Skaters carved warm friendship on ice at Olympics 34 years ago

In the Olympic Games, athletes from many nations gather as competitors. Under the best of circumstances, they part as friends. One of the warmest friendships in Olympic Games history was carved on the ice of a speed-skating oval 34 years ago.

The friendship began just before the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley, Calif. An American speed skater, Barbara Day Lockhart, then 18, and Klara Guseva, 21, of Russia were brought together as competitors. They became friends as the Russian taught the American her skating technique.Neither was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time of the 1960 Olympics, but both are members today. Barbara Lockhart, BYU's faculty athletic representative and a professor of physical education, joined the Church in 1963. Through their friendship, Klara Guseva Nesterova, who also became a college professor, learned of the gospel and was baptized by missionaries in her native Russia in 1992. (See article on this page about Sister Lockhart's appointment as BYU's faculty athletic representative.)

While Sister Nesterova was visiting Utah shortly after she was baptized, she and Sister Lockhart met with the Church News. Together, they told the story of their friendship. They had lost contact with each other for 28 years, but were reunited in 1992 when Sister Lockhart went to Russia as a BYU Study Abroad faculty adviser.

The friendship between the athletes began with young Barbara's desire to learn Russian. On her own, she learned the Russian alphabet and a few words. "That was in the late 1950s, a time when Americans were looking at Russians as their No. 1 enemy," she said. "A lot of people thought I was strange for wanting to learn Russian. I don't know why I wanted to study it. As soon as the Russian team arrived at Squaw Valley, I went over and introduced myself. From that first moment, Klara and I became the best of buddies. Now that we can see the whole picture, we certainly see the Lord's hand in all this. We had an instant friendship, like we were sisters. The Russian team took me with them when they went on little side trips.

"It was the first Olympics for both of us, but she was a much more experienced skater. I had trained on a smaller track and didn't have the technique needed to skate on the Olympic's 400-meter oval. Klara began coaching me, teaching me the Russians' technique.

"That was the first year the Americans had a women's team in the Olympics. I had won the U.S. trials for the 500-meter and was the first woman to qualify for the American speed skating team. I figured that since I had won the U.S. trials I could win the Olympics, if I just worked hard enough. We really didn't have coaches that year. I ended up over-training and got sick. I was supposed to have been in the 500-meter event, but was taken out of that race and put in the 1,500-meter. I didn't do well at all. I finished something like 18th. Klara won a gold medal."

After the 1960 Winter Olympics, Barbara set her sights on the 1964 games. In 1963, just after she returned from skating in the world championships in Japan, she was at her parents' home in Park Ridge, Ill., when missionaries, sent by a friend, knocked on the door. She received the first discussion that day. A week later, she returned to Michigan State University at East Lansing, where other missionaries continued to teach her. She was baptized shortly before the 1964 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria.

"I was thrilled to see Klara again at the Olympics," Sister Lockhart said. "We picked up right where we had left off from four years earlier. At Squaw Valley, we had walked by a little non-denominational chapel, and I had asked her if she believed in God. She shook her head, no. I was then a member of a non-denominational church and had a strong belief in God.

"At Innsbruck, I was a brand-new member of the LDS Church, so I didn't know a lot that I felt I could share with her. We just continued our friendship.

"One of the touching stories of our friendship happened at Innsbruck. We were both put in the 3,000-meter race. Klara had already skated and was in third place. Then it came my turn. I had one of those races that was a peak experience. Everything went perfectly. I was on the Olympic record. I was skating better than ever. Nobody expected me to do that well. It looked like I was going to win.

"With one lap to go, I fell. I jumped right back up and finished the race, and came in about 20th. I still was really elated because that race had been better than anything I had done in my life.

"When I came around the oval, I saw Klara, with tears streaming down her face. If I had not fallen, she would not have won her medal. But she wasn't thinking of herself at all. We knew each other just in the games. We had written back and forth, but we were a whole world apart. And at that time, it was a world that we never figured would get together. I'll never forget seeing her tears for me because I didn't win a medal."

The two continued to correspond after the 1964 Olympics, but eventually lost contact. Barbara Lockhart went with the team but did not compete in the 1968 Olympics at Grenoble, France, but Klara Guseva Nesterova, who had settled down and started a family, wasn't there.

Nearly three decades would pass before they heard from or saw each other again. In 1992 when Sister Lockhart went to Russia, she spent nearly two months looking for her friend, who had moved from her hometown of Ryazan to Moscow. After making contact by telephone, they arranged to meet at a metro station.

Sister Lockhart was invited to stay four months with the Nesterova family in their apartment. "It was crowded, but it was so wonderful to be with them," Sister Lockhart said. "The first evening in their home, I took out a Russian language edition of the Book of Mormon. Klara's husband began asking me questions, mainly about the Word of Wisdom. I tried to answer questions to satisfy his immediate interest. I still didn't speak Russian very well.

"I opened the book, and there was a picture of Joseph Smith. I said, This man saw Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.' He said,Really?' He said to Klara, `Listen to this.'

"That's the kind of reception I got when I talked about the gospel. They wanted to know more about the Word of Wisdom. Klara is a former university professor in physical education too, so we had similar interests in health.

"A couple of days later, Klara and I were standing at a bus stop. I asked her, Do you believe in God now? She said,Yes.' I just about melted."

Sister Lockhart invited her friends to attend meetings with her at a branch of the Church in Moscow. "The very first time Klara went to Church, she was invited to speak," Sister Lockhart said. "I had told the branch president I was bringing Klara and her family. In Russia, anyone who has won an Olympic medal is a national hero. Nearly everybody knew who Klara was.

Sister Nesterova, who joined the Church a few months later, recalled her first LDS Church meeting: "I felt like they were all my brothers and sisters. In my talk that day, I said it was the best day of my life. I felt the Spirit so strongly. We sang hymns and prayed. I felt a certain spirit about the people who were there. They were all friendly. I was really thrilled to see Russian people who had become Mormons."

Missionaries began teaching the Nesterovas. "I had a wonderful feeling in the presence of the missionaries," Sister Nesterova said. "We would spend evenings together; I could feel of their wonderful spirit. I began to know the truth they were teaching."

Sister Nesterova was baptized Dec. 5, 1992. Her husband continued to be taught by missionaries, and enjoys having them visit. He has since suffered a stroke, and has not yet been baptized. Sister Nesterova is preparing to go to the Stockholm Sweden Temple with several other members of the Church from Moscow.

"I remember how sad I was after the 1964 Olympics," Sister Lockhart said. "I was a new member of the Church, and didn't think in terms of the eternities, but I remember sitting on the plane and crying during a trip to East Germany. Everyone thought I was crying because I was scared to go to East Germany, but I was crying because I thought I would never see Klara again. I didn't see her for almost 28 years. But, look at the reunion we've had!"

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