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Olga Korbut: Olympic prodigy still going strong in Scottsdale

Cap Times Q&A

Known as the “Darling of Munich,” Olga Korbut won three gold medals in gymnastics at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany, a sport she pursues to this day as a traveling coach based in Scottsdale. Her achievements, watched by the world during the Cold War, coincided with some thawing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, marked in part by her visit to the White House in 1973.

How’d you get into gymnastics?


Olga Korbut

Everybody asks me that question, and if I remember, I think I was born in gymnastics. Because I didn’t hear about gymnastics, but something was inside me. I was lucky when gym teacher came to the school and asked about who wants to do gymnastics. And I was first; I raised two hands and ran to the gym. This is how I start, just in public school. And after six months, it was competition between all schools, and my future coach selected to the team to (train in the) professional gym. I wasn’t selected, but I been in gym all the time, every day, and one time he came and asked me, “What are you doing?” I said, I’m doing whatever you teach them to do. “OK,” he said. “Show me.” And he was impressed, and that’s how I started to do gymnastics professionally.

When did you realize you were good enough to compete in the Olympics?

I didn’t know. I prepared for 10 years before ’72, but I was ready to compete in 1968, Mexico. But before with the rules, you can’t compete if you’re not 16 yet. Now you can, but before not. And I continued to practicing and prepared to go to Olympics in ’72.

How’d you respond to the fame that met your performance in Munich?

This is what was very strange, because I came to Olympics completely unknown. Nobody known me before the Olympics and nobody care about gymnastics before that. But after first, second day, I heard in the radio, I heard on TV, my name. I didn’t speak German or English. And everybody in the Olympic village congratulate me, hugging me, all athletes. And I was happy about that, but my focus was, competition. When I came to my hometown, where I was born in Grodno, Belarus, I think all city meeting me in train station.

How’d you get to visit the White House?

It was funny. I didn’t know President Nixon. I heard, but I didn’t know how he look like. And when (the Soviet ambassador) called me one evening, I almost go to bed, and he said, “President of United States want to meet you tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock.” I said, no. He said, “Why?” I said, I have 9 o’clock practice. He start to explain to me how important this is. He promised me after the meeting with president, the car will directly go to the gym. I think, and agree. The next day we came to White House a little early, we had a tour. And close to 9 o’clock, we all stand, and there’s been a lot of media and photographers, very noisy, not very quiet. And they stay at their table, and then suddenly it start to be quiet. And Richard Nixon is coming towards me. And I thought, “What are you doing?” I didn’t know him. I thought it’s somebody from media. And I learned little bit English at school, but I didn’t speak very good, but I knew boy, girl, cat, like that. And he came to me, he’s pretty tall, and, “Oh, you’re such a little girl.” “Oh, you big boy.” And everybody start to laugh, and this was like relaxing.

What else did Nixon say?

He told a speech, very powerful speech. He said, you athletes, particularly gymnasts, you are doing the very difficult elements, but all the time you’re landing on your feet. And I would like to see that in politics. (The Soviet ambassador) invite us in the evening to celebrate, whatever, this. And he came to me and said, “You little girl, don’t understand what you did for one visit to one house, we couldn’t do it for five years.” I was very proud of myself. I didn’t do nothing, they invite me and I came.

Why’d you move to the United States?

I’d been in United States more than my home, because I travel back and forth all the time, and I fell in love right away with American people. They are very happy, smiling like me. Even though I didn’t speak very good English, but I start to talk to them, and I fell in love right away. And probably Chernobyl disaster make me move to United States, because I have to have money to travel back and forth. Nobody sponsor me. And I was out of money and I found a gym where I could work, money and travel around United States and raise money. And we decided to stay in United States.

What have you done while you’ve been in America?

I start to live in New Jersey, then I travel to Atlanta, and I love the big gym, and I move to Atlanta first. And then I did clinic here in Scottsdale, and they just opened, this was grand opening, and they invite me here to work, to be head coach in gym. I really like here, I like warm weather.

Russia has been marred by a state-sponsored doping scandal leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio. Was this ever a problem while you competed?

Doping can’t be in the sport. It’s unfair, first of all. Second of all, my time, I didn’t even heard about that, because nobody did this, particularly in gymnastics. And I’m very happy gymnastic federation decided to let the gymnasts compete in Rio. And it’s not done yet, but what I heard, and I talk on Skype with my friends in Russia, and they said that track and field, it’s unfair, who didn’t do drugs at all, they’re not competing. It’s unfair for them, I feel sorry.

Has the punishment levied by Olympic officials fit the crimes?

I think they have to punish officials as well, because I don’t think officials don’t push, they will do that. This is what I know. The system is responsible, too. How they can push, they can’t push me. I don’t know, it’s ridiculous.

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