As an Olympic champion, Lilia "Lily Pod" Podkopayeva affirmed her status as the premiere women's gymnast with gold medal wins in the European Championships, Worlds, and the Olympics. At age seventeen and holding the top titles at every level of competition, Podkopayeva was the first athlete ever to win multiple medals while representing the Ukraine. Known best for her amazing floor exercise routines, Podkopayeva is the only woman in the world to execute an Arabian double front brani out in her routine.
Podkopayeva was born on August 15, 1978, in Donetsk in the Ukraine, which at that time was a part of the former Soviet Union. The second of two children, she lived in a household of three generations, with her parents and grandparents. Her father abandoned the family when she was two years old. After that time she lived with her mother, brother, and grandparents, although it was her grandmother who took responsibility and raised her. At age five Podkopayeva was enrolled in gymnastics classes at the Dynamo Gym. There she worked with coach Ulla Pugacheva, who recognized the girl's natural ability.
Soon Podkopayeva was training with Galyna Losinska. With the gymnasium located in Donetsk, and the
home of Podkopayeva's grandparents situated outside of town, Podkopayeva faced a three-hour round trip to gymnastics class. Commuting six days per week and practicing four hours daily, her dedication to her sport was exceptional.
When she won her first age-group competition at age six, Podkopayeva enjoyed the flowers and attention that accompanied the victory. Her determination was reaffirmed, and she set for herself a personal goal to become the number one gymnast in the world.
Podkopayeva was first named to the Ukrainian national team in 1988 at age eleven. She then spent five years with Losinska at a gymnastics training camp in preparation for her planned Olympic competition in 1996. Along with other Olympic hopefuls the two lived at the camp, living and training together. Podkopayeva's career at the international level was launched in earnest in 1992. At the European Cup the following year she took second place in the all-around competition and won a bronze medal on the balance beam. She won her first gold medal in the all-around competition at the Ukrainian Cup and took the gold on the vault at the Hungarian International competition.
She followed with a gold in the floor exercise and on vault at the 1994 European Championships and Goodwill Games respectively. With the exception of a silver medal on balance beam at the World Championships, she won a string of golds worldwide. She took first place in the all-around competition at the 1995 Worlds, the subway World Challenge, and at the Kosice and Bymnix Internationals.
As she approached her teens, the Soviet Union underwent a period of unrest and the Union dissolved altogether in 1991. The Republic of the Ukraine that year declared its independence. Representing the Ukraine, she won two golds and a silver at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. By virtue of the wins she earned a place in Ukrainian sports history as the first multiple Olympic medallist. Her victory in the Olympic all-around competition came impressively in the wake of a broken rib earlier in the season.
Known for her innovative and very difficult choreography in her floor exercise routines, her double front summersault variations are most impressive. At the 1996 European Championships in Birmingham, England, she executed a tucked double-front somersault with half-twist. The move helped clinch her gold medal win in the all-around competition. Despite winning two additional golds in the apparatus finals at the Birmingham competition that year, she expressed displeasure with her performance and vowed to improve in time for the upcoming Olympics in late summer of the year.
In the competition for the all-around championship at the Atlanta Olympics, Podkopayeva bested Romanian Lavinia Milosovici on the floor exercise by a score of 9.887-9.812. Podkopayeva went on to win the contest with a total score of 39.255, topping the Romanians who tied with a score of 39.067 each and shared the bronze. The Olympic gold capped gold medal wins at the European and World Championships and confirmed her status at age seventeen, as the best women's gymnast worldwide. Her gold medal performances at the 1996 Olympics were enhanced by gold in the European Championships and at the Grand Prix of Rome. With the Olympic win, Podkopayeva brought back-to-back women's all-around championships to the Ukraine, which produced 1992 gold medallist Tatyana Gutsu. Furthermore Podkopayeva became the first woman gymnast since Lyudmila Turischeva to cap a World Championship title with an Olympic all-around gold medal.
After learning of the death of her devoted grandmother in 1996 just prior to the Olympic competition, Podkopayeva performed with championship precision while dedicating her performance to her grandmother. In recognition of the Olympic success Podkopayeva was honored by the Ukrainian President and by the national Parliament. The Ukrainian government awarded her a car and a house in Donetsk.
After Atlanta, Podkopayeva appeared at an exhibition in Brussels before setting out on a tour of the United States with the John Hancock Tour of World Champions. As she toured, Losinska arranged with Coach Viktor Savitsky for the two to move to Tampa, Florida. According to the agreement, Losinska was hired as a coach at Rocky Strassberg's Gemini School of Gymnastics where Podkopayeva would also train.
After her arrival in Florida in January of 1999, Podkopayeva began to prepare for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. In March she appeared before 4,000 gymnasts at the three-day Gasparilla Classic gymnastics meet in Tampa.
In 2000, hampered by back and ankle injuries, 21-year-old Podkopayeva did not compete in the Sydney Olympics. After her gold medal Olympic performances, Podkopayeva achieved considerable fame in her native Ukraine and was worshipped like a hero for her legendary accomplishments. With future plans focused on choreography, she made plans to return to the Ukraine to study at the Kiev Sports University.
|1978||Born August 15 in Donetsk, Ukraine|
|1981||Is abandoned by father during parents' divorce|
|1983||Enrolls at the Dynamo Gym in Donetsk|
|1985||Wins an age-group competition at age six|
|1988-92||Enters regional competitions in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow|
|1990||Wins a spot on the Ukraine National Team at age 11|
Awards and Accomplishments
|Podkopayeva was the first multiple medal winner ever from the Ukraine.|
|1992||Gold medal in Brussels|
|1993||Gold medals at the Hungarian Internationals and Ukrainian Cup|
|1994||Gold medals at the European Championships and at the Good Will Games; won silver at the World Championships in Brisbane, Australia|
|1995||All-around gold medal at the World Championships|
|1996||All-around gold medals at the European Championships and at the Atlanta Olympics|
Address: c/o Gemini School Of Gymnastics, 401 Douglas Rd. E., Oldsmar, FL 34677-2907. Phone: (813) 855-3737.
Sports Illustrated (July 26, 1996): 26.
Tampa Tribune (January 30, 1999).
Time (June 3, 1996): 18.
"USA Gymnastics International Athlete Biography: Lilia Podkopayeva." www.usa-gymnastics.org/athletes/intlbios/p/lpodkopayeva.html (February 5, 2003).
Sketch by G. Cooksey