|Lyudmila Yezhova Grebenkova at the 2007 DTB Cup
A member of Russia's 10-woman Olympic training squad, 26-year-old Lyudmila Yezhova Grebenkova told IG she wants to continue whether or not she makes it to the Beijing Games in August.
Yezhova, a 2004 Olympic team bronze medalist who married fellow 2004 Olympian Georgy Grebenkov in 2005, is the oldest female gymnast in contention for a place on the Russian team for Beijing. She was named to Russia's Olympic training squad following the Russian Cup (July 2-6 in Lobnya), where she placed 10th all-around and second on balance beam.
Selected along with Yezhova were Ksenia Afanasyeva, Kristina Goryunova, Svetlana Klyukina, Yekaterina Kramarenko, Yulia Lozhechko, Anna Pavlova (a 2004 Olympian), Kristina Pravdina, Ksenia Semyonova and Daria Yelizarova.
All but Yezhova and the 20-year-old Pavlova are teenagers. Not making the cut was two-time Olympian Yelena Zamolodchikova, 25.
Should Yezhova make Russia's six-gymnast Olympic starting lineup, she would offer high scoring potential on uneven bars and balance beam, the events on which she is a former World Championships medalist. At the Russian Cup, Yezhova scored above 16.00 on balance beam.
Following the 2004 Athens Olympics, Yezhova says, few people in the Russian gymnastics hierarchy believed she had further value to her team, especially considering the vast number of rising juniors ready to advance towards the Beijing Games.
Perhaps the two individuals most convinced that Yezhova still had more to offer were Yezhova herself and Grebenkov. The couple has united to prepare her for contention this summer in Beijing, and perhaps beyond.
Now coached by her husband, Yezhova insists that ageless talent — not age — dictates a gymnast's ability to stay competitive. "It's whether you can or you can't," Yezhova told IG. "To compose a routine is always possible. I am going to keep adding something new, and perfect what I do."
The personal relationship between Yezhova and Grebenkov evolved along with their gymnastics development. Yezhova was from Moscow; Grebenkov, the 2000 European junior all-around champion, was from St. Petersburg. They worked out often at Round Lake, the Russian national team training center near the capital.
"We trained together since we were little, and we were friends," notes Yezhova with a smile. "At first everyone had their own friends. Then it happened that we started to date, and we fell in love. It's normal! Everything balances out — boys and gymnastics."
Following the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Yezhova won a team bronze and Grebenkov placed 12th all-around, Yezhova says she was "asked to retire" by team officials.
Subsequently appointed Russian Gymnastics Federation president Yuri Titov, however, acknowledged Yezhova's value and welcomed her back to training in 2006. "He said I wouldn't have to try to make it on the team," she notes.
Russia's abundance of junior talent theoretically made Yezhova's past merits obsolete, but many of the younger prospects from 2005-2007 yielded to injury or retirement.
Yezhova has proven herself anew, though, as one of Russia's most reliable gymnasts. In the past year she has won medals on balance beam at three World Cup meets (gold at the 2007 Glasgow Grand Prix, bronze at the 2007 DTB Cup in Stuttgart, and bronze at the 2008 Doha World Cup in Qatar). She also made the event finals on uneven bars and balance beam at this spring's Pacific Alliance championships in San Jose, Calif.
"I'm very good on bars and beam," Yezhova says. "I can help the team, especially on bars, because there are not many people in Russia who are good on bars. We are hoping to get better by the time we go to Beijing."
A review of Yezhova's results over the past dozen years validates her consistent worth. She was a member of Russia's gold medal-winning team at the 1996 Junior European Championships and the 2002 Senior Europeans. On balance beam, Yezhova placed first at the 2002 Europeans, second at the 2001 Worlds and third at the 2003 Worlds. On uneven bars, she was third at the 2002 Worlds.
Though typically considered two-event specialist, Yezhova won the 2001 World University Games all-around title, and made the all-around finals at the 2001 Worlds. She did not qualify for Russia's 2000 Olympic team, having placed 12th all-around at the 2000 Russian Cup.
Yezhova's routines contain original elements which she has performed for several years. On uneven bars she originated a layout barani transition from the high to low bar. On balance beam, she does a tumbling series of Onodi, front aerial, side somi; later in the routine, standing widthwise, she throws a back dive with half turn to handstand, immediate pirouette.
Keeping pace with rules changes also contributes to Yezhova's vitality.
"The programs have become more difficult, and that's why you have to change combinations and learn something new," she says, having added a round-off, whip and double turn to her balance beam routine.
Yezhova, who at 4'6" is petite even among her younger teammates, says her physical maturity gives her an advantage in the Olympic selection process. She also notes the number of Russian upstarts from 2004-07 who are no longer candidates for Beijing.
"They went through puberty and gained weight, and that's why a lot of them got injuries," Yezhova says. "I stopped growing and gaining weight, and that's why it was easier for me to come back. We have a lot of young gymnasts, and it's hard to choose among them, but everyone has a chance. Those who can perfect their program and avoid injuries, because gymnastics is full of injuries, will go to Beijing."
Whether or not Yezhova makes it to Beijing, she is considering another career extension. She cites the endurance of 33-year-old Oksana Chusovitina (now representing Germany), who is married, a mother and preparing for her fifth Olympics. "Maybe I will compete a few more years, and be like Chusa!" Yezhova says.
Yezhova is also pondering motherhood. "We'll see," Yezhova says. "My husband wouldn't mind!"
The Grebenkovs toil together in the gym, but they also strive to live like typical spouses. "We have an agreement about working together in the gym and at home," Yezhova says. "When we are home, we don't talk about gymnastics."
With the money they received for their success at the 2004 Olympics, the couple bought an apartment in Moscow. Georgy now also works as a gymnastics commentator for Russian television.
In spite of the fact that Yezhova currently receives no stipend for her training or living expenses, her romance with gymnastics is as strong as ever. "To receive money, I need to prove myself," Yezhova says. "This is my personal initiative. I just love the sport."
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