Former Soviet gold medal-winning gymnast finds opportunity, LDS Church in the U.S.
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.”
The Soviet training program required near total devotion to the sport, and it produced athletes with extraordinary discipline and endurance. These qualities enabled the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, to dominate Olympic gymnastics from its first appearance in the competition in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, through the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. A demand for excellence came in part from Soviet leaders who expected medals. For the Soviet athletes, the drive for excellence was more practical.
“Everyone wanted the benefit of going to the camps and competing internationally. We also received stipends every month, and though it wasn’t a lot, it was sufficient," Sharipov said. "The national team was a door to opportunity and living standards that most of our people simply didn’t have access to.”
By 1992, the Soviet Union had imploded with many of its 15 republics gaining independence practically overnight. The Soviet national gymnastics team now became the Unified Team drawing its talent from the same republics as before but having to recognize that except for the short time between the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 and the Olympics in 1992, the newly independent republics might have organized their own Olympic teams.
Nevertheless, at the Barcelona Olympics that year, the results were the same. The Unified Team outdistanced its competition, taking 20 medals in gymnastics compared to the next best team — China with eight. Sharipov earned his first gold medal as part of the Unified Team when the team won the top spot on the men's gymnastics podium.
In 1994, Sharipov won a silver medal on the parallel bars at the World Championships and grabbed the gold medal in the same event in 1995. The stage was set for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. By this time, the Unified Team had ceased to exist and several of the new republics formed their own Olympic teams, including Ukraine, for which Sharipov competed in 1996. In Atlanta, he won his second gold medal for his performance on the parallel bars.
“I had what I would call my best-ever competition that year in Atlanta, and those days will always live in my memory,” Sharipov said.
Searching for a perfect landing
With the Ukrainian program in decline after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Sharipov saw little competitive future in Ukraine. So he and his wife, Tatiana Priatseva moved to Australia in 1997 with their two children. He hoped to gain citizenship there, make the Australian gymnastics team and compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. However, his venture Down Under ended before the year was out, and the family returned to Ukraine, where he and Tatiana eventually divorced, separating Sharipov from his two children as well.
In 1998, Sharipov began having problems with one of his arms, and one day his arm briefly stopped functioning. Exams revealed a weakness in his spinal column, and doctors recommended he retire from gymnastics, cautioning that continued activity could risk paralysis.
“Most gymnasts develop back and leg problems because of the many thousands of times you are landing on your feet with great force, putting pressure on your spine,” Sharipov said.
He walked away from competitive gymnastics, retiring after 12 years of being in the sport professionally and nearly a lifetime of dedication to the sport. Sharipov attempted to start several businesses. The enterprises failed within months, putting his former wife and children, and his parents, whom he also supported, in jeopardy. Then, a young woman he had gotten to know and with whom he had become engaged, passed away unexpectedly, leaving Sharipov in despair.
“I was as low as I had ever been in my life, but I held onto one hope and that was that I could find work in the United States where I had visited several times during my career and had been able to develop some contacts here,” he said.
Rebuilding a life in gymnastics
Arriving in Oklahoma in 2000, he found work at the Bart Connor Gymnastics Academy in Norman. There he also met Amber Adams, who was also working at the academy and who had graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Russian. The two immediately became friends. As time progressed, they became closer, but Sharipov was hesitant about getting more deeply involved after experiencing divorce and the loss of a fiancée.
“I didn’t want to rush into anything, and Amber was at first just a friend, someone nice and good who helped me," he said. "Then it was something more, and I found myself needing her and she needing me.”
After a year in Oklahoma, Sharipov accepted a coaching position with the Houston Gymnastics Academy in Texas, and Adams followed him there.
“I had several offers, but I chose the Houston academy because of the head coach, Kevin Mazeika," Sharipov said. "I visited the gym and saw how he worked with the athletes, and I liked his philosophy. I wanted to be part of that and help build the program there.”
Mazeika went on to coach the United States’ gymnastics teams at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and to help select the 2012 team.
Working with Mazeika broadened Sharipov’s own coaching philosophy and led to several opportunities to take teams to international competitions. In 2002, he coached American gymnasts to the gold medal at the Junior Pan Am Games, and in 2004, he led a U.S. team to the gold medal at the Junior Pacific Alliance Competition. And in the midst of a new-found professional life, he and Adams married in 2002 and had their first child in 2003.
While rebuilding his personal life and launching a coaching career, Sharipov reached another crossroads in his life.
“I had come in contact with the church on a visit to Salt Lake City in the 1990s. In fact, someone gave me a Book of Mormon in Russian, but I didn’t think much about religion in those days,” Sharipov said.
His relationship with Adams followed by marriage caused Sharipov to reconsider his spiritual life, and soon he was taking lessons from the full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“As I spent more time with Amber, I learned what her values were and I began to like the church. With my first marriage and family, I didn’t focus on them," he said. "This time around, I decided to focus on my family while still concentrating on my professional goals. I’ve learned I can do both, and the church has made all the difference in my relationships.”
Sharipov was baptized into the LDS Church in 2003 and within two years moved to the University of Oklahoma as an assistant coach from 2005 to 2011. In 2011, a little more than nine years after his marriage to Adams, a decade after coming to the United States and 15 years removed from his gold medal performance in Atlanta, Sharipov was hired as Ohio State University's head coach of men’s gymnastics, capturing one of his primary ambitions when he left Ukraine.
“I applied to get some experience interviewing at that level, but I never expected to get hired,” Sharipov said. “To my surprise, I was offered the position, and we moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 2011.”
'Discipline and endurance'
In the years since his departure from Soviet and Ukrainian gymnastics, Sharipov has learned to balance his own experience of 24/7 devotion to his sport to the realities of training youths today.
“In our sport, you have to be very disciplined. There is no room for error. You can over rotate and you can under rotate, and these kinds of errors can result in injury," he said. "Yet, I understand that the level of discipline I experienced with the Soviet and Ukrainian programs in the 1980s and '90s isn’t for everyone. As long as parents are on the same page with coaches regarding what both want to achieve, it will work.”
As Sharipov describes his Soviet years, performing in the Olympics was easier than practicing. Indeed, how he filled his days as a gymnast with few diversions compared to the multiplicity of diversions at the fingertips of most athletes today underscores the challenges coaches face now.
“If you are not doing enough numbers in practice, then of course you will feel pressure in the competition. With the former Soviet Union, we practiced three times a day, six days a week. That amounted to 35 to 40 hours a week of work in the gym," he said how it was like a full-time job. "For us, it was the practice leading up to the games that was so difficult, and that probably accounted for our ability to perform with discipline and endurance when it counted.
"Today, coaches struggle to maintain the degree of discipline athletes need not only to be successful, but to perform safely because there are so many other things they could be doing.”
He has found both personal tranquility and professional satisfaction, all of which has been built on a spiritual foundation first established in the religiously diverse home of his youth and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today.
Ernie Shannon has written several local history books in Ohio and has contributed medical, aerospace and biographical feature articles to a variety of publications.
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