The week after tornadoes ripped through central Oklahoma, the 19th induction dinner for the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame braced for another round of severe weather on May 16 as five individuals were honored in Oklahoma City. The event was held at the Petroleum club, which sits on the 34th floor of the Chase Tower and offers panoramic views of the region, not to mention any developing weather patterns.
Quipped emcee Bart Conner, whose back faced the windows, "If anyone sees a funnel cloud behind me, let me know."
On this evening, however, even a few dramatic bolts of lightning and heavy rain could not dampen the spirits of the gathered guests, who marveled at the accomplishments of each honoree.
2015 honorees (l-r): Philippe Silacci, Johanna Quaas, Abie Grossfeld, Yelena Zamolodchikova, Valery Belenky
Valery Belenky became the first gymnast from Azerbaijan to be inducted into the Hall, and Yelena Zamolodchikova became the 16th from Russia.
Also honored were Philippe Silacci of Switzerland, retired FIG Media Relations Officer (AAI International Order of Merit); Johanna Quaas of Germany, at 89 the oldest competitive gymnast in the world (Nadia Comaneci Sportsmanship Award); and Abie Grossfeld of the U.S., a two-time Olympian and coach of the gold-medal U.S. men's team at the 1984 Olympics (Frank Bare Award).
The stories of Zamolodchikova and Belenky followed similar paths; both trained at modest gyms as kids and credited their personal coaches for much of their success.
Zamolodchikova won two gold medals, on vault and floor exercise, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And had she not fallen on floor exercise in the all-around, she probably would have won that gold, too. That she was Olympic champion on vault and floor was ironic, since her gym in Moscow was too small to include a vault runway or a complete floor exercise mat. Her coach, Nadezhda Maslennikova, was also a parental figure and saw the immense potential and toughness in Yelena. The rest is history.
In Oklahoma City, Zamolodchikova's tone was one of humility and gratitude as she joined a Hall of Fame that included so many legends of the sport.
"I became one of them, and I give a big thank you to my coach," she said through translator Rustam Sharipov, the 1996 Olympic champion on parallel bars.
Belenky started gymnastics late, at age 10, when Alexei Orehkov discovered him at his school. And as Belenky improved, he turned down invitations to move to Moscow to practice with other coaches. He remained in Baku with Orehkov.
Belenky was part of the gold-medal 1992 Olympic team, the last time the Soviet Union competed together. In 1993 he competed under the FIG flag at the Birmingham world championships, since Azerbaijan was too small to sponsor a program. Belenky had a second career representing Germany, where he used the training system he grew up with to win the world title on pommel horse in 1997.
He praised the leadership of 2011 Hall of Fame inductee Leonid Arkayev, and how his strict training regimen had produced impressive results.
"What we went through makes us who we are," Belenky said through Sharipov.
Belenky is now a coach in Germany, and groomed Marcel Nguyen to the all-around silver at the 2012 Olympics. When he began coaching Nguyen years earlier, however, he was told by a German official that "not every great gymnast can be a good coach." Belenky's response: "If you don't give me the chance, you'll never know."
Silacci opened his speech with his memory of his first world championships in 1987 in Rotterdam. He recalled sitting through "two full days of compulsory exercises to the same piano music," which made him vow never to return to such an event. But he did, and soon came to appreciate not only artistic gymnastics, but all the disciplines under the vast umbrella of the FIG.
That Silacci was rarely seen or noticed at major events was testament to the efficiency of his work. His behind-the-scenes efforts and attention to detail always made the experience seamless for the media.
"It's a great honor to be recognized by your prestigious institution," Silacci said in English, one of five languages he speaks.
Quaas was an inspiration to everyone at the dinner for her bright smile and boundless energy. Thanks to the Internet, her two exhibition routines at the 2012 Cottbus Tournament of Masters were uploaded to YouTube, and each drew more than 3.5 million views. She has been on a celebrity tour of sorts ever since.
"It was a wonderful surprise when I received the news that I was receiving the Nadia Comaneci Award," she said through translator and IGHOF Board member Lieve Olivera. "I never have been a European or world champion. However, I was the German champion for 11 years," she said.
Throughout the evening, Quaas was grinning ear-to-ear.
"My heart is beating with happiness," she said. "I am having a grand time in Oklahoma City."
To close her acceptance speech, she ended with perhaps the wisest words of all: "You are never too old to learn something new."
Grossfeld, a master story-teller with an endless supply of jokes, closed the evening with an entertaining combination of both. But above that stood his heartfelt comments about his life in gymnastics.
"Gymnastics has provided me with many opportunities and experiences I would otherwise never had," said the two-time Olympian (1956, 1960) and long-time coach at Southern Connecticut State University.
Grossfeld also spoke of his insecurities as a young coach, believing he would never create an Olympian. He did that more than once, and then overachieved as coach the 1984 men's Olympic team, whose victory in Los Angeles "made me a believer in miracles."
Grossfeld ended the night with a fitting charge that revealed a deep love and respect for the sport that has defined his life: "If you love your kids, let them do gymnastics."
Read more on the Hall of Fame dinner and in-depth interviews with the five honorees in the June issue of International Gymnast.