Elena Mukhina (June 1, 1960 – December 22, 2006) was a Soviet gymnast….who won the all-around title at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France…..after which her career was on the rise….and she was being widely touted as the next great Russian gymnastics star until 1979….when a broken leg left her out of several competitions….and the recovery from that injury combined with pressure to master a dangerous and difficult tumbling move the Thomas salto…..named after USA Kurt Thomas…..caused her to break her neck just two weeks before the opening of the 1980 Summer Olympics….which left her permanently quadriplegic just one month past the age of 20.
Mukhina’s floor exercise tumbling passes were considered revolutionary at the time because they included a never-before seen combination salto named the “Muchina”….but in 1979, her coach wanted her to become one of the few female gymnasts doing an element taken from men’s gymnastics, the Thomas salto ….which was a 1 and 3/4 flip with 1½ twists ending in a forward roll. Even though she won the All Around title and floor exercises at the 1978 world championship with daring bar routines, a revolutionary balance beam dismount….and a floor routine with its own signature move….she was pressured to add this element to her floor exercises by her own coach and other higher-ranking Soviet coaches…..when Mukhina soon realized the Thomas salto was extremely dangerous because it depended on being able to get enough height and speed to make all the flips and mid-air twists and still land in-bounds with enough room to do the forward roll….and it took near-perfect timing to avoid either under-rotation and landing on the chin….or over-rotation and landing on the back of the head.
In the 1991 documentary “More than a Game”….Mukhina spoke of trying to convince her coach that the Thomas salto was a dangerous element saying…..“my injury could have been expected. It was an accident that could have been anticipated. It was inevitable. I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times but he (coach Mikhail Klimenko) just replied people like me don’t break their necks.”