discipline because you know when you’re ten years old your priority is having fun and pretty much nothing else. We know that gymnasts can suffer injuries if they take a fall during a routine or land funny during a flip. I’m sure you all have seen the gymnast suffer broken ankles, leg, and such live on television or in past footage. Remember Kerri Strug? But I don’t think we really take a moment to think about just how severe and life-altering the injuries can end up being. We often don’t consider that a gymnast can suffer paralysis if they land on their neck, head, or back funny. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what can happen and in 1980 unfortunately, it did. 

Elena Vyacheslavovna Mukhina was born on June 1, 1960, in Moscow, Russian SFSR (now Moscow, Russia). When she was five years old both her parents passed away and she would end up being raised by her grandmother, Anna Ivanovna. Mukhina took an interest in gymnastics and figure skating at an early age. When an athletic scout visited her school, she volunteered to try out for the gymnastics team. Later, she joined CSKA Moscow (“Central Red Army”) sports club. She would eventually get inducted into the CSKA Hall of Fame. Up until 1975, Mukhina flew under the radar and Soviet coaches largely ignored her and her abilities. It would take two separate incidents to bring her to the forefront of the Soviet team. 

One incident was the Romanian domination of the Soviet gymnastics machine at the 1976 Olympics. At the time Nadia Comaneci was Romania’s top gymnast. She had set numerous records, including getting the first perfect score in gymnastics Olympic history. She won gold medals for the individual all-around, the balance beam, and uneven bars. She took home bronze for the floor exercise, and silver as part of the team all-around. All at the 1976 Olympics, where she also scored the perfect ten. Soviet gymnastic Nellie Kin was her main rival and would later receive a perfect ten, on the vault. Director of the Soviet women’s gymnastics, Larisa Latynina, was blamed for the embarrassing defeat. Her response was, “it’s not my fault that Nadia Comaneci was born in Romania.” The other was when Elena Mukhina transitioned to working with Soviet men’s coach Mike Kilmekno, who helped turn her into a show-stopping gymnast.

She stunned the crowd at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France when she gave one of the most amazing all-around performances in history. She took home the gold, beating Olympic Champions Nadia Comaneci, and top-ranked Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim. She tied for the gold medal in the floor exercises and won silver in the balance beam and uneven bars. She made history when she unveiled her signature moves: a full-twisting layout Korbut Flip on the bars, a tucked double back salto dismount on the beam (a dismount that’s still being used today); and a full-twisting double back somersault in her floor routine, a move that was dubbed the “Muchina”. She was able to mix her innovative moves with the classic Soviet-style of gymnastics, inspired by ballet movements and expressive lines. She was quickly recognized as an athlete to watch for at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Elena Mukhina’s floor routine tumbling passes were considered revolutionary at the time because they included the never-before-seen combination salto (the Muchina). But that wasn’t enough for her coach and in 1979, he wanted her to become of the few female gymnasts doing an element taken from men’s gymnastics, the Thomas salto. The Thomas salto is a 1 ½ backflip with 1 ½ twists ending a forward roll. It was perfected by American gymnast Kurt Thomas, hence the name the Thomas salto. Even though she won the all-around and floor exercises in 1978, with her daring bar routine, a revolutionary balance beam dismount, and a floor routine with a signature move, Mukhina was pressured by Kilmenko and other high-ranking Soviet coaches to add the men’s element to her floor exercises. She soon realized that the Thomas salto was an extremely dangerous move 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. 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. Mukhina spoke up and tried to convince her coach of how dangerous the element was. He refused to listen to her. 

Later that year while training for the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, Elena Mukhina suffered a broken leg, which meant she had to miss the World Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, a competition in which the Soviet team had its first defeat at the hands of their archrivals from Romania. Only Nellie Kim and Stella Zakharova were able to medal. With under a year left until the 1980 Summer Olympics, the pressure mounted on the Soviet team coaches and doctors to get the previous all-around champion back on her feet. During an interview with Ogonyok magazine, Mukhina blamed the doctors at TsITO (Central Institute of Traumatology and Orthopedics), who were tending to the Soviet Nation Team for attempting to push her back into training too soon. She said she begged them not to remove her cast and discharge her because she knew she was not healed yet. When the doctors removed the cast against her wishes and had her attempt to walk on the leg, she said she knew that was walking “crookedly”, and that something wasn’t right.

Elena Mukhina after her tragic accident

The TsITO doctors X-rayed her leg and realized that the fracture had not healed properly. Mukhina was rushed into surgery that afternoon, but the damage had already been done to her reputation. During her Ogonyok magazine interview, she said one of the National Team coaches showed up at her hospital room the day after her surgery and flat out told her that she “wasn’t conscientious”, and that she could still “train in a cast”. Once again against Mukhina’s wishes, the doctors removed her cast prematurely. She returned to train for the Olympics while starting a strenuous workout program at CSKA Moscow to lose the weight she had put on while being laid up from surgery.

With lingering weakness in her leg and continuing exhaustion from the strenuous weight loss workouts, Mukhina had difficulty getting back up to speed on what was to be the new end move of her floor routine tumbling passes, the Thomas salto. Despite Mukhina’s never-ending warnings that the element was causing minor injuries and was dangerous enough to cause a major injury, she was pushed to keep it in her routine and continued to practice it, even knowing about the risks. On July 3, 1980, two weeks before the Moscow Olympics, Elena Mukhina was practicing the pass containing the Thomas salto when she under-rotated, and crash-landed on her chin, snapping her spine and leaving her quadriplegic. Her stupid coach should have listened to her. What a f moron. Mukhina was training at the Minski Palace of Sport when the injury occurred, her coach was not present. Later that year the Soviet Union awarded her the Order of the Badge of Honor in response to her injury. Sorry, you got paralyzed but here’s a shiny medal. In 1982, Juan Samaranch, president of the IOC, awarded her the Silver Medal of Olympic Order.

After the injury, the Soviet Gymnastics Federation remained secretive about the events surrounding Mukhina’s injury. Soviet team coach Yuri Titov deflected questions about whether or not Mukhina would be trying for a comeback in the 1984 Summer Olympics, even blaming her injury on attempting a skill that she “was not able to do but thought she needed to make the team”. Information began to emerge slowly. Initial rumors were that she had fallen while making her approach to the vault, then Soviet newspaper reported she had fallen during a dismount from the balance beam and had a blackout, but got back up to finish her routine without knowing how badly she had been hurt. Finally, word got out that she had fallen horribly during a floor exercise.

After her accident, Mukhina became a recluse and rarely discussed it publicly. In one of her few interviews about the tragedy, she criticized the Soviet gymnastics program for deceiving the public about the severity of her injury, and for the system’s insatiable appetite for gold medals and championships. She also took some of the responsibility for not being more forceful about not wanting to perform the move and shared that her first thought when she was laying on the floor with a broken neck was, “Thank God, I won’t be going to the Olympics.”

In a 2004 interview, Larisa Latynina claimed that Mukhina’s coach, Mikhail Klimenko, was affected by her injury. Because of the devastating injury, Elena Mukhina could not be added to the 1980 Soviet Union Olympic team roster. There was little doubt that the Soviet Olympic women’s gymnastics team would get the gold medal in the team competition, as it had in previous Olympics. Nevertheless, Kilmenko had desperately wanted Mukhina to make the Olympic team roster so he could become the “Olympic champion’s trainer.” Soon after Mukhina’s paralytic injury, Kilmenko emigrated to Italy, where he lived with his children until he died from cancer on November 14, 2007. As usual, I’m not saying karma but…. karma.

After Mukhina’s paralysis and other close calls with Olympic-eligible female gymnasts, the Thomas salto was removed from the Code of Points as an allowed skill for women. It remained an allowed skill for men until 2013. The Thomas salto is now banned for both men and women. After her injury, Mukhina was grateful to her former teammates who kept in touch with her, especially Yelena Davydova, whom she called “A real friend”.

Elena Mukhina passed away on December 22, 2006, at the age of forty-six from complications caused by quadriplegia. As a tribute, sports magazine Sovetsky Sport dedicated the cover of its Christmas 2006 issue to her. A memorial service was held in her honor on December 27th, and she was buried at the Trekourov Cemetery in Moscow, Russia.

That was the story of Elena Mukhina a star that had just begun to rise before her Olympic career was tragically cut short. I thought after my last very long article and all the information in it that I gave you guys to digest I would post something shorter this time. Before I go I want to leave you with some wise words from former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, Antonio Brown;
“Every day is a half day if you just f****** leave.”
Happy 2022 everyone!

Sources:

“Elena Mukhina” – Wikipedia

“Elena Mukhina” – YouTube

“Mukhina Badly Hurt In Gym Fall” – Washington Post

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