Her coach says that tiny Soviet gymnast Natalia Shaposhnikova is "prickly like a hedgehog," but has the essential qualities of a champion.
Indeed, some experts think that "Natasha," as she is known in the familiar Russian diminutive, could be to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow what her countrywoman Olga Korbut was to the 1972 Games in Munich and what Romanian Nadia Comaneci was to the 1976 Games in Montreal.
Shaposhnikova, 18, won the gold medal symbolic of the overall championship in women's gymnastics in the Spartakiade, the Soviet national sports festival, here Thursday. Perhaps more significant, since Comaneci and her Romanian teammates were not competing in the international competition, Shaposhnikova won the all-around gold medal in the concurrent Soviet championships.
Even though she was overshadowed on the final evening of gymnastics competition by her teammate Nelli Kim - who won three gold medals in individual apparatus finals (vault, uneven bars, and floor exercise) - the 4-foot-11, 81-pound Shaposhnikova emerged as the heroine of a competition that clearly underscored the immense depth the Soviets currently enjoy in one of the most popular Olympic sports.
So rich in talent is the Soviet team that Stella Zakharova 15, the current World Cup all-around champion, finished 10th in the Soviet championship, and Elena Mukhina, the top Soviet in the European championships at Strasbourg, France, last year and a potential Olympic gold medalist, finished 14th.
Only three Soviets were eligible to make the eight-woman finals in each event in Spartakiade, which this year included international competitors for the first time, but the intramural competition indicated that the Soviets could send any five of their top 15 women and still have a good chance of winning the world championships scheduled this year for Fort Worth, Tex., Dec. 2-9.
Mukhina, 18, was the favorite coming into the competition at the Sports Palace of Lenin Central Stadium, bur she faltered in the preliminaries and fell apart, confirming suspicions that when she gets off to a bad start she can fall into a blue funk and self-destruct.
Shaposhnikova, whose mother and father both work in a metallurgical factory in Rosto-on-Don, about 600 miles south of Moscow, started in gymnastics in 1971 when the wife of her first coach hand-picked her from an elementary school physical education class.
"I want only this girl," Gallina Maleyev remembers saying. Her husband, Gennady, trained Shaposhnikova until it became obvious that she was of international class.Then he took her to Coach Vladislav Rastorotski of the celebrated Rostov Sports School, who had coached Korbut's teammate Lyudmila Turscheva to international prominence.
"Turischeva and Shaposhnikova are poles apart. Turischeva was very obedient and never argued," said Rastorotski. "Natasha is prickly like a hedgehog. One never knows what to expect of her. Yet she has the chief ingredient of a champion - the will to win."
And Turischeva, now a respected gymnastics coach and member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, recently said of the girl who failed to make the 1976 Olympic team: "Shaposhnikova will be the best Soviet gymnast in the 1980 Olympics."
Shaposhnikova scored 9.8 (out of a possible 10) in the vault competition Thursday night, 9.65 in the uneven bars, 9.7 in the balance beam and 9.4 in the floor exercises.
In the individual apparatus competitions on Friday evening, Kim won gold medals in the vault, uneven bars, and free exercise. Shaposhnikova won the beam and was second in the bars and the free exercise.
This was sweet revenge for Kim, who won the gold medal in the vault in Montreal and was on the Soviet women's team that won the team title.
Now 21 years old, married for two years, and considerably bulkier and more muscular than she was in 1976, Kim was a major disappointment earlier in the Spartakiade. Thursday night she fell during her routine on the beam, failed to qualify for the finals, and seemed to be literally tumbling as Shaposhinkova's star rose.
But Friday was Kim's day, as surely as Thursday had been Shaposhnikova's as she received her third medal, and heard the anthem of her native Byelorussia played for the third time, she beamed on the winner's stand and waved to the audience she had so roused.
With the astonishing depth they showed during Spartakiade - including strong performances in the all-around by international stars Maria Filatova, Natalia Tereschenko and Tatyana Arzhannikova, who finished second, third and fourth - the Soviets seem to have little to fear in the world championships. If Mukhina and Zakharova regain their form, as expected, the team will be awesome.