While rural American youngsters are "tightrope walking" on railroad tracks or swinging in carefree abandon from gnarled tree limbs, boys and girls in the Soviet Union are learning cartwheels, somersaults and handstands in a strict athletic discipline. Gymnastics not only is a mandatory part of the Soviet school program, but there is a network of sports clubs across the nation that provides some 800,000 Russian gymnasts with peerless competition and coaching. All of which may explain why the Soviet gymnasts pictured on the following pages won over America's best in competition at West Chester (Pa.) State Teachers College and Pennsylvania State University during a tour of the U.S. in January. In the Russian view, the brisk execution of a gymnastic routine is not sufficient: the exercise must be fluidly beautiful as well as precise. The complexity of a gymnast's movement is bounded solely by his imagination and ability. As John Zimmerman's photographs show, the resultant concert of motion, simultaneously demanding strength, coordination, agility and daring, makes gymnastics both a sport and a dance.

An olympian feat is made to seem casual by Albert Azaryan, shown here executing the Iron Cross. Azaryan's charm and easy smile captivated all crowds.

Grace of a goddess is evoked in split jump by Polina Astakhova, atop a balance beam only four inches wide.

Effortless agility is demonstrated by Valeri Kerdemilidi, youngest Soviet gymnast, in dismount from bars.

Poise and confidence characterize women's team captain, Larisa Latynina, recently named one of the 10 foremost women in U.S.S.R.