Oksana Skaldina (URS)
Tribute courtesy of Robin Catalano

In the early 1990s, Oksana Skaldina almost single-handedly raised the difficulty level of rhythmic gymnastics to unbelievable new heights. A tempestuous performer with an even more stormy personality, Skaldina's life and gymnastics are surely the definition of "risk."

Born to an engineer and a kindergarten inspector on May 24, 1972, Skaldina was introduced to the sport at the age of 4 1/2. She was not originally considered rhythmic gymnastics material, however, being of "average physical qualities." But the Kiev, Ukraine native was already competing by age 6, under the tutelage of Ludmilla Koval, and was destined for success -- and a heavy dose of disappointment.

Skaldina got her big break at the 1988 European Cup, where she placed fifth in the all-around and won the ball title. She would share in the Soviet silver-medal finish at the 1989 World Championships, and also claim the all-around bronze and three golds (rope, hoop, ribbon). After a hugely successful season in 1990, where she earned first place at the Intervision Cup, Goodwill Games, USSR National Championships, and World Cup, as well as third place at the European Championships, coach Albina Derjugina declared, "Her time has come."

Skaldina and veteran teammate  Alexandra Timochenko spent most of 1991 trading titles, but when all was said and done it was the prima donnaesque blonde who perched atop the podium. With four passionate, difficulty-filled exercises, Skaldina won the overall title at the World Championships, but then found herself frustrated in event finals while Timochenko exacted revenge. The exhausted Skaldina planned to retire after her victory but ultimately decided against it; after all, gymnastics was the only life she knew.

She persevered, continuing to up the risk ante while maturing as a performer. Never an elegant gymnast, Skaldina knew her strengths -- strong dance technique, superb ability to make extremely difficult apparatus skills look elementary, and an eye-catching, fiery persona -- and filled her exercises with them. Her work demanded high scores simply because she so rarely made mistakes. Skaldina, who was said to look at her scores only after she heard the reaction of the audience, performed many memorable routines. Most notable are her fast and spunky 1989 ribbon, energetic and exciting 1991 hoop to In the Hall of the Mountain King (complete with unique foot tosses), and emotional 1992 ball. But many fans remember her more for her expressive face, which never failed to tell the story of what was happening inside.

A few sub-par international finishes in early 1992 hurt Skaldina's reputation, and the Unified Team began to publicly question her fitness. After Oksana Kostina's win at both the 1992 CIS Nationals and European Championships, many speculated that she would replace Skaldina in the Olympics. The reigning World Champion then saw a television program in which she was harshly criticized. Devastated, she tried to abandon the National Training Center. Co-coach Irina Derjugina eventually convinced her to come back, but, according to Skaldina, the federation was so worried she would leave again that they confiscated her money and personal belongings and chaperoned her every move.

Despite solid performances (she counted a few small mistakes) and the highest level of difficulty in the Barcelona Olympic Games, Skaldina was awarded an anti-climactic bronze medal behind Timochenko and local favorite Carolina Pascual. The results of this competition are still hotly disputed, and Skaldina's infamous unsportsmanlike behavior at the awards ceremony (she refused to acknowledge and shake the hand of Pascual on the podium) has become legendary. In a recent interview Skaldina explained, "Winning the bronze medal instead of the gold seemed like a catastrophe to me, a collapse of all my hopes and plans."

So shattered was the usually willful Ukrainian that she felt on the edge of a nervous breakdown and even entertained thoughts of suicide. Although the Derjuginas wanted Skaldina to remain in the Ukraine, she accepted a coaching position in Moscow precisely because it would be viewed as a "betrayal." There she married boyfriend Dmitry Svatkovsky, one of the athletes on the CIS silver medal-winning 1992 pentathlon team. A few years later their daughter, Dasha, was born.

Skaldina still coaches in Russia, even though she believes that the results of competitions are corrupt. She enjoys her work in gymnastics and would, by her own admission, choose career over family. Always a study in contradictions, Oksana Skaldina explains her work and herself best when she understates, "I am a person with a complicated character."

Skaldina was born on May 24, 1972.

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1999-2002. This page was created on August 8th, 1999.

 

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