`Soviet connection' helps US in rising sport of rhythmic gymnastics

Freedom of expression is a cherished American principle, so where better than the United States to introduce the expressive sport of rhythmic gymnastics - first to the Olympics in Los Angeles and now to the Pan American Games? And what could be more appropriate than to see the way being led by several first-generation Americans from the Soviet Union? Alla Svirsky, coach of the US Pan Am team, immigrated to Los Angeles from the USSR in 1974. Two of the three American entrants - Marina Kunyavsky and Irina Rubinshtein - are also Soviet 'emigr'es. And Diane Simpson, the top US competitor here, with two gold and two silver medals, is the prize pupil of Irina Vdovets, a Chicago-area instructor who was once a celebrated Soviet rhythmic gymnast.

Thus the entire team learned the ropes - plus how to use a hoop, ball, ribbon, and clubs - via the Soviet connection.

Actually, Kunyavsky, the current US champion, was taught the basics in Leningrad before her family emigrated six years ago. But Rubinshtein, whose family came from Odessa when she was 3, has received all of her training in the US. As for Simpson, she was Vdovets's first student after the latter arrived in the US with her husband 10 years ago.

None of this is too surprising when one realizes that this fascinating and visually appealing sport, which has only recently sparked interest in the West, has flourished in Eastern Europe since the 1920s.

Rhythmic, which is sort of a combination of traditional gymnastics plus dance, with plenty of manual dexterity thrown in, was included in the 1948 Olympics, but as part of the regular women's team competition, not the separate sport it has since become. In 1962 it was sanctioned by the International Gymnastics Federation, and the next year held its first world championship. The Olympics took longer, but the sport now seems firmly estabished there as well.

And with coaches like Dvodets and Svirsky having by now imparted their knowledge to a whole generation of aspiring young athletes, it is also becoming firmly established in the United States.

Svirsky, recalling life in the USSR, says her status as a master of sport enabled her to enjoy a very comfortable existence. Her husband, Valentin, however, was sensitive to discrimination against Soviet Jews. ``He felt that air was not right there,'' she says. They were able to get permission to leave, and moved with their son, Oleg, to L.A., where Alla now runs the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics.

Alla is thrilled to be an American, and realizes that the good life in the USSR was still missing that most important ingredient - true freedom.

``It not always happy bird that's singing in cage,'' she says. ``Bird would be much happier to be quiet, but not in cage.''

Alla's 10-year-old daughter, Tanya, is allowed to pursue her own interests, which don't happen to include rhythmic gymnastics. She takes tap and jazz dancing and wants to be an actress.

The Svirskys have become very Americanized. Alla likes to wear roomy, white Esprit designs, Oleg is an accomplished surfer, and Valentin, a contractor, is building a new family home in a prime area of L.A. ``It has a view of the HOLLYWOOD sign,'' says Alla, aware of this landmark's niche in the American dream.

A year ago, Svirsky, Kunyavsky, and Rubinshtein returned to the USSR with the US rhythmic team that competed in the Goodwill Games. The trip was jeopardized by problems in obtaining visas, but US officials took a hard line, stating that either everybody went or the whole team stayed home. Visas were finally issued 35 minutes before the scheduled takeoff.

For Svirsky it was a welcome opportunity to visit her homeland, but also a reminder of the political realities of life there. For security reasons, guards patrolled the hallway outside her hotel room, and everywhere she went she sensed ``five people at my back.''

``My kids, they call them cockroaches, they follow me everywhere,'' she says.

Rhythmic coaches are still in relatively short supply in the US, where virtually all attention until now has been focused on ``artistic'' gymnastics - the somewhat confusing official designation for the traditional competition. Svirsky and Vdovets are among the few rhythmic teaching authorities in the country - a fact demonstrated at last month's US Olympic Festival in North Carolina, where 11 of the 16 rhythmic gymnasts were pupils of one or the other.

It was Kunyavsky who won the gold medal in that competition, but Simpson, her longtime arch rival, took top honors among the US entrants here. The soon-to-be Northwestern University freshman staged an exciting duel with Cuba's talented Lourdes Medina for the coveted all-around championship, leading after the first day, but eventually settling for the silver medal. Then in the individual apparatus competition she won the ribbon and rope events and took second in the hoop to wind up with four medals. Only Medina, with gold in the clubs, hoops, and all-around, plus silver in the ribbon and rope, outdid her. (Under a rotating system, one of the five apparatus events is dropped at each meet, and there was no ball competition here.)

Kunyavsky won bronzes in the rope and clubs (the latter a tie with Canada's Susan Cushman), and finished fourth in the all-around, while Rubinshtein missed out on medals this time but came in a creditable sixth overall.

The results indicated that the Americans still have a way to go to catch up to the top international echelon. Indeed, they'll be aiming to crack the top 20 at next month's world championships in Bulgaria, where the host nation and the Soviet Union should account for a majority of the medals.

The meet here did establish Canadian Mary Fuzesi as an up-and-comer. The willowy 13-year-old took the all-around bronze, beating out Kunyasky in a surprising result, and also won a silver and two more bronzes in the individual tests.

What Svirsky feels would aid the US rhythmic cause tremendously is acceptance as an intercollegiate sport. No varsity programs exist, but she feels there are enough coaches now for as many as 25 schools to field teams. Start-up costs would be minimal. ``All we need is a basketball gym and a carpet,'' she says. Some gymnasts use live piano accompaniment to their 60- to 90-second routines, but most opt for taped music performed by one instrument as called for in the rules.

Then, too, she sees rhythmic as a sport well suited for 18- to 22-year-olds, possibly more so than artistic, at which younger athletes often excel.

It is a sport not of jarring flips, but of elegant, balletic line in which the the apparatus becomes an extension of the gymnast's movement - and very expressive movement at that.

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