He won six gold medals of a possible eight at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona — only Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz won more in a single Olympics — and is considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. But you wouldn’t know this from visiting the Vitaly Scherbo School of Gymnastics at 3250 N. Bronco St., a mile east of the Cheyenne exit off the 95 freeway.
You certainly wouldn’t know it from talking to the man, who does not live in the past or even refer to it, unless you ask.
There is but one photo of Scherbo inside his gymnastics school. It’s way up on the wall in a corner, one of those larger-than-life cutouts. It shows him competing on the rings for the Unified Team, which is what they called the athletes who had been training under the Soviet Union banner after the original Big Red Machine fell apart in 1991.
Vitaly Scherbo is 41. Today, he barely acknowledges the big photo of the fit young specimen on the wall.
On this day he’s wearing a polo shirt and is padding around the mats and cushions in bare feet. Gym kids are running and jumping and spinning all around him on pommel horses and horizontal bars. He coaches them from a distance, but that’s only because a visitor is asking questions about his greatness.
He’s not put off by these questions, but they might be an intrusion. It seems to the visitor that Scherbo rather would be over there by the horizontal bars and the pommel horses, up close and personal, like they say at the Olympics.
He shouts attaboys in Boris Badenov English, if you remember “Rocky and His Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show.” Every so often, he shouts in Russian to a towheaded youth who is twirling around the horizontal bar like a Flying Wallenda.
You can tell he’s the special one.
Vitaly Scherbo has been operating his school of gymnastics in Las Vegas since 1997, and the towheaded kid, who will turn 13 next week, is his first national champion. Nikita Bolotsky was crowned the best all-around Level 8 gymnast in the U.S. last weekend in Portland, Ore.
After Level 8, there are only Levels 9, 10 and elite. The best elite gymnasts sometimes get their pictures on boxes of Wheaties. These are the Olympic gymnasts, and Scherbo says Nikita Bolotsky will be one in 2020. Barring injury, of course.
Every now and then when you’re talking to Scherbo, he stumbles on translating a word from Russian to English. “Hold on, I will get you this word,” he says, and then he punches up an application on his cellphone that translates Russian thoughts to English words.
He does not need the cellphone app when speaking of his towheaded protege.
“Does he have what it takes?” the visitor asks.
“Yes, he does,” Scherbo says. “The main thing you never know is injuries.”
Scherbo says he was fortunate. He never was injured. Well, at least not seriously injured. He had only four surgeries.
When you are in the gym six days a week, five hours a day, you will suffer injuries. It is like playing football against Ray Lewis, only instead of going over the middle, you do flying dismounts. Lots of flying dismounts.
Scherbo likes the way young Nikita does flying dismounts. He likes his dedication, too. He really likes his genes.
Nikita’s mom, Masha, was a Russian gymnast; now she’s the zebra in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at Bellagio. His biological father was a gymnast; his grandparents were gymnasts. Even his stepfather has a sporting background; Michael Maguire played pro soccer for Preston North End in England.
“He has everything,” Scherbo says. “He needs to learn more, but no doubt he will be on the Olympic team.”
Then Scherbo stopped praising the kid to shout something in Russian — Nikita almost always speaks the American version of English, as do most of the other gym kids, so this is a way for Scherbo to coach Nikita from across the room, or Boulder City, if necessary.
But Scherbo wanted to go over there anyway, by the horizontal bar, because though it appeared to the visitor that Nikita was spinning around the bar like a Wallenda, these great Olympians can spot the smallest of flaws. They are not like French figure skating judges, and they are much more honest.
Keep asking questions, Scherbo says. And so I do, and when I run out of specific gymnastics questions to ask about young Nikita’s future, I ask a general one about Ludmilla Tourischeva, the great Russian female gymnast, on whom I had a crush in 1972, when I was 15. I would have tried to knock down the Iron Curtain for Ludmilla Tourischeva when I was 15.
As I said, it was a general question. I wanted to know if she still was generally good-looking.
Scherbo hesitated, and I thought he might punch up the app on his cellphone again. But he said Ludmilla Tourischeva is 60 now. And Nellie Kim, in case I also found her attractive too — I did — is in her 50s. Nellie Kim is one of Scherbo’s best friends.
None of us are as fit as we used to be, except perhaps Cher or Madonna and marathon runners from Kenya.
When I nodded to the big picture on the wall and asked if he knew that guy, Vitaly Scherbo feigned as if he was going to leap onto the horizontal bar.
It appeared it had been awhile since he last put his hands into the chalk bucket.
When I asked if the gymnastics kids knew how great he was, he said most of them did not. Maybe the best ones, he said. Maybe the ones like Nikita Bolotsky.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski