Rhythmic Gymnasts Give U.S. Olympic Festival a Soviet Flavor

Times Staff Writer

Masha Kacan, hands on hips and hair perched in tight bun on top of her head, is nodding, nodding as Marina Kunyavsky is tossing plastic clubs high into the air and not catching them.

Kunyavsky is not catching much, except a little hell from her coaches Monday night at a rhythmic gymnastics practice session at the Summit. Kunyavsky is the sport's defending national all-around champion, and this is just the U.S. Olympic Festival, but nothing is to be shrugged off. Competition in rhythmic gymnastics starts today.

Kunyavsky retreats to the edge of the blue mat and throws the clubs, this time catching them as she comes out of a tumble. A small smile escapes.

Escape. A persistent theme with the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team, where four out of 16 athletes are expatriated Soviets and where the bulk of the sport's coaches are former Soviet citizens. Three of the competitors here were born in the Soviet Union, Kunyavsky of Los Angeles, Alexandra Feldman of Sherman Oaks and Irina Rubinshtein of Agoura. The two team coaches, Kacan of the Los Angeles Lights team and Irina Vdovets of Illinois Rhythmics, are both Soviet-born.

This sport, with its balls, clubs, ribbons and ropes, is the virtual providence of these new Americans, who have helped build the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics program. All the while, owing a heavy debt to their early, Soviet, training.

The three athletes and their accompanist, pianist Bela Frank, returned to the Soviet Union two weeks ago for the Goodwill Games. For all of them, it was their first venture back to the cradle of their sport.

"Was I apprehensive?" asked Frank, repeating a reporter's question. "I was everything, you name it. Apprehensive, very excited and very afraid."

Frank, who was a music professor at the Leningrad conservatory, and her nuclear engineer-husband left the Soviet Union in 1979 and emigrated to the United States. They now live in San Francisco. Most of the athletes left with their families, fleeing persecution as Soviet Jews.

"I cried a lot when I was there," Frank said. "We knew we were special because we were being followed by seven KGB agents, instead of one. Our phone was bugged."

Frank says she knows for a fact her phone was bugged because one day she was speaking on the phone to her sister, who had come to meet her in Moscow. They has agreed on a meeting place when Frank heard a commotion in the hall outside her hotel room.

It was the seven KGB agents stampeding to the elevator to catch her before she left the hotel.

Another bit of evidence emerged later when Frank was in the midst of a frustrated phone call to her husband in the States.

"I was upset, I told him I was crying and yelling at the kids and everyone," she said. "I was so upset about everything. In the middle of this, someone knocks on my door. This man steps in and gives me a big Russian doll. I said, 'Where did this come from?' KGB, of course. They were listening. Next time, I'll ask for a mink coat."

Most of the gymnasts say they were happy to see relatives but not happy to be back. "For me, it was very strange," Kunyavsky said. "I was very scared all the time. There were shadows. I didn't want to go back, only for competition."

Kunyavsky was able to spend time with her uncle. Irina Rubinshtein almost didn't.

"Irina wanted to see her uncle, and one day at the stadium she told me she saw him in the crowd," Frank said. "We looked for him and he had vanished. I told her maybe she didn't see him.

"Every day, she was crying for her uncle. We were there for seven days and on the last day he came to her. He had seen her crying every day, but he was afraid to come near her. It was a very impressive experience."

Frank saw some of her relatives, whom she lavished with gifts. "I came to Moscow with two full suitcases, I left with one, and it was empty."

Said Kunyavsky: "I would never go back. When I got home, I said to my mom, 'Thanks a lot for bringing me here.' She was really proud and said, 'You're welcome.' "

Frank said she finally learned about America by returning to the Soviet Union. "I had been here seven years, and it was not until I had been here five that I began to know America," she said. "Now, Russia is like a foreign country to me. My friends said, 'You seem like you are from another planet.'

"There was one point, when we were all on the plane at the airport in Moscow. It was a (West) German airline and, of course, a (West) German crew. When we got on the plane, we all began to laugh, all of a sudden and all together. I said, 'Why are we laughing?' We could not say. But, of course, it was because we knew we were leaving. We were safe."

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