Former Soviet gold medal-winning gymnast finds opportunity, LDS Church in the U.S.

By Ernie Shannon

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

In August 1996, Rustam Sharipov reached the pinnacle of gymnastics, standing on an Olympic stage in Atlanta to receive his second gold medal in as many Olympics. The ceremony capped nearly 20 years of training and competition for Sharipov and represented an achievement few athletes ever experience.

Within four years, however, a debilitating spinal condition, divorce, death and business failures turned his life upside down and drove the young native of what is now Tajikistan to the United States in the desperate hope of rebuilding his life. And it was in that rebuilding that he came in contact with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A gymnast's beginnings

Born in 1971 to a Tajik father and a Ukrainian mother, Sharipov began gymnastics training at the age of 6 in the beautiful, mountainous Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic of the then-Soviet Union, in which Orthodox Christianity and Islam were practiced.

Life could be volatile in what is now Tajikistan, a land-locked region bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. Sharipov avoided those snares, however, by showing promise early in his gymnastics training that steered him in a direction different from many of his friends. His parents also recognized his talent and threw their support behind the long hours in local gyms and attendance at camps required for talented gymnasts.

By the time he was 10, he received an invitation to attend a Club Dynamo camp in Moscow, which his family readily accepted. Young Sharipov made the train trip to the Soviet capital alone — a trip fraught with danger as it passed from one southern Soviet republic to another.

In Moscow, far from his family in what is now Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and unaccustomed to life at a sports camp, Sharipov performed admirably during the two-week training and garnered the attention of coaches already looking for gems among hundreds of young gymnasts. He returned home to resume his quiet life of family, school and training, but he had lost his anonymity.

Five years later, after accepting an invitation to a gymnastics camp in what is now Kiev, Ukraine, and showing unusual talent, Sharipov was asked to remain at the training facility and formally undertake a more demanding regimen. The Kiev setting combined intense gymnastics routines with traditional classwork, preparing him not only to one day compete for the national gymnastics team, but also to attend college.

“My daily schedule, six days a week, included gymnastics from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., schoolwork until 2 p.m., and an afternoon practice from 3 to 6 p.m.,” Sharipov explained. “The training was not for the timid.”

The facility boasted an elite coaching staff and attention from the Soviet national team. In time, Sharipov began traveling to Moscow on a monthly basis where he competed with some of the nation’s best young gymnasts for what could be called early informal auditions for the national team.

Winning Olympic gold

In 1991, at the age of 20, Sharipov finally joined the team and immediately began preparations to perform in Soviet and international events and, ultimately, the Olympics.

“There was constant pressure to perform while part of the Soviet gymnastics program,” Sharipov said. “The team was made up of 15 guys, and every year we had to compete at the nationals to remain on the team and we had to prove ourselves over and over again because there always was young talent fighting to take our place.”

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