From Russia, with love

Gold medal Olympians are quietly teaching young Reno gymnasts

Harrison Burton, 11, takes to the rings at Deltchev Gymnastics Academy.

Harrison Burton, 11, takes to the rings at Deltchev Gymnastics Academy.

Photo By David Robert

Take a group of Soviet-trained, Olympic-caliber gymnasts who spend their youth and teens competing nationally and internationally. They win hundreds of medals between them—national titles, European and World Championships, Olympic Games, Goodwill Games. Then imagine them 10 years later in Reno, trying to teach wobbly, beginner, 5-year-old Americans to do a handstand once a week.

Sound odd? Well, that’s exactly what’s been going on in Reno’s gymnastic world. Nearly five decades after Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 winter Olympics, a handful of Russian, Belarusian and former Eastern Bloc gymnastic champions have taken over the mats, even opening gyms themselves, bringing their high-level training to Northern Nevada.

Situated near WinCo Foods on South Meadows Parkway is the Deltchev Gymnastics Academy, named after the gym’s co-owner, Stoyan Deltchev, a Bulgarian Olympic gold medal gymnast. He and his partner, Aneta Damianova, saw that the market in Reno was big—there were enough kids, at least enough to warrant opening an academy of their own.

So now, six days a week, everyone from toddlers to teens takes turns tumbling, turning, flipping and bouncing on a myriad of gymnastic equipment while hoping, perhaps, to become the next Carly Patterson.

“The Russians pay a lot of attention to detail,” says parent Kelly Burton, whose two boys, Harrison, 11, and Hunter, 8, both compete for Deltchev’s team. They recently acquired a new coach, Oleg Dmitriev, who, like the coach before him, comes from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The country is a former training ground for many of the Soviet and Russian gymnastic greats, including the world’s most decorated gymnast, Vitali Scherbo, who took home six golds from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics before taking off for Las Vegas to open a gym of his own.

Heath Blake (left) watches as Hunter Burton trains on the parallel bars.

Photo By David Robert

“The Russians focus on the execution of tricks and not just the tricks themselves,” says Burton. “They make sure everything looks really good—the pointed toes, the form.” At one point, she recalls, their coach had her sons doing something akin to ballet to make their routines smoother.

As she talks, Burton points out that some families moved to be next to Deltchev’s. One mother drives more than 60 miles daily so that her child can train at the Academy. It’s the only gymnastics academy in the South Reno area, but that’s not why they go there. They simply like the coaches.

So do many local gymnastic fanatics who’ve had their children training with them since the arrival of Oleg and Lena Dmitriev, both world-class gymnasts who came to Reno in the early ’90s. Back then, they coached at Flips USA Gymnastics in Sparks. Now they’re regulars at the newly opened Deltchev’s.

Now Sergey Tur, another fellow gymnast from the motherland, has taken over at Flips, spending his afternoons and weekends coaching kids and teens. The cheerleading team of the University of Nevada, Reno even wants to learn some jumps and tricks.

Like his colleagues across town, the 40-something Tur is focused, burly and noticeably short. Very short. A professional gymnast rarely measures more than 5’5”. His lifetime of disciplined, results-oriented training, of meals skipped and calories counted, keep him focused on whatever is in front of him. At the moment, that happens to be another 40-something man who’s come for some daytime trampoline practice.

The phenomenon of Russian and Eastern European coaches making their way to the United States is now nothing unusual, says Tur. It’s raised the caliber of American gymnastics in general.

“Just look at the American Olympic team in Athens,” he says. “They were coached by Russians. [U.S. Olympic Gold medalist Carly] Patterson was coached by Russians.”

Taking their talent on the road, or better put, across the sea, was the ’90s story of Russian gymnastics, he explains. Lured by higher wages, many took their skills and their medals, seeking work wherever they could get it.

Hunter gets advice from coach Oleg Dmitriev, a world-class gymnast, at Deltchev Gymnastics Academy in South Reno.

Photo By David Robert

“We all trained together back in the Soviet Union,” says Tur. “We competed together for the Soviet Union on the national teams. Now we see each other all the time on the weekends, at regional and state competitions. Only now, we’re coaching Americans.”

As for many of the other coaches, Tur says it was not an easy transition from the world of elite sports, which focused on results, to one where, as he put it, “the parents pay the money, and the kids can come and do whatever they feel like.” Lots of American kids don’t seem to want to work hard, he says.

Body weight, or having too much of it, is another big problem for Americans, he says with a sigh. “Coaches can’t tell chubby kids to go on a diet, even if less weight will translate into better results. They can’t tell them to stop being lazy.

American parents, he says, want them to give their kids compliments. “You tell kids they’re doing great, even if they aren’t.”

“It’s a lot different in Russia. If someone showed up and didn’t want to participate, fine, it was up to them. They were simply told to leave and not come back. Here, if someone doesn’t want to do something, it’s the coach’s responsibility to motivate them or try to convince them to do whatever it is they are supposed to do.”

By now, he’s used to it. Sure, it’s nice to find talented kids and train them for competition, but the money is in volume ($50-$500 a month per student depending on the trainee’s level and seriousness). The more kids who show up to tumble the better.

His training style and attempts to get his groups and even competing gymnasts to gain muscle and lose fat is not lost on all of the parents.

“I’m not sure all the parents here understand exactly what kind of high-level backgrounds these Russian coaches have,” says parent Daphne Dominguez, whose daughters, Kylie, 12, and Chantel, 13, have been training at Flips for four years.

“I like what the kids are bringing home,” she says. “They are in better condition. The Russians have higher expectations for the kids. They want them focused and in good physical condition.” It’s not unusual, she says, for the Russian coaches to have the kids do pull ups.

For parent Burton, she likes the personal relationship between her sons and their coach, Dmitriev, who coaches Deltchev’s boys team.

“I was really impressed when they went to a competition in California, and Oleg’s son was competing with his collegiate team at the same meet,” says Burton. “Oleg invited him to come sit personally next to him and share the moment. His approach is a lot more personal. The kids are really bonded with him.”