Daredevil Who Dared Dmitri Bilozerchev of the U.S.S.R. has beaten the odds by coming back from a horrible car crash

September 13, 1988

DURING A U.S.-SOVIET DUAL MEET in Phoenix last April, a reporter
asked two- time world champion Dmitri Bilozerchev why a country as
big as the U.S. was unable to produce even one gymnast who could
compete with the top Soviets. Bilozerchev shrugged. ''Perhaps it is
like the golden fish in one of our children's stories,'' he said.
''If you find this fish, it will grant you three wishes. It is there,
somewhere, but it will not swim to you. You must work very hard to
find it.''
Then he walked away to prepare for his next event. As he
stretched, U.S. Olympic men's coach Abie Grossfeld greeted him.
Bilozerchev nodded and said, ''Only five more months of pain.''
He was looking ahead to the Olympics, after which, the 21-year-old
Bilozerchev has hinted, he will retire. But he was also referring to
the last five years. Bilozerchev knows all about pain. He also knows
all about looking for golden fish, working hard to rediscover
something that once came naturally. How else do you explain a talent
that takes one to a world championship at 16? That's how old he was
when, in 1983 in Budapest, he burst onto the scene, a daredevil with
an irresistible smile, and became the youngest male gymnast in
history to win the world all-around title. It seemed then that
Bilozerchev, with his arrow-straight body line and breathtaking
dismounts, was destined to rule gymnastics into the '90s. How could
he fail, unless he failed himself?
Two years later -- less than a month before he was due to defend
his world title -- Bilozerchev's life changed. He was training at
Lake Krugloye, near Moscow, and went home for the weekend to get
engaged to Svetlana Serkeli. ''My father was supposed to drive me
back, but he was unable to,'' Bilozerchev recalls. ''So I took the
wheel myself, even though I had had my driver's license for only 10
days. It was raining. Suddenly, a car braked in front of me. My car
spun, crashed into a lamppost, and I heard my leg break.''
His left leg did not break so much as it disintegrated. A section
of his shin had shattered into 44 pieces, and prospects for a full
recovery were so bleak that doctors considered amputation. Then it
was reported that alcohol had shown up in Bilozerchev's blood. ''We
should have known that Dmitri's life was not as balanced as his
performances in gymnastics,'' wrote a Soviet gymnastics commentator
voicing official disapproval of his conduct. Says his coach,
Aleksandr Aleksandrov, ''Great talents are always surrounded by
people who believe that their personal value increases if they can
lift a few drinks with a celebrity. We tried to protect Dmitri from
such friends, but we did not succeed. Now we don't have to explain
anything to him. He understands by himself. But he paid dearly for
Aleksandrov took Bilozerchev under his wing at Moscow's Central
Army Sports Club when he was eight. Bilozerchev's parents -- his
father, Vladimir, is a welder and his mother, Vera, is a computer
technician -- had brought the boy to the club on the advice of his
teachers, who noticed that he was unusually agile. Aleksandrov, in
turn, was amazed by his ability to concentrate.
Bilozerchev progressed swiftly, gaining national attention in
1982, when he finished fifth in his first national championships, at
15. The next year he was the world all-around champion, and soon
Aleksandrov was saying, ''I keep waiting for some unimportant
competition that Dmitri doesn't win. It would be excellent motivation
for him. Unfortunately, he always wins.''
Two years later Bilozerchev's winning streak came to a screeching
halt. After the car accident, few believed he would ever compete
again. He underwent three operations and spent months in the hospital
rehabilitating his leg. His goal was to compete in the '87 European
championships, but he pushed too hard and damaged the ligaments in
his right foot.
It was during his second rehabilitation that Bilozerchev developed
his extraordinary upper-body strength. Unable to put pressure on his
legs, he trained for four events -- rings, pommel horse, parallel
bars and horizontal bar -- with only his hands and arms. ''His great
strength is what sets him apart from the others,'' says Grossfeld.
''He does very difficult routines. His pommel-horse routine is just
outstanding. Perfect.''
In September 1987, after a two-year absence from competition,
Bilozerchev reasserted himself as the top male gymnast in the Soviet
Union, defeating teammate Valeri Lyukin in the Soviet Cup. A month
later at the world championships in Rotterdam, he reclaimed the title
he had won four years earlier, beating teammate and two-time world
champion Yuri Korolev by .025 of a point. Despite the victory,
Bilozerchev said later, ''I was probably never as bad as I was in
Rotterdam.'' He added, ''Had I been second, I probably would have
quit the sport.''
Indeed, Bilozerchev's dismounts were less dynamic than they had
been in '83, but he had the unmistakable look of a champion. He had
matured. Bilozerchev, who lives in Leningrad now and studies at the
Military Institute of Physical Culture, wears a more serious,
resolute expression these days. Looking back, he sees his accident as
a turning point. ''If that had not happened to me, I would not have
changed,'' he says. ''I would still be living up to my reputation as
a wild man.''
Svetlana, who married Dmitri in 1986, is expecting their first
child in November. Both Dmitri and Svetlana, an ex-ice dancer, would
one day like to coach. Asked about his aspirations, Dmitri says, ''I
dream of having my own apartment. I dream of our child, of the job I
will take. But all this lies in the future. Off to Seoul!''
Where, one suspects, a golden fish lies waiting to grant him a