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Boris Shakhlin, 1932-2008
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Boris Shakhlin, 1932-2008

Legendary gymnast Boris Shakhlin, the "Man of Iron," died Friday in Kiev, the Ukrainian Olympic Committee announced. Shakhlin was 76.

During his illustrious career, Shakhlin won 13 Olympic medals (seven gold) and 13 world championships medals (six of them gold). He won the 1955 European Championships, the 1958 World Championships and the 1960 Olympic Games.

Ukrainian Olympic Committee President Sergei Bubka said sports remained Shakhlin's passion to the end.

"Having reached all possible heights [in his own career], he always remained devoted to the Olympic movement. To the last gasp, Boris Anfiyanovich shared his experience with the youngest generation," Bubka said.

With his steely determination and calm consistency, Shakhlin earned the nickname "Man of Iron" early in his career.

"He was the first to give prominence to concentration and psychological effort, concepts that allowed him to obtain great security," the FIG stated in 2002 on the occasion of Shakhlin's 70th birthday. "Moreover, no one within the FIG remembers having seen Boris fall from an apparatus!"

Boris Anfiyanovich Shakhlin was born Jan. 27, 1932, in the Siberian town of Ishim. After his father, a railway worker, died in 1944, Shakhlin and his elder brother were raised by their grandmother. That same year, 12-year-old Boris began gymnastics. His first coach was Vasily A. Porfirev, whom he credited with instilling in him the drive to fight until the end. (In Ishim he was also coached by Pelageya Danilova, who went on to win a gold medal as part of the Soviet women's team at the 1952 Olympic Games.)

Boris Shakhlin

In 1949, Shakhlin transferred to school in Sverdlovsk, where he was coached by Eduard Rung. Two years later, he was sent to Kiev to be coached by Alexander Mishakov, a friend of Rung's. He did not take part in the 1952 Olympic Games, which were won by his training partner, Viktor Chukarin. Shakhlin was inspired by the work ethic of the legendary Chukarin, who he said "was worshipped like a deity."

At the 1954 World Championships in Rome, Shakhlin placed fourth all-around and first with his Soviet team. The following year he won the European championships in Frankfurt, where his strong demeanor prompted German journalists to give him the nickname "The Russian Bear." He then dominated the 1958 World Championships in Moscow, winning five gold medals.

Shakhlin returned to Rome for the 1960 Olympic Games, and became overall champion. His favorite medal of all, he said, is not the 1960 Olympic all-around gold, but his high bar bronze medal from the same Olympics. In the final he injured his hand, but remained on the apparatus. With his hand bleeding, he continued his routine, earning both respect from the audience and the bronze medal from the judges.

At the Olympic Games in Tokyo four years later, a great dual between the Soviet and Japanese men for the all-around title ended with Shakhlin tying two other gymnasts for the silver, and Japan's Yukio Endo winning the gold. In the finals, however, Shakhlin won gold on the high bar.

Shakhlin's Soviet team lost to Japan at the 1966 World Championships, and the 34-year-old veteran finished 18th. It was his last competition. At age 35, Shakhlin suffered a heart attack, which he attributed to the smoking habit he picked up in Sverdlovsk.

Boris Shakhlin

After his heart attack, Shakhlin was forced to retire from competition, and his personal life was affected. During this period, he and his wife, Larisa, divorced, though they have since remarried. After a second heart attack in 1978, Shakhlin gave up smoking for good, he said.

Through it all, Shakhlin never abandoned gymnastics. During his career — as both gymnast and official — he participated in 12 Olympic Games and numerous world championships. He was a member of the FIG men's technical committee from 1968 until 1992, and was a senior lecturer on gymnastics at Kiev's National University of Physical Training and Sports.

His athletic achievements made Shakhlin a Soviet hero, and he was awarded the Red Banner of Labor in 1956, the Order of Lenin in 1960, and the Mark of Honor in 1964. Shakhlin is an "Honorable Citizen" of both Kiev and Ishim, and he said he still felt a special bond to the latter city. Though he spent the last 56 years of his life in Ukraine, Shakhlin declared, "I was born a Siberian and I will die a Siberian."

Shakhlin is survived by his wife, Larisa, a former gymnast whom he met at a national competition in 1956, and one daughter and one granddaughter.

In 2002, Shakhlin was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Click here to view the IGHOF induction video honoring Shakhlin.

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