The Year of Tamara Yerofeeva

Among the 150 long-legged girls living at the world-famous Deryugina School, there is one girl whose star didn't suddenly explode into the gymnastics sky. For years Tamara Yerofeyeva learned to keep her emotions in check when at competition after competition the gold went to someone else. Others made headlines, while she returned to work and waited for her time. Spectators cheered louder for others, but they never saw her injuries, frustration, or sadness. Through it all she was outwardly serious or silly, resigned or sad, but in her soul she was always a kid.

Yerofeyeva won three bronze medals at the pivotal World Championships held in Madrid in the fall 2001, but despite her performance she was still competing in the shadows. Her former teammate Yelena Vitrichenko, despite her retirement, had more fans. Superstars Irina Chaschina and Alina Kabayeva of Russia were the headliners, and they bothered to share the top two spots on the podium only with each other. Even Bulgarian underdog Simona Peycheva, who Yerofeyeva edged for the all-around bronze, became the crowd favorite.

But as the cold winter of 2001 thawed into the spring of 2002, a new gymnast was born. Chaschina and Kabayeva had tested positive for diuretics and were stripped of their Madrid titles by the FIG and banned from competition for a year. Yerofeyeva was thrust into both the spotlight and was suddenly a triple world champion a few days before celebrating her 20th birthday on March 4. Appeals brought up to the Court of Arbitration and Sport later reinstated the Russians' titles pending further appeal, leaving Yerofeyeva caught in the middle with her 2001 fate indefinitely suspended.

But through all the drama Yerofeyeva finally understood that there is only one step to success, and she found it lay within herself all along and not with the destiny of others. And then that shy little girl disappeared. She finally grasped the complicated programs coaches Irina and Albina Deryugina created for her. She worked out the kinks, she tossed aside her unitards and put on elegant skirts. At the 2002 Group Worlds in New Orleans, aside four teammates, she helped Ukraine win the gold with ribbon. But anonymous no more, everybody noticed who she was, for 2002 was the year of Tamara Yerofeyeva.

- Tamara, you have an unusual name for a Ukrainian.

- Yes, my last name is Russian, though my father is the Ukrainian one. My mom is Russian. I like my name and I asked my mom many times why I was named this. She said that she wanted to give me a glamorous name, like Tsarina Tamara, daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.

- Were your parents dreaming that their daughter would become famous one day?

- In the beginning my mom and dad were just glad that their kid was in the gym and not hanging around on the streets. And then when the coaches began to pay attention to me, my parents, of course, started supporting me. My mom still comes to my workouts. I can't say that I always like it; I feel freer when mom isn't there. But my Mom sometimes goes with me to competitions, if they are not far away, like in Moscow for example.

-  How did you go to the Deryugina School?

- Gradually. When I was in first grade, I was brought to the gym close to my house, and then I changed my coaches a few times. Only at 13 years old it became clear that if I wanted to get something more in sport I would have to go to the Deryuginas. So terribly nervous, I went to talk to Albina Deryugina. She talked to me for a long time in the beginning, then looked at my skills in the gym, and right away she began to correct my mistakes and change my program.

-  What do you think Albina saw in little Tamara?

- I don't even know what she liked in me, and that is the truth! I have my diary from that time and when I look through it, I think I wouldn't take that girl, no matter what! (Laughs)

Irina Deryugina: At first Toma was the proverbial 'ugly duckling.' There was nothing special. Everything appeared about two years later, and it was only revealed by work. I like it when happens this way. There are children who shine right away, but I am afraid of that.

-  When did you start to go to international competitions?

- In 1996 I was in the Ukrainian junior group, and for the first time I competed in the European Junior Championships. And in this same year I went to the AEON Cup in Japan, but I competed as an individual and took third place among juniors. It was my first medal in such a big competition and it is my most memorable. But all of my successes were achieved with a lot of work, and therefore all the medals are very valuable for me. If you want to get even the most minor medal, you have to work a lot.

-  Did you have a moment in your life when you believed that you could become the star of rhythmic gymnastics?

- Truthfully speaking, I never thought that I would become a leader. Of course I wanted to achieve something in sport, but I didn't set out to win, for example, an Olympic gold medal. For me it was important to reach my potential, to compete perfectly. The last thing I thought about was a medal.

-  In Madrid you were in fourth place until the last rotation. Did you have any hope at all of the bronze medal?

- I didn't know my scores or even my place. Irina Ivanovna didn't tell me what the judges gave me, she was just repeating, "Toma, everything is fine and normal. Just do it." When I did my last event, I was thinking that I was in maybe fourth or fifth place. It was hard to believe I could have been in third place. And then we are standing and waiting for the score and Albina says, "Well, probably you are fourth." And then the hall explodedů the score showed up and I can't even tell you my feelings at that moment, because the score was more than 27.000 and it meant that despite of everything I finished third.

-  Alina Kabayeva was given an apartment for winning the 1999 World Championships. For her 2001 victory she got a car. How has your country rewarded you?

Well, I am not a star like Alina. I think that I didn't do anything yet to be awarded that way. Although we had a reception with the President of Ukraine and I was awarded the Order for Achievement. An in 2000, after the Deryugina Cup, I was given an apartment. This is thanks to Irina Ivanovna. Without her, I would have none of that.

-  Imagine that a wizard came to you and asked you to take the very best feature from any gymnast. What would you choose, for example, from Lena Vitrichenko or Ira Chaschina?

- When I was small and watching Lena performing, I couldn't even dream that I would one day compete by her side. But I dreamed of being like her. What would I take from Lena? She has a very competitive character - however bad she feels, she still tries to survive the situation. It's really hard for me to choose something from Chaschina, because I like Ira as an athlete and as a person. I always admire her performances.

-  What are good and bad aspects to the character of Tamara Yerofeyeva?

- It's hard to say, what is the best in me, it is better to ask others. I think that I am pretty normal like everyone, and there is nothing extraordinary about me. And about the bad, I will not say (laughs).

Irina Deruigina : During training sometimes Toma doesn't have enough patience. Sometimes she just wastes her energy trying to achieve a lot of things at once. She is very impulsive, very emotional, always tries to do the best she can, and she is always agitated when she can't do it. As a person she is a very honest and modest girl. She is not spoiled.

-  What do you want to do after you retire from sports?

- My future life will be connected to sports for sure. I have given to gymnastics so many years that I will not be able to push myself out of it. But I don't think right now seriously about that, while I still want to compete and win something else.

Albina Deryugina: I think that Tamara will be a coach, and a very good coach at that. She understands a lot now and grasps what is going on. Tamara will be demanding, and strict, which is really good for results. And in her soul she will love and appreciate her students' work.

-  If you and Anna Bessonova were not connected through gymnastics, would you still be friends?

- I can't picture us together without gymnastics! (Laughs) I've never met another person like Anya. She always tries to support me. Our rivalry on the mat does not affect our friendship. I still sometimes speak sharply to people, but Anya never does. I very much respect her for it. Anya is a remarkable girl.

-  The group events are always considered to be less prestigious than the individual. Did you get upset when you were put into the group?

- Not at all! I even wanted to be in it. At our school it was very competitive to get into the group among the little girls.

- When you found out about the disqualification of Kabayeva and Chaschina, were you happy that it cleared the way for you to get the gold medal, or were you sad because you lost your strongest opponents?

- You know, I felt a bit sorry for them because I saw myself in them. So many girls worked hard in not just the year leading up to the World Championships, but for a lot of years before. Because of this doping scandal, everything was so messed up. I felt so much sad for all their lost hours. Everybody would be happy to be me, because a world championship gold medal is not given to everyone. But, whatever happens, I have to say I feel this gold medal is a hollow one.

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