If ever a gymnast were the picture
of elegance, Natalia Lipkovskaya would be that athlete. As strong and precise as
she was fluid and beautiful, Lipkovskaya is one of the most regretted losses to
The stunning Lipkovskaya was born
April 26, 1979, in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. In her youth, she trained at club Dynamo
Krasnoyarsk with highly regarded coach Olga Butanova. A tall, graceful beauty,
Lipkovskaya made an impression at every competition she entered.
In 1995, the 15-year-old Lipkovskaya,
who had been picked for the Russian National Team by head coach Irina Viner,
performed at a number of prestigious competitions and had stellar results. She
was 7th at Corbeil, 6th at the Grand Prix of Europe, and 7th and 9th at two of
the European Cup events. She was included on the 1995 Russian World Championship
team, and although she contributed to their team gold medal, she played a
supporting role to more famous teammates Amina Zaripova and Jana Batyrchina.
Eighth at Corbeil in 1996,
Lipkovskaya was assigned to two events at the European Championships. Her
performance didn't disappoint, as she made finals and eventually scored a bronze
with clubs. At the International Tournament of Portugal that same year,
Lipkovskaya dominated the competition for the overall win. But with Olympic
medals on the line, Viner opted to send the higher-profile Batyrchina and
Zaripova to the competition in Atlanta.
After Zaripova suffered an injury in
1997, Lipkovskaya finally became a first-string player for Russia. She won
another gold at the L.A. Lights Invitational and a bronze at the Kalamata Cup
(where she also took gold with rope and silvers with hoop and clubs). She
counted a second-place finish at the Gymnastics Masters meet, earning bronzes
with hoop and clubs and silver with ribbon along the way. Lipkovskaya also
claimed titles at Corbeil and the Aeon Cup. In fact, her lowest finishes that
season were a 5th place at the Derjugina Cup and 6th at European Championships.
But it was at the 1997 World
Championships that Lipkovskaya made her strongest mark. In one of the closest
competitions of the '90s, the polished Russian gave away the all-around title to
Ukrainian Yelena Vitrichenko after making mistakes with hoop. Her
almost-flawless performance was rewarded with the all-around silver, as well as
golds for team and hoop, silver for ribbon, and bronze for rope.
In any one of Lipkovskaya's
routines, the trait that immediately stands out is her virtuoso body technique.
Known for her strength in balances and her perfectly centered triple and
quadruple pirouettes, Lipkovskaya also demonstrated solid apparatus handling
skills and exciting compositions. Her most frequently cited routine is her 1997
hoop, a fantastic exercise that featured her flowing dance, difficult
around-the-neck catch, and sublime expression. Two other standouts are her 1997
clubs, in which she performed her much-photographed promenade in side splits
while milling the clubs with one hand, and her crowd-pleasing 1997 rope to Lalo
Schiffrin's "Mission: Impossible." The latter exercise was the very
definition of what rope was meant to look like, and Lipkovskaya exhibited
innovative foot manipulations that few have dared to copy.
Early in 1998, Lipkovskaya began her
first in a series of treatments for a recurring back injury -- an injury many
believe was caused by the increasing pressure on gymnasts to display more back
flexibility. After several hospital stays and a short-lived return to the gym,
Natalia Lipkovskaya decided to call it quits. She now resides in Moscow with her
husband and infant son, but she is frequently a topic on rhythmic message boards
and chats. Even with her sadly short career, Lipkovskaya managed to touch
audiences in a manner befitting the greatest champions.