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Scherbo Puts Wife’s Accident, Friend’s Injury Behind Him

July 19, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ The six gold medals Vitaly Scherbo won in Barcelona didn’t mean much as he sat at his critically ill wife’s bedside last winter.

Doctors gave Irina Scherbo a 1 percent chance of survival after her car skidded into a telephone pole and was ripped in half. Scherbo all but forgot his training, even though the Olympics were seven months away and the Belarussian was favored to win back-to-back all-around titles.

He considered quitting until February, when Irina recovered from extensive internal injuries and urged her husband to go back to the gym.

``Come on Vitaly,″ she said. ``You are maybe the strongest gymnast mentally in the world, and you just spent four years working for another Olympics. It was very hard, and you must not stop right at the end.″

So Scherbo will be back one last time when the men’s team competition starts Saturday, and he’s as strong as ever. Even with his time off, he won a gold medal in the floor exercise at the world championships individual event finals in April in Puerto Rico. He added a silver on the parallel bars and bronze on the high bar.

That made him the most decorated gymnast ever, with six Olympic and 23 world championship medals.

``Atlanta will be it for me. I want to retire while I’m still kicking butt, not when my butt is getting kicked,″ said Scherbo, 24. ``I’ve already accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.″

Another all-around title would be nice, though. Scherbo finished second to Li Xiaoshuang at the world championships, and was second again at the European championships in May, this time to teammate Ivan Ivankov.

But Ivankov will miss the games after tearing his right Achilles tendon, leaving Li as Scherbo’s main competition. Not having Ivankov hurts Belarus’ chance for a team medal, and Scherbo will miss his close friend.

``Now we must work not only for ourselves, but for Ivan as well,″ Scherbo told his teammates when he found out Ivankov couldn’t compete.

The former Soviet Union could’ve handled the loss of someone like Ivankov, but the individual republics that replaced it don’t have the depth.

That leaves Li-led China, winner of the last two world team titles, as the overwhelming favorite for the gold. Japan and Romania are top contenders, with Russia and Ukraine also expected to challenge.

The Americans have an outside shot at a medal if they’re year-long dedication to the team concept pays off. They were third at last year’s worlds after compulsories before sinking to ninth.

Not being the world champion going into the Olympics didn’t hurt Scherbo in Barcelona. He went into those games after finishing second at 1991 worlds to Gregory Misyutin, his teammate on the Unified Team who now competes for Ukraine.

But Scherbo became the hero of Barcelona, leading the Unified Team to a gold medal and then dominating the individual competition. He edged Misyutin for the all-around gold, and won four of the five individual events in which he competed.

His six gold medals was a gymnastics record for a single Olympics. Surprisingly, the only event he didn’t win was his best, the floor exercise. He finished sixth.

After Atlanta, Scherbo plans to return to, Woodward, Pa., where he, Irina and their 2-year-old daughter lived before the Olympics.

``I think it’s time for me to get away from competitive gymnastics,″ he said, ``do some exhibitions around the world and make some money.″

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