Olympic champion Yelena Shushunova passes away at 49

Three-time gold medallist Daniela Silivas remembers her former rival

3 min By Alessandro Poggi
Yelena Shushunova performing at Seoul 1988 during the routine on the balance beam

Yelena Shushunova, 49, passed away on Thursday in a Saint Petersburg hospital due to complications from pneumonia, according to Elena Mikhaylova, a representative of the Russian Artistic Gymnastics Federation.

Shushunova helped lead the Soviet team to gold at the 1988 Olympic Games before claiming the individual title in the all-around final ahead of Romania’s Daniela Silivas.

“I just remember her being so serious about her gymnastics,” Silivas said. “We were like, ‘Oh, she means business.’”

Shushunova had established herself as one to watch well before the Seoul Games. She was the winner of five World Championships gold medals, including the 1985 World all-around title which she shared with teammate Oksana Omelianchik.

“When you look at her gymnastics, she had everything. She had the power and she had the flexibility, not that many gymnasts have that [combination].” - Daniela Silivas, three-time Olympic champion.

Yelena Shushunova performing at Seoul 1988 during the routine on the balance beam
Yelena Shushunova performing at Seoul 1988 during the routine on the balance beam

Intense rivalry

Her rivalry with Silivas was intense throughout their careers. At the 1987 European Championships, Silivas took the title while a fall pushed Shushunova to third. Later that year, Shushunova bested Silivas in the all-around at the World Championships, as the duo finished second and third. Romania’s Aurelia Dobre was the champion.

Romania had stunned the Soviets at the 1987 World team taking the team title, beating the Soviets for just the second time.

Silivas knew Shushunova and the Soviets would be motivated by their defeat, and it fueled her in the lead up to Seoul.

“We all knew that the Soviets were the best, or training to be the best. Especially after the '87 Worlds when we won, we knew that they were going into the gym and train extra to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the Olympics. So, we kind of had to do the same thing and do the same thing and be ready for that.” - Daniela Silivas.

Closest final

The 1988 all-around final was one of the closest in Olympic history. It was a highly anticipated battle between Shushunova and Silivas with only .025 separating the two in the end.

“I knew both of us were close to winning but I didn’t know the scores,” Silivas reflected. “We don’t watch the scores or anything. I guess the coaches do, but they don’t tell us.”

In addition to team and all-around golds, Shushunova won the balance beam silver and uneven bars bronze in Seoul.

Shushunova leaves behind a legacy that extends beyond her competitive accolades with gymnastics elements bearing her name on the uneven bars and floor exercise.

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