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- December 11, 1995
- Vol. 44
- No. 24
Soulmates on Ice
As Olympic Skating Champion Sergei Grinkov Is Laid to Rest, Friends Remember a Romance of Heartbreaking Joy and Passion
By all accounts, Grinkov, 28, and Gordeeva, 24—or G&G, as they were known in the world of professional figure skating—led a storybook life. A pair of mismatched children thrown together by the Soviet regime at age 15 and 11, respectively, and told to skate for the good of the state, they grew up to become the most celebrated pairs skaters ever—and, along the way, to fall madly in love with each other. Indeed, says former skating champion Dick Button, "God gave them so much—Sergei was the perfect pairs skater, perfect husband, perfect father [to their 3-year-old daughter Daria]. It was as though God had to pull something back."
On Nov. 20, while training with Gordeeva in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the Stars on Ice show tour, Grinkov complained of dizziness. The couple had just completed a lift, and Gordeeva helped him to sit on the ice. Then he fell backward, unconscious.
Katia started screaming. Paramedics responded in minutes, and doctors at the Adirondack Medical Center worked on Grinkov, whose father had died of heart failure at 56 in 1990, for more than an hour, to no avail. "He was dead the moment he hit the ice—he felt no pain," says Dr. Josh Schwartzberg. The autopsy showed that the skater's heart was enlarged, probably from high blood pressure, and that his left anterior descending coronary artery was virtually closed. He had had a "silent" heart attack within the previous 24 hours—one that might have caused him no pain but may have started a fatal heart rhythm.
It fell to Schwartzberg to tell Gordeeva that her husband had died. "Her grief was so powerful, it was heart-wrenching," says Schwartzberg. "She wanted to go in and be with him. I was afraid to leave her alone, but she started speaking in Russian to him in a very gentle, soft and affectionate way. I was very moved by how she caressed and kissed him." Just before she left, she unlaced her husband's skates and gently removed them from his feet. "She was talking to Sergei, telling him, 'Everything will be okay; I will always love you,' " says Elena Bechke, a friend and 1992 Olympic silver medalist in pairs skating. "I think Katia will be okay too. She will live for Sergei. There will not be another partner for her. They'd won everything together. They were everything together."
The Soviet sports machine was already in high gear in 1972, when Anna and Mikhail Grinkov, both officers in the Soviet Interior Ministry police, brought their 5-year-old son Sergei to the Central Army skating rink for a trial lesson. There had been advertisements in the Moscow papers saying that the state was looking for its next group of Olympic stars. Sergei, though, was no overnight sensation. "If someone told me this boy was to be a champion," says Anatoly Yeriomin, director of the Central Army Sports Club School's program, "I would have laughed. One day he would be excellent in training, the next just so-so."
But Sergei couldn't wait to get to the rink every day and clearly preferred the long hours of gymnastics, weight-training and choreography to his academic studies. By 14, he was already taller than his peers, and his coaches doubted that he would be able to pull off the complicated jumps of singles skating. It was at this point that the chief trainer, Stanislav Zhuk, talked to Anna about switching to pairs. "She was against it at first," says Galina Vasilkevich, a skating coach with the Central Army. But she eventually gave her consent, and Sergei was matched with Katia, an 11-year-old pixie with a bouncy ponytail and stern demeanor. Vasilkevich remembers the reluctant Grinkov telling his coach, "I could never lift this girl!"
Pairs skating came easily to Gordeeva, whose father, Alexander, was a member of a military-dance theater ensemble. Sergei, though, was another story. Vasilkevich recalls Katia standing with her hands on her hips, looking on sourly, as he tried to imitate her moves but ended up bursting into laughter. "Katia was always very serious," Vasilkevich says. "Sergei was much easier to laugh and tell jokes."
Eventually, Katia and Sergei eased into a sort of playful brother-sister relationship. "There was a good rapport," the coach recalls. "But Sergei didn't take Katia very seriously." At 16, Grinkov, who was doing daily battle with his hormones, regarded Katia, 12, as a child. Vasilkevich remembers making a bed check during a meet in Hungary and discovering that "everyone was sleeping, except Sergei's bed i was empty. We found him in the German girls' rooms, talking and listening to music. We scolded him, of course, and sent him to his room."
On the ice, Grinkov needed no surveillance. "He was very dedicated," says Vladimir Zakharov, who became the pair's trainer in 1982. "Sergeiwas strong. I would tell them, That's enough for today.' But they would want to practice until the night. It was their goal to get to the top."
They won their first world title in 1986, when Grinkov was 19 and Gordeeva 14. Two years later they won their first gold medal, at the Calgary Olympics. Friends say that Katia already knew she was in love with Sergei. "It took her a while to win him over," says Jirina Ribbens, vice president of Candid Productions, which produces skating competitions, "because he was a young man wanting to explore options. She was totally in love with him, and he took her for granted."
Then, during a competition in Germany, Sergei began to see Katia in a different light. That's when he confided to his sister Natasha, "Katia has become so beautiful!" Shortly afterward, recalls Bechke, "they were kissing each other behind the newspaper on the tour bus."
They were married in Moscow on April 21, 1991, and from that point on they skated like no other pair had before. "When they skated before marriage," says Zhulin, "they skated beautiful lines. But it was like two children who don't understand life. In the last years they skated better and better. I think it was because everything was perfect: They loved each other, and they loved Daria."
The arrival of Daria, or "Dasha," as they called her, changed their lives dramatically. "They didn't become one person until Dasha was born," says Olympic champion Scott Hamilton. Bechke recalls when the couple introduced the 2-year-old Daria to the ice: "Sergei would hold her down close to the ice, between his legs, as he was skating. And she would think, 'This is skating!' " So when they put her in her own skates, Daria figured she would glide along like her parents. Her first fall was traumatic. "She didn't want to skate anymore," laughs Bechke. "But now she's very good."
The couple had turned professional in 1990 but, thanks to a change in the international rules, were able to compete in the 1994 Olympics, where they won a second gold medal. "We wanted to show people how we had changed," Gordeeva said at the time. "Now I'm so happy to skate with Sergei, who I am so in love with. Our choreographer Marina Zueva said, 'Forget about everyone. Skate for Sergei.' "
Sergei and Katia, who made PEOPLE'S 50 Most Beautiful list in 1994, kept a one-room apartment in Moscow. But they spent most of their time in Simsbury, Conn., where they lived in the same condominium complex as Olympic .stars Viktor Petrenko and Oksana Baiul. "They liked to do romantic things," says Bechke.
"Things like private dinners with candies. Katia liked to cook for Sergei. She's such a tiny thing, she didn't eat much, but she liked to make him tiramisu and cakes." When asked for the Stars on Ice program bio what his favorite dinner was, Sergei responded, "Any dinner my wife made."
For Sergei, happiness was a good book (Doctor Zhivago was a favorite) or a movie (all three Godfathers, and Dracula). "Everything interested Sergei," says Hamilton. "He watched a lot of TV too. He loved HBO's Mr. Bean and watching hockey, and old musicals too. When he got a new car, he was very excited about that. Sergei and Katia had a life that was so genuine in its values. They had a real work ethic and an understanding of people that was so down-to-earth and pure. I never felt like I wasted a day with them."
Thirty hours after Sergei's death, friends and fellow performers in Stars on Ice bade farewell to him at a Saranac Lake, N.Y., funeral home. Katia wore the Rolex watch he had given her when Daria was born and his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. She stroked Sergei's face and talked to him softly while he lay in state. Then she lifted her husband's sweater to show Hamilton a photo of Daria tucked into the top of Sergei's pants.
After the wake, and before she left for Moscow and the burial in Vagankovskoye Cemetery, she joined her fellow skaters at the Lake Placid con-do where she and Sergei had been staying. Her friends wanted to console her, but she ended up consoling them. "She was crying, but she grabbed my collar," says former U.S. champion Rosalynn Sumners. "She said, 'Roz, be happy. Be happy every day. Sergei knew how to live. He would say to me every day, 'Katia, be happy.' "
Sumners's eyes fill with tears as she remembers Gordeeva trying to be strong that night. "I feel such loss for her," she says. "They were the epitome of soulmates. How do you say goodbye to your partner—your partner in everything? You know what, though? The last thing Sergei saw was Katia in her landing position, which is everything they had worked for since they were children in Moscow."
LORNA GRISBY in New York City, ANNE LONGLEY in Lake Placid and CONSTANCE RICHARDS in Moscow
- Lorna Grisby,
- Anne Longley,
- Constance Richards.
April 25, 2015
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