Whenever it is time for Vitaly Scherbo to prepare for a major
gymnastics competition, he leaves the house he owns on a
tree-lined street in State College, Pa., and returns home to
Minsk, the gray, decrepit industrial city that is the capital of
Belarus. He goes there to find his nerve: that
me-against-the-world impetus that four years ago drove him to a
record six gymnastics gold medals at the Barcelona Games. For
Scherbo, there is nothing that steels him for competition like
the memories evoked by the forbidding streets of his birthplace.
This is an article from the July 28, 1996 issue
On Glabky Prospect, where Vitaly lived when he was five, his
father left him and his mother, Valentina, a schoolteacher, to
fend for themselves. On Gerasimenko Prospect, where Vitaly lived
in a small apartment with his new wife, Irina, in 1992, a
trusted friend stole his post-Olympic earnings. On Storojevskaya
Prospect, along the Svislach River, where Irina walked their
daughter, Kristina, in a stroller, passersby wondered aloud what
price the baby's new clothes would fetch if they swiped them.
"Conditions are a joke there," he says in good English. "Petrol
is gone. Heat is off. Everywhere happens crime. And the food so
Nevertheless, Scherbo returned to that place to prepare himself
for the Atlanta Games. And after the near tragedy that struck
his family in State College last winter, leaving him in
emotional tatters, he was counting more than ever on the grim
reminders in Minsk to stoke his competitive fires.
On Dec. 13, when Irina left the house to go to a hair salon,
temperatures hovered around 30[degrees] and a light drizzle
formed patches of ice on the roads in State College. She recalls
nothing of the moment when her BMW sedan slid sideways into a
telephone pole. Later that day police showed photos of the
wreckage to Ed Isabelle, a local gymnastics coach who had taken
the Scherbos in when they first came to the U.S., in February
1993. "The car's front and back had bent around the pole and
reconnected to each other," Isabelle recalls. "The first thing I
said was, 'My god, she's dead, isn't she?' Nobody could have
Irina was airlifted to Geisinger Medical Center, 80 miles away
in Danville, where Dr. Matthew Indeck recalls finding her "in
severe hemorrhagic shock with not much chance of survival."
Indeck removed Irina's ruptured spleen and began repairing a
lacerated liver and fractures of the ribs and pelvis. It was
four days before the bleeding completely stopped.
Scherbo stood watch over his wife's listless body, dozing
against the bed rail. Periodically he left her to visit a nearby
bar, where he drank vodka and sank into a stupor. Vitaly
Scherbo, whose command of the gymnastics apparatuses was
remarkable, had no control over what was going on in that
hospital room. His grief was unremitting. "You could see it when
he opened her purse," Isabelle says. "He took out her scarf,
gazed into it, smelled it, brushed it against the side of his
face. Every object had a memory for him."
It took the arrival of Scherbo's best friend, Alexander
Kolyvanov, a former Soviet teammate and now an assistant coach
at the University of Iowa, to revive him. "When I saw him the
first time, I didn't recognize his face," Kolyvanov says. "He
looked old, like he was trying to [convalesce] with her. I told
him right in his face, 'You have to live. She needs to have a
strong man, not like drunk, not weak crying baby.'"
Kolyvanov kept Scherbo dry, dragged him to a gym for modest
workouts and persuaded him to stay active in the hospital.
Scherbo heeded his friend's prodding. He learned to read the
oxygenation tank and memorized the function of every tube
running into and out of Irina's body. He dressed the walls with
pictures of himself and Kristina so Irina could wake to their
smiles if he wasn't there. He played her favorite music, and
then he rewound the tape and played it again.
Four weeks after the accident, Irina squeezed Vitaly's hand for
the first time. She didn't believe a month had passed until she
saw how much Kristina had changed. And Vitaly had changed too.
"I remember his face," Irina says. "I saw that he was in love
only with me, and that was the totality of his emotion. I tell
you, that pulled me back to life. Maybe in the past his mind was
in the gym. Now when he goes away, he calls twice a day: 'Irina,
you must eat.'"
"O.K., so I became nicer," Vitaly, 24, admits, "but that had
already started. When I got married and I lived in the States,
it made me to think as an adult, not always angry."
A hint of his metamorphosis surfaced during a press conference
at the 1995 world championships in Sabae, Japan, when a reporter
asked about Scherbo's fluctuating waistline as the gymnast
licked beer suds from his lips. "How do you like that beer, and
how much weight have you gained?"
"My beer is fine," he answered. "Would you like some?"
Scherbo first vaulted into the international gymnastics
spotlight as an 18-year-old in 1990, when he won three gold
medals at the European championships in Lausanne, Switzerland,
and then won the all-around title at the Goodwill Games in
Seattle. He was a highly skilled gymnast, but he had a petulant
edge to his personality that wore thin on his teammates.
Kolyvanov recalls the day Scherbo was trying some new moves on
the pommel horse at a national training camp. Valentin Mogilny,
a former world champion on the horse and five years Scherbo's
senior, was observing, and when he tried to replicate Scherbo's
routine he slipped off the apparatus. Scherbo prodded Mogilny
with trash talk, and the two had their first of several run-ins
Former Soviet coach Leonid Arkaev would roll his eyes as his
team marched silently, single file, attired in CCCP warmups,
into practice halls with Scherbo bringing up the rear--boom box
blaring, shoulders bobbing, tattered Mickey Mouse shirt on
backward. "Vitaly has a very high appreciation for Vitaly,"
Arkaev explained. "He likes to admire himself from different
When it came to enforcing curfew after three-a-day training
sessions on the Black Sea, Arkaev had trouble with more team
members than just Scherbo. "We had a work-hard, play-hard rule,"
Kolyvanov says. "They told us, 'In bed by 11.' Then as soon as
the coach called, 'Lights off,' we would explore the world, to
find girlfriends or something."
Such was Vitaly's lifestyle until he met Irina, a sports
acrobat, at the Moscow Sports Center. Three weeks later he
promised Kolyvanov that he would marry her. "His confidence just
killed me," Irina recalls. "This is so great in a man. He didn't
show off, but he was so honest and straight. He would not hide
from any situation. He didn't let me go. He would take my hand
and I couldn't do anything. It was like animal or something."
The couple wed in December 1991, three months after Scherbo won
an all-around silver at his first world championships. "I was so
mad at that," he says. "I knew I was the best, but my landings
were not good. I told myself, O.K, you stick every dismount in
Barcelona." He promised his mother three Olympic gold medals,
but he did better than that, returning home with team,
all-around and four apparatus titles.
However, when the Soviet Union broke up into independent
republics in 1991, the national sports system that had
guaranteed Soviet stars a cushy, protected life also fell apart.
Based on the roughly $18,000 that Soviet athletes were paid for
each gold medal won at the 1988 Seoul Games, Scherbo expected to
receive in excess of $100,000. Instead, he didn't get half that
amount, and what's more, Belarussian sports officials wanted him
to funnel his earnings from exhibition tours through their
Olympic committee, which would keep 30%. "I told them, 'I did
more for your country than all of your fabrics, all of your
exports,'" Scherbo says. "Before me, the world asks, What is it,
Belarus? And for this they give me special tax?"
Scherbo kept his post-Olympic savings ($21,000 U.S. and 8,000
Swiss francs) in his flat on Gerasimenko Prospect. But once,
when his childhood teammate Nikolai Tikhonovich came over to
borrow money, Scherbo mistakenly allowed Tikhonovich to see
where it was hidden. The next day, Scherbo learned later,
Tikhonovich and two other men broke into the empty apartment and
stole the cash. Six months later the thieves were arrested, but
the money was never recovered.
During one of his post-Olympic tours, Scherbo told a U.S.
national team assistant coach, Soviet emigre Yefim Furman, that
Irina was pregnant and he wanted the baby to be born in the
States so it would have U.S. citizenship. Furman often trained
at a gymnastics academy Isabelle owned in Woodward, Pa., 25
miles outside State College, and he asked Isabelle to take
Vitaly and Irina in. After an eight-month stay with Isabelle,
during which Vitaly remained in the U.S. on a work visa, the
Scherbos returned to Belarus in September 1993 with their
Despite having two cars stolen, they planned to remain in
Minsk--until the day two summers ago when Irina overheard the
men talking of stealing Kristina's clothes. Soon after, the
Scherbos bought their place in State College, where they spend
up to 10 months of the year. When he is not competing around the
world Vitaly trains at the Woodward Academy and occasionally
works with the aspiring gymnasts.
Even though a chronically sore left shoulder twice caused him to
miss a week of training this year, Scherbo won three medals,
including a gold in the floor exercises, at the world
championships in April, and the following month he won three
golds in the European championships. Before each of those
competitions he returned to Minsk, and in May he went back again
to gird himself for the Olympics. After a brief vacation in
Italy, he came straight to Atlanta in late June to begin his
Competing for the first time in the Olympics as an independent
nation, Belarus, led by Scherbo's 115.210 individual points,
finished fourth in the men's team competition on Monday, then
Scherbo won the bronze in the individual all-around on
Wednesday. He blamed the judges for his failure to repeat as
gold medalist, saying Li Xiaoshuang of China, the winner, had
received more favorable scoring than he did. The men's six
individual apparatus golds will be contested tonight and
tomorrow night at the Georgia Dome.
Scherbo had hoped to repeat his Barcelona success in Atlanta,
seeing these Games as his opportunity to shift into a leadership
role in gymnastics worldwide. He will be easing out of
competition. After he performs with other world champions on a
60-city post-Olympic tour, he wants to open his own gym in
Pennsylvania and work to popularize the sport--perhaps even help
run it someday. "If I win more medals," he said last month, "I
can make my future. I can introduce gymnastics so kids will love
it. Then I take out maybe half of judges, the dishonest ones. I
do everything gymnasts and coaches want me to do. Then we have a
good time, because I change everything."
And there will no longer be a need for the treks to Minsk.