Born in Moscow
on June 2
, Elena Mukhina's story is one of the more tragic tales in the history of modern gymnastics
Her father left the family when Mukhina was very young and her mother died a short time later, leaving the orphaned Elena to be raised by her grandmother. She began serious training in 1974, came in eleventh place in the Soviet championships in 1976, and rose to second place in 1977. That year she also won event gold medals at the World Cup in Spain, then won a medal in all four rotations and the all-around competition at the European Championships. The following year she won the Soviet and World Championships, reaching the height of her career. In 1979 injuries began to affect Mukhina's performance, and she won only two medals at the European Championships in Copenhagen and came in fourteenth place in the Soviet Championships.
Mukhina was forced to skip the World Championships at the end of 1979 due to a broken leg, but her coach wanted her to train for the 1980 Olympics and had her cast removed prematurely. Because her leg was visibly crooked, Mukhina entered surgery, but was ordered back to the gym early once again. Left weak from the ordeal, she was struggling through training two weeks before the Olympics when, while trying to remaster part of her floor exercise routine, Mukhina crashed and broke her neck, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. The Soviet Union, not eager to admit to what had happened, refused to release much information about the accident. In 1982, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, awarded Mukhina the Olympic Order.
Mukhina stayed quiet following all of this, finally granting an interview to a Russian magazine in 1991, footage of which can be seen in the 1991 documentary More than a Game. During the interview, she explained one of the ways the Soviets ensured they were a gymnastic superpower: "Apart from the gym and gymnastics, nothing existed. I didn't have the right to be ill. Problems outside sports simply did not exist." She also said that "...my injury could have been expected. It was an accident that could have been anticipated. It was inevitable. I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times but coach Mikhail Klimenko just replied people like me don't break their necks."
Today Mukhina still lives with her grandmother in Moscow. She has limited mobility in her hands, and receives some physical therapy from the government. Deeply religious, she says that "everything good in her life is from God." In 2000, she was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame but for health reasons was unable to travel to North America for the ceremony. On her fortieth birthday, Russian president Vladimir Putin told her that "in life, you are a champion - our pride and glory."
Information from http://www.intlgymnast.com/legends/mukhina.html, http://web109.com/whateverhappenedto/wag/mukhina.htm, and other sources.