Jana Batyrchina (RUS)
Tribute courtesy of Robin Catalano

With her sparkling personality, signature hairdo, and perpetual smile, Jana Batyrchina is arguably the most popular rhythmic gymnast of all time. She counts fans in every country imaginable, and her winning style has altered the direction of rhythmic in Russia -- as well as the rest of the world.

Batyrchina at the 1998 L.A. Lights. Photos used with the expressed permission of Gymagery International

A native of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, "Janina" was born on October 7, 1979. When she was 5 years old, a coach, who noticed her walking in a park with her father, told the family the young girl was ideal gymnastics material. As a 9-year-old, Batyrchina was selected by the legendary Irina Viner to train for the Uzbekistan National Team. Only two years later, Viner herself was selected for a prestigious post -- that of Russian National Team Head Coach. Batyrchina followed her coach to Moscow, thus beginning one of rhythmic's most famous careers.

Batyrchina burst onto the scene in 1993, when she finished 2nd all-around at the European Junior Championships. Her incredible charisma impressed the judges for four apparatus medals: gold with rope and clubs, and silver with ball and ribbon. Competing against some of rhythmic's biggest celebrities at the 1994 European Championships, the hyperflexible Russian finished 15th in preliminaries. In her first World Championships that same year, Batyrchina wound up 9th in another impressive field.

In 1995, Batyrchina embarked on an exhausting Grand Prix schedule, but, incredibly for a 16-year-old, she finished out of the top 10 only once. Significantly, she picked up 15 medals, including a silver at the European Cup Final (where she also was 3rd with rope and ball, 2nd with clubs, and 1st with ribbon) and a bronze at the World Championships (where she also took home golds for the team competition and ball). Batyrchina's rise marked the ascension of Russia to untouchable status; the rhythmic powerhouse would finish first in each World Championships for the remainder of the decade. Although always a pleasure to watch, Batyrchina often struggled with consistency. Her results fluctuated in 1996, but she managed a pair of silvers -- for the all-around and ball -- at the European Championships. After the event final-only 1996 World Championships, the exotic beauty went home with only one second-place finish (ribbon), surely a disappointing result for such a promising star.

The 1996 Olympics would be Batyrchina's most important competition, but it did not begin auspiciously. She wept bitterly after several errant catches left her sitting in 13th place in preliminaries. Since the top 20 advanced to semifinals, Batyrchina was given a second chance. Precise performances meant 3rd place in that phase of the competition, and set her up perfectly for finals. With a golden opportunity at hand, Batyrchina went all out. But during her last exercise, ribbon, she lost focus in the midst of a simple hand-to-hand exchange and dropped the apparatus. Her face, streaming with tears, told the story as she waited for her score. In one of the greatest rhythmic upsets, Batyrchina was gifted with a 9.683, putting her into second over disappointed Ukrainian Yelena Vitrichenko.

Batyrchina polished off 1996 with a win in the Grand Prix Final (tied with Yekaterina Serebrianskaya), a huge coup considering the depth of the field. She parlayed her success into a medal-winning 1997, including several Grand Prix golds. But at the 1997 European Championships, mistakes with ball and clubs sunk her into 8th place. Nevertheless, she would take another pair of silvers with hoop and clubs in event finals. Rising to the occasion of the 1997 World Championships, Batyrchina charmed for bronze and also picked up a gold for rope and silver for clubs.

Despite her success and desire to continuing competing through the 2000 Olympics, 1998 presented a new challenge for Batyrchina in the form of up-and-coming teammate Alina Kabayeva. Kabayeva would go on to win the 1998 European Championships, while her more experienced teammate would struggle with ribbon and finish 3rd. Batyrchina picked up 3 more medals in apparatus finals -- gold with rope, silver with hoop, and bronze with ribbon -- but, according to coach Viner, she was beginning to feel that there wasn't enough room for both her and Kabayeva at the top. Batyrchina quietly retired a short time after Europeans.

Well known for her unbelievable flexibility and enchanting personality, Batyrchina was also hailed for a top-notch level of difficulty and high, oversplit leaps and jumps. She included many flexibility skills in her routines, the majority of which highlighted her spectacularly elastic back. Although some people have called ball her best apparatus, and, indeed, her 1996 exercise to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade is a crowd favorite, Batyrchina showed the most originality and control in her rope routines. Both her 1996 and 1997 routines, set to the music of Spartacus and Boublitchski, respectively, utilized intricate foot manipulations, precise catches, and a show-stopping toss of the apparatus off her back foot during a gorgeous split leap. But Batyrchina has left her lasting mark through her eye-catching contortions and shining, plucky demeanor, both of which have been carried on in a variety of international competitors -- most notably in Russian teammates Kabayeva, Assel Mustafina, and Zarina Guizikova. Says Viner of her student's particular talent, "She is a great actress." Batyrchina was certainly a trendsetter, and many of today's gymnasts cite her as their inspiration.

After her retirement at only 19 years old, Batyrchina began coaching. In 1999, she was invited to serve as the assistant to Brazilian head coach Barbara Laffranchi. She is now a trainer at the UNOPAR gym in Londrina City, Brazil, helping prepare the Brazilian group for the Sydney Olympics.

Update (May 31, 2000). Batyrchina is back from her coaching stint in Brazil and recently granted an interview to Sovietsky Sport. Sadly, Batyrchina and her ex-coach Irina Viner are no longer on good terms. Rumour has it that Viner is mad at Batyrchina for never having won an AA title at Europeans or the Olympics. Batyrchina told Sovietsky Sport that she never actually liked her sport, but felt obligated to continue to train. Batyrchina attributes her lack of a major AA title to this lack of enthusiasm. 

Batyrchina further reported that she never even wanted to train with Viner, but that her previous coaches said it would be better. She is grateful to Viner though, who paid for her family's first three months of rent after they had arrived in Moscow. Further, because of Viner's coaching she was successful at Grand Prix meets and was able to become the family's primary source of income.

Batyrchina is now studying physical education at the Kharkov Institute. She is interested in going to Germany, should any vacancies become available. Overall she is happy and has no regrets about leaving her sport.

Many thanks to Nika Kim for translating and sharing elements of the Sovietsky Sport interview.

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2000-2002. This page was created on February 1, 2000 and last updated on May 31, 2000.