They Flip (on the Mat) for Gold-Medal Training; Camden County Kids Learn Gymnastics from a Retired Olympian

Article excerpt

Byline: GORDON JACKSON

KINGSLAND -- Natalia Laschenova has been on the cover of magazines, featured on the front page of newspapers and performed in front of worldwide audiences on TV.

But she is reluctant to seek recognition for her past accomplishments, even though it would probably lure more students to her classes at the Camden County Recreation Center in Kingsland.

"I never tell who I am," she said. "Usually, my daughter tells everyone."

Laschenova, who is in the United States on a temporary visa, has a resume that includes a gold medal from the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, where she turned 15 the day before the games began in Seoul, South Korea.

In 1989, Laschenova earned gold in the team event at the World Gymnastics Championships for the Soviet Union, as well as a silver medal in the overall competition when she finished second overall by a mere 0.038 points.

The spotlight is no longer on Laschenova, who retired from the Russian gymnastics team in 1991 at the age of 18. But she remains active in the sport she has been a part of since she was 6 years old.

The road to Southeast Georgia began after Laschenova, 32, and her husband, former boxer Roman Kravchenko, moved to the United States in 1999. She taught gymnastics in New York until two years ago, when she accepted an instructor's job at Camden Gymnastics in Kingsland.

"I can find a job anywhere, if I want to," she said. "The people here found out I was looking for a job and my husband wanted to move to a place where the weather was warmer."

While Kingsland is no hotbed for gymnastics, Laschenova said she is teaching some girls who show some promise.

She yells at the teenage girls she's training at the gym, saying they understand that if the yelling stops, that means they probably aren't going any further in the sport.

"When I yell, it means you can do better," she said. "I can yell and joke at the same time. The big girls understand when I'm joking."

Still, Laschenova said she tries to use the same training techniques as when she first began gymnastics, in kindergarten in the former Soviet Union.

"It's very hard work," she said. "Every day is the same. The same work, training and competing."

She also understands that some of her students are forced to practice for events they may not enjoy. When she was competing, she said she didn't like the uneven bars, even after earning a perfect score in the event at the 1989 world championships.

"It's not fun for me," she said. "I just did it."

Her students have also taught her something important over the years, she said.

Laschenova said she learned to speak fluent English, with barely a foreign accent, with help from children of all ages she has taught the past six years. …