A legend in Croatia: an interview with Nellie Kim

Gymnastics - 1980 Moscow Olympics - Women's Floor Exercise The Soviet Union's Nellie Kim on the way to winning gold in the Palace of Sports, Central Lenin Stadium Area, Moscow, USSR. At the 1980 Games Kim won golds in the team competition and in the floor exercises.One of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Nellie Kim, visited Osijek World Cup.

Enjoying her job. That’s how she called it.

“I come home late at night at hotel, I work almost an entire night, and I notice that I’m smiling, that it’s not difficult for me. So, that’s how I’ve been feeling these days in Croatia. You have a special kind of energy that you transmit to others.”

When you are told this by a woman who has traveled around the world several times, when you are told this by a legend of her sport, one of the greatest gymnasts of all time Nellie Kim (58), then the only thing you can say is “Thank you, come to us again”. “Actually, I’m angry. Angry that I haven’t come here sooner” It’s not that she didn’t have a chance. The Osijek World Cup is being held for the 7th year, and the first lady of world gymnastics, president of the Technical Committee of women’s gymnastics is in Croatia for the first time.

“No one told me you are such a wonder. A beautiful country with wonderful people. I will come here next year too, but also to the sea side. You know, other countries organize meets too, a lot bigger than you, a lot stronger, I’m not saying they are bad, but in your case I can see that the team which organizes this is working with heart. And such impression is left by all people. I just hope they are not sucking up to me” – says Nellie Kim, laughing.

“The team of organizers Croatia has is much needed to the world gymnastics. Young, enthusiastic, hardworking. Honestly, you could organize much bigger championships than this world cup without a problem. You are already ready for European, world championships… I am delighted. This is what we need. Gymnastics must grow, we have to go stronger, and we have to once again create the worldwide stars like there used to be.”

Like she was. That’s why ‘awe’ is perhaps the best description of the people who have approached her these days in Osijek. And she has welcomed all of them as if she was their neighbor and friend.

“You know, I wanted to be a journalist.” If she didn’t “get lost” in a gym at 9… “Today I don’t feel sorry.”

kim_nellie_5 (1)And should she be sorry after she won six Olympic medals, of which five gold (three in Montreal 1976 and two in Moscow 1980), and after she collected eleven world and nine European medals? After she made it to Gymnastics Hall of Fame, after a movie was made about her…

“I’m not sorry because I realized that I wouldn’t be able to choose. I would have to talk to both good and bad people”

We were lucky this time…

“I wouldn’t be able to smile just like that. Even when I competed, they used to tell me I don’t smile enough, that other girls do it better. Okay, let them do that better, I do some other things better than them” – she says through laughter again.

Kim was born in Shurab (Tajik SSR). She inherited her eyes from her father, a Korean descendant, and for the rest she says it’s her “mother’s Tatar blood’s fault”. Due to her father’s job in a slate factory, she moved to Chimkent, Kazakh SSR, very soon after her birth, where she discovered gymnastics at the age of 9.

tumblr_n9sq2oe8IB1r3tszho7_400“My younger brother and sister did gymnastics too, but my brother was teased at school for being too small so he transferred to boxing, and my sister gave up due to frequent injuries. Although, Irina was more talented than me.”

She was coached by Vladimir Baidin and his wife Galina Barkova. At first they struggled with her lack of flexibility. However, she soon won over others with her technique and difficulty of her exercises, and made it to national team. The great Larissa Latynina said that Nellie “has no future”. Because of that, Kim was one step out of gymnastics, but her coach talked her into staying. Despite that, she had no hard feelings for Larissa.

“If we look at the star status, Larissa Latynina is the greatest of all times. If we look at the technical side, for me it’s Olga Mostepanova. She has three gold medals. Unfortunately, she never competed at Olympics, but she is the best for me.”

Many will say that a star is Svetlana Khorkina or Nadia Comaneci.

“No, Khorkina isn’t. She is a star, but just one of many. Latynina, Korbut, Vera Časlavska are something bigger. It’s the same case with men. Aleksei Nemov is a celebrity, a personality, a star. But the technique…” – she stopped. – “His technique is okay. For me Nikolay Andrianov is the one.”

And Kim?

“I am one of the stars. But not the very big one” – she laughs again.

She didn’t want to talk much about today’s gymnastics. She wasn’t allowed to. “I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t be fair. I am in such position where it’s not polite to discuss that. But I love and can talk about “those” times.”

The romantic times of gymnastics. “I enjoyed Montreal the best. That was my greatest time.” She won three Olympic gold medals there in 1976, with the Soviet team, on vault and floor, her strongest and favorite events. “Those two individual medals are my favorites because I got perfect 10s.” She got them for vault and floor, and Nadia Comaneci for beam and uneven bars. What a fight that was…

71da8139fd3f1d8d87c3ce2fc4f41f9a“Yes, we were rivals. Big rivals. We didn’t talk, but we respected each other, and that was the important thing. When she celebrated her 40th birthday, she only invited me from all the famous faces of that time. That says a lot about the respect between us. I was never jealous of her or mad at her when she would beat me. She was the best all arounder, I wasn’t. Everything she has made, she deserved it. I was better on vault and floor and that’s it. But, many forget an important thing in women’s gymnastics. I was fighting against a little girl. Nadia is five years younger than me. It was a fight between a woman and a girl. And still I won against her, which wasn’t easy.”

Both had their last Olympics in Moscow. Kim said goodbye to gymnastics with two new gold medals (team and floor), and then she dedicated herself to coaching and judging. She has coached the South Korean, the Italian and the Belarusian national team, and in 1990 she moved to America, to Minnesota.

“Today I live on the relation Minnesota – Minsk. I’m vice president in the Belarusian Gymnastics Federation.”

She will soon become a grandmother.

“My only daughter is supposed to give birth soon. I am very proud. These things in life are bigger than my rivalry with Nadia, all my medals, gymnastics, sports. No matter how much I love it…”

And she loves it, especially “her” gymnastics. This smile isn’t fake…

The ‘Gradski vrt’ hall. She was especially delighted by that.

kim_nellie (1)“I never thought that a hall like this would actually be ideal for gymnastics. The glass which separates the main hall from the warm-up one is something special. All athletes tell me about it. And I truly understand them when they say “this is ideal because through glass we always see what’s happening and we will never be late for competition”. And so they participate from the beginning until the end of the competition. Usually, when I go somewhere, someone always has complaints so they complain to me. Here no one has asked me anything yet!”

She immediately confessed “I know Croatian men’s gymnastics better”. Logical, when we have the greatest results there, including Olympic silver, world silver and bronze, and European gold, silver and bronze.

“In my time there wasn’t this many countries doing top gymnastics. But after the fall of USSR, Russian coaches spread around the world. Today, no matter which country you go to, if you speak Russian you will manage to work in gymnastics, because there is a Russian coach in every country. But it helped gymnastics spread around and grow stronger in smaller countries, so now we have winners from Slovenia, Croatia…”

Kim has spent all these years fiercely fighting for changes in gymnastics. She fought for the change of the judging system and succeeded in removing the perfect 10. She also fought to have more smaller countries at the Olympics. For Rio, they made it so that the medalists in individual finals at the forthcoming World Championships have an immediate spot, but still, all arounders will have the predominance, and many great specialists won’t see Olympic Games yet again.

“Don’t worry, you will go to Rio. You have great gymnasts; it’s also possible to have one girl of yours qualify through all around. You, Slovenia, Hungary, with the big results of your specialists, made us fight for changes and we managed to move a bit. I have always said that the best ones have to go to the Olympics, to not let happen that a person such as Aljaž Pegan never performs at the Olympics. We need to find the right formula so that everyone is satisfied. There need to be the best teams, best all arounders, and best specialists at the Olympics. Your enthusiasm, work and talent are something we need to fight for.”

The original article was written by Kristina Dominković for the Croatian newspaper “Sportske novosti” and it was translated by translated by Margareta Katanić

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