A perfectionist to the core

SHE has always been a showwoman. And a perfectionist to the core ever since she took the world by storm in 1994. That the string of successes and the adulation of an ever-increasing tribe of fans has only motivated her to strive hard for more and more perfection is what has always separated Svetlana Khorkina from her peers.

The Russian diva was once again at her best in the recent World gymnastics championship in Anaheim, California, and as she won the all-around title to emerge as the first ever athlete — male or female — to win that honour for a record third time, it only spoke volumes of the dedication with which Khorkina has pursued her career through all these years. In fact, for someone so awkwardly tall in a sport which for a long time has been dominated by pixies, Khorkina has always been an exception.

Small wonder then, that this Queen of the Bars has already more elements bearing her name in the Code of Points than any other gymnast — a feat by itself and which has taken her into the golden pages of history of the sport. Yet, it was indeed a great surprise when the great lady turned emotional and was virtually on the verge of tears soon after her latest accomplishment. Since the first World championships for women held in 1934, only Vlasta Dekanova (of erstwhile Czechoslovakia) in 1934 and 1938, Larissa Latinina (USSR) in 1958 and1962, Ludmila Turischeva (USSR) in 1970 and 1974 and Shannon Miller (U.S.) in 1993 and 1994 had managed to win two World titles.

It clearly showed that Khorkina, after all, was just another human being. But it is unlikely that Carly Patterson, the American who ran Khorkina close, would agree with this assessment. Particularly by the manner in which the Russian legend chose to pull the rug from under the feet of her young American rival. It was a touch and go situation and Khorkina's steely resolve was what helped her carry the day. She was great on everything she touched. Still the highlight was the floor exercise where she went through one tough jump combination after another, giving the judges little to be critical of.

Of course, tumbling and jumping were only part of the performance. As always, Khorkina commanded the floor — and everybody's attention: strutting, shaking and dancing her way through the routine. It ended with a saucy number and a graceful leap that left her face down on the mat. She followed this with a seductive roll on to her back and a devilish look to the side. It was sheer drama and when it finally ended, Khorkina was all grace as she stood up and blew kisses at the adoring crowd.

In fact, nobody could have done any better. And as she received the gold — her 10th in a major international competition — her eyes glistened once again, the sign of a woman who knew that she was getting closer to the end of her career. "I'm so, so sad, but I know that I have to finish some day. I think I gave some very nice performances in many, many countries and have helped the sport in my own humble way."

Born on January 19, 1979 in Belgorod, Russia and coached all along by the grandfatherly Boris Pilkin and his wife Anna Pilkina, Khorkina is only the second woman to have won the European all-around title thrice, a deed first achieved by the legendary Nadia Comaneci during her reign at the top between 1975 and 1979. Khorkina, in short, has always been a star but much to the dismay of her rivals she has just kept getting brighter by the day.

The lanky Russian legend is certain to take her final bow from the international arena after next year's Athens Olympics. And by the manner she shut out the opposition in the recent Worlds, it would not be a surprise if she illuminates the competitions at the Greek capital and gains the all-around title which has remained elusive to her through two successive Games. — A. Vinod