The Star of Modern Gymnastics
Fizkultura i Sport, 1977
"Practicing modern gymnastics, one learns to conduct oneself simply and naturally in any situation. It gives me great pleasure to think that by my performances I help to cultivate in others a sense of the beautiful..."
She came to a gym for the first time when she was one year old. Her mother, Albina Deryugina, a coach in modern gymnastics, had been unable to get a baby-sitter and brought the toddler with her. The child was given a ball, skipping-rope, ribbon and hoop -- those attributes of modern gymnastics -- to play with. Very soon little Irina felt at home in the gym.
Whenever Albina Deryugina had to leave for competitions in other cities she took her daughter with her. Watching gymnasts perform, the little girl would say to her mother: "Mommy, do you know which one I think will win?" Amazingly, her forecasts usually were correct.
The girl herself proved to have the requisites of a fine gymnast: she was supple and had a good ear for music, and she learned to dance at an early age. It must be said, however, that Albina Deryugina was not trying to give her daughter a foretaste of future competitions. Both she and her husband, Ivan Deryugin, a noted athlete (he won an Olympic medal in the pentathlon in 1956), knew from experience that the sweet taste of victory can also be very bitter, and they were in no hurry to introduce their daughter to sport.
Irina was five when her father took her to a ballet studio. Both parents were happy to see her make good progress. The girl attended the studio for five years, and she went to a choreography school for another four. But after classes she usually visited her mother in the gym, and performed gymnastic exercises to the accompaniment of music with great enjoyment.
Both parents wanted their daughter to become a ballet dancer, but Irina chose a different road. When she was 14, she declared firmly: "I'm taking up gymnastics."
No amount of talk could dissuade her, and finally the parents gave in. Albina Deryugina included her daughter among her trainees. One year later Irina scored a sensational success -- she became USSR champion!
Modern gymnastics and the ballet are two different things of course. The International Gymnastics Federation is strict in forestalling the slightest attempt to introduce dance elements into gymnastic performances. Transgressors are punished by being awarded lower marks and sometimes by disqualification.
But movement is the life-blood of both ballet and modern gymnastics. And so, in the final count, Irina's ballet studies came in handy. Ballet had cultivated in her good taste and ability to understand and convey the character of music, and it had developed her imagination.
While performing gymnastic exercises Deryugina never smiles. Her expression is always serious. Her entire temperament is concealed deep within. Her movements are majestic, even regal, and forceful. Even the gentle flight of the ribbon does not moderate the energetic pattern of her performance.
But the ease and grace with which she executes extremely complex elements compel the involuntary conclusion that each of her gestures is a result of inspiration, an element of improvisation. Therein lies the ambivalence of her character which is a blend of the impulsiveness of a creative person and the rationality of a mathematician.
During a training session she can perform the same element a hundred times, experimenting with it. Irina's coaches have a tough time: her disposition is not sweet. She never accepts an element or a combination without critically appraising it first and possibly adding something of her own. Only then does she begin rehearsing it. And when everything is ready -- say, a composition with the ball has finally jelled -- she may fling the ball aside and say: "I'd like to try this with the hoop." Thus everything crumbles. But then, among the wrack and ruin, the coach happily may spot a new, original movement...
Is it her willful, contrary nature that comes out? No, it is rather a striving for perfection. In gymnastics, like in school, there are grinds who learn everything by rote. Once they have learned an exercise, they turn out "carbon copies" of it from one competition to another. Deryugina is definitely not one of them.
"I hate it when women gymnasts are referred to as Graces," says Irina Deryugina. "Modern gymnastics is an arduous sport in which competition, struggle to win, is uppermost, and in which personalities clash. The complexity of exercises is exceptionally high. Some elements take years to master. Our daily workouts are, perhaps, more strenuous than those of hockey players."
Once during a training session in winter it was very cold in the gym -- something had happened to the heating system. Deryugina, the mother, was shivering and eager to go home. Her daughter's persistence was maddening. "Okay, that's enough," she called out, "you won't be able to leap any higher today."
"That remains to be seen," her daughter replied.
"I'm telling you, you won't!"
"You watch me."
For a minute the mother and daughter regarded each other angrily, like enemies. Then Irina took a running start and jumped -- higher than before. Her face melted in a smile. The mother sighed heavily...
During training, Albina Deryugina is more exacting to her daughter than to anyone else. "Even at home," Irina remarks, "she is more a coach than a mother. 'This you must not eat, that you must not do; it's time for you to go to bed, and don't read in bed...' And it's this way all the time."
Sometimes Irina Deryugina is described as a girl without nerves. This is not true. She is emotional, but she controls her emotions well. She has seen many times, from the sad experience of other gymnasts, how important it is to tuck away one's nerves as deep as possible. At times the strongest of gymnasts lose, offering practically no opposition, when they have not been able to cope with the psychological strain.
Not once during competitions did she give rein to her emotions, knowing full well that the ball, hoop or rope can drop out of your hands within a second, when least expected...
Today, at 20, Irina has more athletic awards than her father. These are kept in a glass-wall cabinet at home. Within the last three years, Deryugina has not lost a single major competition. With her, gymnastics takes precedence over all other interests. It is also for the sake of gymnastics that she is studying all the time -- under athletic, music, and art instructors. She plays the piano well, and is fond of classical music. She attends every new production on the ballet stage.
Deryugina is very popular in Kiev, the city where she lives, where she studies (at the Institute of Physical Culture), and where she trains and takes part in various competitions. The citizens of Kiev are proud of her achievements. She is recognized in the street.
According to Irina, fame does not make her dizzy, but the attention she is getting is pleasant. It also makes her feel responsible to her fellow countrymen. True, at times their attention becomes too close. For instance, once her father told her that he had met some friends who reproached him: "Why did you not invite us to your daughter's wedding?" They said that the whole of Kiev "knew" that Irina Deryugina had married none other than Oleg Blokhin, one of Europe's best football players... Rumors, on several occasions, have had her married to prominent athletes.
"Who cares?" Irina smiles. "I'm not even thinking of getting married yet."
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