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Reflection of a Diva

Russia gymnast Khorkina, with chance at third all-around title, has legacy in mind as she competes in her last World Championships

August 19, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

She is a giant in the land of pixies, both for her remarkable accomplishments as a gymnast and the 5-foot-4 frame that elevates her well above her tiny, teeny-bopper rivals.

At 24, Svetlana Khorkina of Russia is the grande dame of her sport, secure in her place as one of the best to wear a leotard. Or not wear a leotard, as she chose to do in a 1997 photo shoot for the Russian edition of Playboy.

She is at once regal and blue collar, dubbed "Queen of the Uneven Bars" for her innovative and breathtaking skills on that difficult apparatus, but also a woman from a self-described "ordinary family" in the unremarkable city of Belgorod who was enrolled in gymnastics because she was a picky eater as a child and her mother hoped activity would stimulate her appetite.

She's a diva with the haughty attitude of an artist who knows her talents are rare and valued, but at the same time a thoughtful, intelligent woman who takes pride in the Olympic and World Championship medals she has won and the unique moves she performed and had named in her honor.

"I would like to be remembered just as Svetlana Khorkina, such as I am, with all that I have achieved," she said. "The unique Svetlana Khorkina. I hope that I have contributed a lot to gymnastics and that my name will remain in its history."

Khorkina has been in a reflective mood recently, having decided this week's World Gymnastics Championships at the Arrowhead Pond will be her last. The Athens Games next summer will be her Olympic farewell, ending a spectacular career in which she has brought an unprecedented blend of elegance and athleticism to a sport dominated by tiny tots who blaze across the gymnastic heavens only to be brought down to earth by puberty or burnout.

Perhaps she has chosen the right time to leave. She did not qualify for the uneven bars finals and so won't add to the five world titles she has won in that event while competing in every World Championships since 1994.

Despite a cut on her right foot that led her to seek treatment Monday, she led Russia to fifth place overall in the women's preliminary team competition here and a place in Wednesday's team finals.

Khorkina compiled a team-leading 37.249 points, including a solid 9.45 on the uneven bars after three teammates had done flawed routines.

She will compete for her third all-around title Wednesday, perhaps adding another honor to her impressive resume.

In addition to her triumphs at the World Championships, she won gold on the uneven bars at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and again at Sydney in 2000, the last coming a night after she was victimized by vaulting equipment that had been set too low. She refused a chance to repeat her vault and, still unnerved by her poor performance on the vault, finished 11th in the all-around competition before finally triumphing in her signature event.

She was outraged at Sydney by the absurdity of the improper setup of the vault, and justifiably so. However, she has since come to terms with it.

"It was a long time ago, and you shouldn't remember such old things," she said, gently chiding an interviewer who brought up the subject during a news conference last week.

In a similar vein, she brushed off questions about whether she was motivated to make an impact in this competition because she did not win a medal at last year's World Championships in Hungary. In fact, she twice fell off the bars while attempting risky release moves.

"I don't remember this," she said, smiling and adding a wink.

Impossible. Just about everything she does is memorable.

Her long-limbed grace alone would be enough to burn her image into the minds of all who see her, but her feeling for the rhythm of flight on the uneven bars sets her firmly apart. On the floor, while younger rivals prance and bounce like the little children they are, she dances and seems to live her music.

She is acclaimed as a beauty and has worked as a model and actress, but she didn't always feel attractive.

"For a long time, I was an ugly duckling," she told the Russian newspaper Sport-Express. "Imagine: Everyone is small and I am, by gymnastics standards, a giant. In a word, a freak. I was very uncomfortable."

It was her coach, Boris Pilkin, who persuaded her to capitalize on her height and long lines. She also credits him for her longevity in the sport.

"If it was not for Pilkin, I have no idea how successful I would be in my career," she said. "He managed to convince me that my height is my main advantage. It is no accident that no one in the world can copy my and his elements and combinations."

Those elements have brought her so many honors, but the Olympic all-around gold medal has eluded her. To be victorious in Athens, she said, "is very important to me because I want to show there what I know and the way I can do things. The rest is of little importance."

Nor does it matter to her that she's one of the oldest competitors in Anaheim.

"It's not the numbers -- it's how you feel in life," she said, smiling. "My soul is getting younger."

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