The Great Czech Gymnast Vera Caslavska Passes Away Part 1: The Gymnast

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Vera Casalavska, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”

Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.

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Takashi Ono, Vera Caslavska, Abie Grossfeld, and Yuri Titov at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, 2011; from Abie Grossfeld

She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.

On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.

In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”

Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.

“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old.  We both won the all-around  title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances.  Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half  during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed.  Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”

Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”

She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”