In 1994, Yevgeny Marchenko and Valeri Liukin immigrated to America to open a gym. Today, World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, WOGA, trains some of the best gymnasts to ever hit the world stage.
World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) is always busy during the summer. In Plano and Frisco, brightly dressed kids pour in and out the doors. Their hair in dependable buns, they’re everywhere, somersaulting on soft floors and vaulting off of trampolines into foam pits. They wobble across low balance beams, and when they leap off and stick the landing, they throw their arms out proudly for a final pose. Moving from the front to the back, there is an observable age gradient; as the kids grow older, their flips mature from wild fun to polished grace. Pictures of champions hang in places of honor above them along with homemade signs celebrating WOGA’s latest Olympic champion, Madison Kocian. Fully realized, WOGA is everything that Yevgeny Marchenko and Valeri Liukin ever dreamed.
The Origin Story
Yevgeny Marchenko was actually never a gymnast. Even as a child, growing up in the former-Soviet Union, he was very obviously too tall. Instead, he was a competitive acrobat. WOGA is papered with posters of their most famous athletes, including the founders from their glory days. One just shows Yevgeny’s arm, his partner perched on the palm of his hand.
As a child, Yevgeny saw a showcase for a new acrobatic gymnastics program at his school, free for all participants, but accepting only the very best. Yevgeny, who now stands over six feet, was the tallest, skinniest kid out of 40 potentials, and he ached to be one of the few.
“I had no muscle, no flexibility and I placed dead last,” he describes with a hint of mirth. “Coach told me, ‘You have no talent, but I see in your eyes that you want this.’ And I was like ‘Yes, yes, I do.’ He told me I had six months [to prove myself].” Yevgeny went home and trained on his own until, when he returned half a year later, he was good enough to stay. He became a five-time winner of the World Gymnastics Championship, a four-time European champion and winner of the Soviet National Title. During his tenure on the Soviet national team, he met a young gymnastics star named Valeri Liukin.
Yevgeny Marchenko is about a foot taller than Valeri Liukin, a 1988 Olympic champion in the team competition and individually on horizontal bar, as well as the silver medalist in all-around and parallel bars. They hit it off as they travelled across the globe performing shows together. In 1991 they decided to retire and open a gym in America—Atlanta, Georgia to be specific. Both of them found themselves wanting to coach aspiring athletes.
“[Coaching] isn’t just business,” Valeri explains. “It is much more stress to be the coach than the athlete.” Along with Valeri’s wife, Anna Kotchneva, who is a 1987 World Rhythmic Gymnastic Champion in her own right, they settled in Louisiana. There, they worked for a year and a half to earn green cards and residency, while Yevgeny’s coach, Pavel Kapuler, who was also in Louisiana, traveled to Atlanta, hoping to find a space for their own gym. It wasn’t easy.
“We had no money, just an idea and medals,” Yevgeny laughs. “After a while [Pavel] said there’s no way we’ll make it in Atlanta. No bank will give us money. We have nothing.”
Finally, Pavel moved to Fort Worth, where he had friends as Valeri and Yevgeny began to work on a gym in New Orleans. And then out of the blue, Pavel paid them a thrilled telephone call, begging them to come to Texas to see this city he’d discovered called Plano.
Back then, Plano ended at Legacy Drive. There was no Tollway, no Highway 121; instead these were quiet farm roads. But Pavel saw something in the little city and convinced Yevgeny and Valeri to fly to Texas for a single day.
“He saw the future,” Yevgeny says simply. “He dragged us up the Preston Road to come to Plano. We saw new homes, we saw the progress. Plano had good schools and a sports focus. And we made the decision. It happened like that.” He snaps his fingers.
They started from scratch in a new city. Banks loved seeing their medals and discussing their illustrious careers, but even the shine of Olympic gold doesn’t make it easier to score a $200,000 loan with no credit. After about six months they “couldn’t even find $1,” as they put it. They even applied for jobs at a pizza place to make ends meet, a far cry from championship dreams. Finally, a friend believed in their vision enough to invest and they rented a building on the corner of Custer and Parker.
Back then, gymnastic fever lived and breathed in Houston. North Texas wasn’t yet a powerhouse churning out elite gymnasts. Looking back, it’s hard to say if Valeri and Yevgeny had simply beaten the rush of gymnasts to North Texas, or if they started it.
“We didn’t know the country or the rules or building codes,” Yevgeny explains. “We had to learn everything and start from scratch. It took eight months to renovate the building and make it fit for a gym.”
“It was scary,” Valeri admits, “but there was no room for doubt.”
Among the posters of victorious WOGA athletes—Hollie Vise, Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Rebecca Bross, Madison Kocian—WOGA also keeps old white photo albums chronicling the early months. The pictures reveal a poorly lit space, and Yevgeny, Valeri and Anna decked out in ‘90s fashions. For eight months they worked day and night to fix the place up, but they’re smiling in every photograph, surrounded by tools, ceiling tiles and enormous pink slabs of ripped out insulation. Doing all the work themselves, they painted the whole gym white, replaced all the insulation and even partially raised the ceiling. The ceiling tiles were blue and since they didn’t have the money for new ones, they climbed ladders and took down each and every tile to be individually painted white and put back in place. One of their neighbors, a joyful guy with a big moustache, worked in construction and believed in their project so passionately that he donated his off hours to helping them build their gym.
In 1994 they opened their doors with only $300. “A whole wall wasn’t painted; it was just sheet rock because we had no money for paint, but we were so proud.” About 140 students started at WOGA in their first month and 25 years later, Yevgeny is still proud.
“We [could have] worked anywhere in the world,” he lets on. “But America is the land of opportunity. We knew that here we would be judged by our abilities, not our nationality. In Europe we might have been Russians forever. America is the country of immigrants. It was our chance to be what we wanted to be by hard work. Here was the opportunity.”
Valeri and Yevgeny had two goals for WOGA: to mold the best gymnasts in the world, and to give back to the community by offering recreational programs for kids of all skill levels. Yevgeny has never forgotten that he almost wasn’t talented enough to pursue his sport, no matter how much he loved it.
Yet, all WOGA coaches are on the precipice of training a truly gifted student. WOGA’s policy is that the coach stays with their class of gymnasts from recreation up to graduation, so they are all on the lookout for exceptional students. Knowing that the world’s best gymnasts train twice a day, Yevgeny and Valeri found others who supported their ideas and helped inspire Spring Creek Academy, a private school that accommodates students of all ages with strange schedules: gymnasts, actors, musicians and more.
“Gymnastics opens the world for young gymnasts,” Yevgeny likes to say. Gymnasts who travel can exchange ideas and network with other athletes. It’s this sort of collaboration between WOGA and other top gyms in the country that has turned the U.S. into a major player in the world of gymnastics. The system was in place. The coaches were prepared. All that remained were the athletes.
“Talented coaches can see a superstar very fast,” Yevgeny says. “A strong work ethic, good physical qualities, ability to be coached, focused brain, fast muscles—that makes a good gymnast. Then from the good gymnasts, there are the best, the one of millions and millions. A good coach must recognize that.”
In 2003, five girls from the U.S. became world champions, Team U.S.A.’s first team win in the World Gymnastics Championships in 100 years. Two of the five girls were from WOGA. One was two-time world champion Holly Vise. The other was Carly Patterson.
Right away, Yevgeny knew Carly was special. She had what he calls “star quality,” but most importantly, she had an unbreakable work ethic.
“She loves the pressure,” Yevgeny says fondly of Carly. “I’ll never forget a competition in New York, Madison Square Garden. There are 20,000 people, it’s sold out and she’s about to go on the balance beam. I’m shaking, I’m nervous, anticipating it. She’s next in line and she points to someone in the crowd and is like ‘Yevgeny, look at that guy he’s got funny hair!’ And I’m like ‘Carly! What are you doing, it’s almost your turn!’ But that was her. The more people watching, the better she’d do. She loves the pressure. That’s very unique.”
Once, Carly competed at the World Championships with a broken bone in her elbow. She smiled through the pain, completed her routine and went straight into surgery to get screws in her elbow. “She fights,” Yevgeny concludes.
Carly’s 2004 women’s all-around gold medal opened the door for WOGA. Suddenly, it was not just a gym, but The Gym, which had turned out America’s most famous gymnast, the first American woman to win all-around in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1984.
And then four years later, Valeri’s daughter, Nastia Liukin, competed in the Beijing Olympics and won all-around gold again.
Valeri Liukin puts it like this: he went to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and missed the gold medal in men’s all-around by a tenth of a point—but Nastia fixed that mistake 20 years later. Nastia grew up alongside WOGA in a very literal sense. There was no money for babysitting when she was young, so from the time she was two years old, WOGA Plano was her playground. Though Valeri says it was never expected that she would go into gymnastics, she certainly had the genes.
“She loved the sport,” Yevgeny says. He recalls a young Nastia watching the older girls to copy their moves. “She wasn’t doing gymnastics in a class yet, but you could feel it, see it in her eyes. She was dancing, making the moves, creating her own routines—you could see in her the love of the sport.” Nastia didn’t have the power of other contemporaries like her teammate, Shawn Johnson; she had grace.
“Gymnastics is a complicated sport,” Valeri says. “A lot of happy moments, but a lot of tears. [Nastia] was strong.” His job, as a coach and father, was to recognize the qualities that made Nastia exceptional, as well as the ones she lacked. When Nastia won, WOGA suddenly had two back-to-back all-around Olympic champions on their hands, which no gym had ever done before. “It’s not a sprint,” Valeri goes on, “it’s a marathon. It’s very important how you finish.”
Another WOGA student, Madison Kocian, competed in the Rio 2016 Olympics almost exactly a year ago, taking home the team gold medal and silver in uneven bars. Her Olympic dreams were born and raised in WOGA’s recreational program and though some injuries set her back at times, her coaches describe her as extraordinarily patient, always returning to the floor stronger than before, “a tough cookie.”
The Strongest Team in the Country
These days, Yevgeny is usually found at the vast, thrilling Frisco gym, and Valeri is at the helm of the original Plano location. His wife helps run the business side and coaches as well.
“We’re very proud,” Yevgeny continues. “Valeri and me—both were able to achieve the top, to coach Olympic champions.” Of Valeri, he has nothing but good things to say. “He never stops dreaming big. He is now coordinator for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team.”
“Of course, we are true partners,” Valeri says of Yevgeny. “It has been 25 years. I never wanted any other partner. It’s been great. It’s not friendship; it’s family. If I have to travel, I know things get done here, and I hope he knows that too…We developed the strongest team in the country together.”
The energy at WOGA flows, a stream run on conquering heights so great most never reach them. Greatness, success beyond wildest dreams isn’t a far off concept for the students at WOGA. “They grow up next to Carly, Nastia and Madison, and they’re like ‘Wow, they were with the same coaches, same equipment.’ Success is normal. It’s the girl next to you. She achieved it and you can too,” Yevgeny says.
WOGA’s motto is “hard work never disappears.” WOGA Plano doesn’t have insulation scattered on the ground, freshly ripped from the walls. WOGA Frisco has fresh, new ceiling tiles. There is no longer a scramble for resources; after 25 years and national acclaim, Yevgeny and Valeri could probably get a bank loan with ease. Everyone has to start somewhere, but look how far they’ve come.