This weekend, high atop the Oklahoma City skyline in The Petroleum Club, four legendary gymnasts will be honored during the 2012 Induction Ceremonies for the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. It will be an elegant, emotional and entirely gratifying experience…for everyone in attendance.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these remarkable athletes, beginning with the sport’s first legitimate superstar from the modern age of televised sport: 1968 Olympic Champion Vera Caslavska. A national hero in the Czech Republic, Ms. Caslavska was voted into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1998, but was unable to attend the formal induction ceremonies that year. This year, she will occupy center stage in Oklahoma City, along with Kim Zmeskal, Natalia Shaposhnikova and Zoltan Magyar.
(First, a note: The biographies below were penned by Dwight Normile, the esteemed editor of International Gymnast magazine. Every year Dwight lends his considerable talents as a writer, historian, and storyteller to the IGHOF, providing context and insightful personal details to the celebration of each new class of honorees. We are grateful for his talents.)
As the most successful female gymnast of the 1960s, Vera Caslavska of the Czech Republic has achieved infamy for not only her dominating performances, but her dignified defiance of political and social strife in her homeland. Caslavska, a native of Prague, won three gold medals (including the all-around) at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and the 1966 World Championships; and every event at the 1965 and 1967 European Championships.
Caslavska crowned her impressive career by winning four gold medals (including the all-around) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. As dynamic and captivating as Caslavska’s performances were in Mexico City, the symbolic stance she took against the Soviet Union’s recent invasion of Czechoslovakia made an even stronger impression on worldwide television audiences. Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague to crush a popular uprising just months before the Games, forcing Caslavska to train in a secret rural location. In June 1968, Caslavska signed the “Manifesto of 2,000 Words,” outlining democratic reforms being demanded by Czechoslovakian citizens.
In Mexico City, Caslavska staged her own quiet but effective protest. A late scoring change in the floor exercise final (which Caslavska had apparently won alone) created a tie between her and Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik. As the Soviet flag was raised and its anthem played, Caslavska lowered and averted her head.
Caslavska became the heroine of the 1968 Olympics, but her public anti-Soviet display of Czechoslovakian patriotism made her an outcast upon her return to her country, which was still under Soviet influence. After years of oppression, Caslavska returned to favor once the “Velvet Revolution” ousted the Communist government in late 1989. Caslavska served as adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel on matters of health care and welfare, and as President of the Czech National Olympic Committee.
Caslavska lives privately in Prague, but her athletic and social achievements assure her place of honor in sports and political archives around the world.
Few gymnasts have dominated on a national level as Kim Zmeskal did from 1989-92, when she won four consecutive U.S. titles: one junior and three senior. But it was Zmeskal’s international achievements, fueled by her energized spunk, that really jump-started a U.S. women’s program that had taken a dip after its success in 1984.
Born Feb. 6, 1976, in Houston, Zmeskal became the first American to win a world all-around title, in 1991 in Indianapolis. And to prove it was no home-advantage fluke, Zmeskal, who was coached by the legendary Bela and Marta Karolyi, followed her historic victory with gold medals on balance beam and floor exercise at the inaugural Individual Apparatus World Championships in Paris in 1992.
And while she was unable to continue her individual success at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Zmeskal rallied in the team competition with the highest optional total of any country that day (39.687), which helped the U.S. secure the bronze medal.
Though she may not have lived up to external expectations in Barcelona, Zmeskal revealed a character worthy of any gold medal. It was discovered that she had competed with a stress fracture in her left ankle at those Olympics, yet the 16-year-old gymnast never used it as an excuse.
After a brief retirement, Zmeskal was lured back to competition by her love for the sport. A torn ACL ruined her comeback attempt for the 1996 Olympics, but she resumed training the following quadrennium before a torn Achilles’ tendon ultimately ended her competitive career for good.
Zmeskal’s passion for the sport never waned, however, and today she and husband Chris Burdette operate their own gym, Texas Dreams, in Coppell, Texas. The couple also have three kids of their own: Ryder, Koda and Riven Belle.
NATALIA SHAPOSHNIKOVA, Russia
Blessed with the limbs of a Bolshoi ballerina, Natalia Shaposhnikova actually began her sporting career as a rhythmic gymnast. But she soon transitioned to artistic gymnastics, where her unique blend of originality, acrobatics and style served her well.
Born June 24, 1961, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Shaposhnikova trained at Moscow Dynamo primarily under the venerable Vladislav Rastorotsky, who also coached Lyudmila Turischeva and Natalia Yurchenko.
Though she was not selected for the 1976 Olympic team, Shaposhnikova helped the Soviet Union win the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France, where she also won the all-around bronze. The following year, she helped her team place second at the Worlds in Fort Worth, Texas.
Shaposhnikova finally got to compete in the Olympics in 1980, where she won golds with her team and on vault, and bronze medals on balance beam and floor exercise. After the compulsories, she was tied for first place with Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, and after optionals she ranked second behind East Germany’s Maxi Gnauck. In the all-around finals, however, she scored 9.90s on vault, uneven bars and balance beam, but only 9.75 on floor exercise. Her 79.025 aggregate total left her in fourth place, just 0.05 out of the medals.
Shaposhnikova retired in 1981, but her name lives on in the Code of Points for her innovative skill on uneven bars, which is still performed today in several variations. She also was credited as the first woman to perform a giant swing on the bars.
Shaposhnikova married fellow Soviet gymnast Pavel Sut in 1982, and today they have their own gym, Gymnastika, in West Patterson, N.J. One of their two children, Olga, coaches there as well.
Gymnastics has seen few innovators as accomplished as Zoltan Magyar, who reigned over—and reinvented—a single event from 1973-80. When gymnastics enthusiasts hear the name Magyar, they immediately think of pommel horse.
Born Dec. 13, 1953, in Budapest, Hungary, Magyar was an only child whose father hoped he would become a football (soccer) player. Instead, Magyar began gymnastics at age 12, and at 14 was Pioneer Olympic champion, a competition held for school children in Hungary.
Coached by Laszlo Vigh, Magyar developed into the most dominant pommel horse worker of his time, succeeding the great Czech Miroslav Cerar on that tricky apparatus. Magyar’s mastery of pommel horse, however, was as much the result of his physical gifts as it was by circumstance. When his training gym underwent a long renovation in the late 1960s, Magyar and his teammates had nowhere to practice. So his coach moved the smallest piece of equipment, the pommel horse, into the dressing room.
Blessed with long arms that enabled him to swing high above the horse, Magyar was the first to travel the horse longitudinally. Called the Magyar Travel, that element is commonplace today, even among younger ability levels. But the second element that bears his name in the Code of Points, the Magyar Spindle, is still quite rare. Originally performed on the end of the horse, the skill involves the legs circling one way as the body rotates in the opposite direction. He also developed a travel that hopped from the pommels to the end of the horse.
Magyar’s expertise on pommel horse was indeed rare, and brought him two Olympic, three World, two World Cup and three European titles. It also earned him Hungarian Sportsman of the Year awards in 1974, ’78 and ’79.
Magyar retired from the sport after the 1980 Olympics—his third consecutive Games—and began practicing veterinary medicine in Budapest.