Soviet gymnast and Olympic hopeful Oleg Kosak, 15, sipped American Coca-Cola and ate Italian pizza as he sat in a Baltimore pizzeria, talking about life in his city of Kiev.
He practices gymnastics seven hours a day, lives near his training center in an apartment with his family and has eaten at the McDonald's in Moscow once. He hopes the revolutionary changes in the Soviet Union will work, and he would like very much to become an Olympic champion.
"Here you walk into a store and you see everything, and anything you want, you've got," said Kosak through a translator. "But in Russia, when you go into the stores, there's nothing on the shelves."
Oleg, a member of the Ukrainian national gymnastics team, goes back to the Soviet Union today with nine other young gymnasts who were here on an exchange program with the Mid-Atlantic Gymnastics Club in Randallstown. Members of the club visited the Soviet Union last June.
He returns to Kiev impressed with everything about America, but especially with the museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Maryland Science Center. He's toting cigarettes, Bic lighters, pocketbooks, pantyhose and clothes for his parents and a younger sister, and a Sony boom box for himself.
Oleg spoke no English, but picked up words quickly during his stay, according to Lydia Cress, whose family sponsored Oleg during his weeklong stay. "We were a little apprehensive about having a Russian gymnast at our house, but now Oleg has become part of the family," said Cress, whose 13-year-old son is a gymnast at the Mid-Atlantic club.
"It's going to be hard saying goodbye," she said. "My son said he'll probably never see him again."
Before 16-year-old Soviet gymnast Larisa Glekena, another aspiring Olympic hopeful, boards a plane for home, she probably will have played another Nintendo game. Although she, too, spoke no English, she showed enthusiasm for the game machine by cupping one hand while pretending to push buttons with the other, letting out a giggle and a smile. From her stay here, she especially remembers the new dolphin show at the National Aquarium.
While the gymnasts were here, they put on two gymnastics demonstrations at the Randallstown gymnastics club and went on numerous shopping trips. They had a whirlwind tour of Washington, including the White House.
They also placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It was a touching moment," said Nelly Solovyovsky, who said she went through nine months of Soviet red tape before getting the OK for the exchange. "Some of them cried."
The gymnasts, whose ages range from 12 to 16, stayed in American homes and celebrated their version of Christmas on New Year's Day. They brought their American families gifts such as wooden-carved pencil holders, Russian champagne and music boxes.
The 10 Soviet gymnasts, considered to be the cream of the crop of the Ukrainian national team, all train and attend school at a sports center in Kiev. There are 50 such homes for "future Olympians" in the Soviet Union, according to Richard Martin, the Mid-Atlantic club's director and coach.
The center where these gymnasts train is the only such in the Ukraine, said Martin. Their center has trained and produced several world and national gymnastics champions, including Oksana Omelyanchenko, who won the world title in 1987.