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Friday, Jan. 18, 2002


Flexing bodies, opening minds


When 24-year-old Elena Davidenko, former gymnast of the Russian national team, returned to Moscow last summer after serving a 2 1/2-year stint as a sports exchange adviser in Akita City, she left a legacy of new ideas for her Japanese students.

News photo
Russian gymnast Elena Davidenko

"It was not just her brilliance as a gymnast," recalls Davidenko's Japanese interpreter, Chiharu Nishizuka. "Her supportive attitude meant a great deal to her students. Elena's efforts to share her gymnastic skills did more than nurture the girls' fledgling gymnastic talents. Her presence opened their minds to a whole new perspective on themselves as individuals."

Davidenko's job in Akita was not an easy assignment for a Russian coach accustomed to working with athletes of world-class caliber. Upon arriving in March 1999, she was given responsibility for training a dozen relatively inexperienced local elementary-school girls every afternoon after school in the Russian gymnastics tradition. Language was the first barrier she came up against. Cultural differences, however, proved a greater hurdle.

In an interview conducted last summer, just prior to Davidenko's return to Moscow, she explained how she approached her work differently here to better deal with the cultural gap. "Gymnastics in Japan is still in the developing stage and, rather than pushing the girls too hard, I found it better to have them try to enjoy themselves," Davidenko said. "This is important for them to feel an appreciation for gymnastics. If they're having fun, they'll be motivated to go further."

Whereas most Japanese gymnastics teachers focus their lessons often entirely on mastering the basic formulas of the sport, Davidenko preferred to take another approach. She introduced ballet exercises and, in order to encourage self-expression, she trained the girls in rhythmic and modern dance techniques. "Gymnastics is a mixture of ballet and modern dance traditions," Davidenko explained, "and I wanted my students to get a feel for how eclectic the sport really is."

The Russian coach also made sure to point out the special talents and weaknesses of each student. "Each girl is different," Davidenko said. "Rather than focus on the students as a group, as the Japanese do, I made a point of directing a healthy balance of criticism and praise to each individual."

During the two summers that the Davidenko was in Akita, she took her students to Moscow for two-week intensive training sessions with the Russian national gymnastics team.

"The experience was a real eye-opener for them," recalled Nishizuka, who joined Davidenko as interpreter on the Russian tours. "The girls were able to see world-class athletes firsthand, and it encouraged them to become more diligent in their own efforts."

Cultural exchange is a two-way street, and to gain a deeper appreciation of Japan and Japanese sensibilities, Davidenko made efforts to learn as much as she could about the culture. Besides taking Japanese-language classes offered to local foreigners, she also studied tea ceremony and koto.

"Davidenko was very active around town," Nishizuka said. "The sight of her dashing through the streets on her bicycle was a familiar one."

But perhaps the memory that left the deepest impression on the people of Akita City was seeing the tall and elegant Russian swimming in the frigid waters of the Japan Sea, just weeks after the final winter snows had melted.

Before leaving Japan, Davidenko summed up her experience here with the following insight: "Many of the foreigners I met here in Japan got frustrated with the Japanese way of doing things. I saw some people who even tried to change the Japanese system and got even more discouraged.

"I believe, however, that it is better we should try to leave a part of ourselves with the Japanese people. That is perhaps the best thing we can really do."

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