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People Top 5
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- March 25, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 12
Beyond the Tears
Four Months After Losing Her Husband and Soulmate, Ekaterina Gordeeva Is Back on Skates, Raising Their Daughter and Drawing Strength from His Memory
They were champions—two-time Olympic gold medalists, soulmates on ice and in life. "Every time they stepped on the ice, there was this collective sigh because it was so perfect," says 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie of Gordeeva and Grinkov—known as G&G in the tight-knit family of world-class skaters. They were young—he was 28, she 24—and they seemed invincible. Until Nov. 20, 1995, when his heart stopped during practice in Lake Placid, N.Y. She had been a widow only a few hours when she bent down to unlace his skates and take them from his feet. Now they lie on their side in a closet.
In Gordeeva's heart, Grinkov will always be as he was, a loving husband to her and a devoted father to their 3-year-old daughter, Daria. But she is learning to live in a world that is, for now, largely denned by his absence. "God decided Sergei has to go," she says, "so this is my life, and this is my future."
Three weeks ago she looked that future boldly in the eye and began it. For the first time since Grinkov's death—at a special tribute to him in the Hartford Civic Center not far from their home—she skated in public. And for the first time in her career, she skated without a partner. Last week she was on vacation in Florida with her neighbor in Simsbury, '94 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul. She is writing a book, and next month she will tour Canada with Stars on Ice, the professional tour she and Grinkov joined in 1991. But she will skate alone. There will never be another Grinkov.
His mother, Anna, still weeps when she thinks of her son and for weeks after his death, Gordeeva, too, would cry every time she looked at his photograph. Then, one night in February, she says, she had a "very bad dream." Her voice drops to a murmur. "I cannot say what it was, but in it was a sign that I should try to let him go. When I next looked at his picture, I smiled."
Who could have foreseen such a romance when she and Grinkov were first paired in 1982 by Soviet coaches? Gordeeva was a spindly 11-year-old; he was 15. She literally grew up in his arms. By the time they won their first Olympic gold medal, at Calgary in 1988, she was a beauty, and the relationship blossomed. Elena Bechke, a Russian silver medalist in 1992, remembers seeing them sneak kisses behind a newspaper on the Soviet team bus. "We always thought of them as so lucky," she says.
They married in 1991, had Daria a year later and won a second gold medal at the Lillehammer Games in 1994. That year they moved to Simsbury, where they were neighbors of Russian gold medal skater Viktor Petrenko and Baiul. "We were happy to have our own place here," Gordeeva says. "We got some furniture and looked for a new car." (They ended up with a white Volvo wagon, just right for a young family, though he had hoped someday to own a sporty Aston Martin.) They relished the stability of everyday life. "We were traveling a lot, but we always came back here," says Gordeeva. "We always had a quiet dinner at home. He liked dumplings and spaghetti, and I would cook anything. We didn't go to the restaurants a lot, but Sergei liked sushi, and there was a nice Japanese restaurant nearby, so we would sometimes go there."
They were working the day he died, practicing in Lake Placid for a program they were to skate with Stars on Ice. When he collapsed, Gordeeva was where she always was, at his side. Later, the doctors told her that an artery that carried blood from his heart had been completely blocked, the result of undiagnosed heart disease. (His father had three heart attacks before dying of his fourth, at 56, in 1990.)
The following day at the wake near Lake Placid, Gordeeva was the last person to approach Grinkov's open casket. She wore his heavy gold Rolex on her wrist and his wedding ring on a delicate gold chain around her neck, where it remains. Former Olympic medalist Scott Hamilton was by her side. As she stroked Grinkov's face and hair, she spoke softly to him in Russian. Then she lifted his sweater to show Hamilton a photograph of Daria she had tucked into the top of Grinkov's pants. In her memory, she said later, "that will always be the last day I had with Sergei."
The funeral was four days later in Moscow at the Red Army Club arena, where they had spent so many years training. The next few days, as her parents looked after Daria in their Moscow home, Gordeeva stayed in the small apartment where she and Grinkov had begun their married life, and which they had kept even after moving to Simsbury. "We didn't have furniture at all, just a bed and a TV on the floor," she says. "That little room is very close to my heart. I feel his spirit there."
She remained in Moscow through New Year's, spending many hours talking to her godfather, Father Nikolai, the Russian Orthodox priest who married her, christened Daria and presided over the funeral. Marina Zueva, the coach who worked with Gordeeva and Grinkov for most of their career, urged her to keep busy and made her go to the ballet, the circus, the symphony. She went, but it didn't help. She knew where she had to be: back on the ice.
In December she called Petrenko in Simsbury and asked him to ship her skates to Moscow. A few days later, venturing onto the ice at the Red Army Club rink, she took her first tentative steps back to life. That month some of the world's finest skaters—Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina Witt, Hamilton and Wylie—decided to dedicate their Feb. 27 Stars on Ice performance in Hartford to Grinkov. (The proceeds will go into a trust for Gordeeva and Daria.) They asked Gordeeva if she'd take a bow at the end. She had a better idea. She wanted to skate; she had to skate—for herself and for Grinkov.
Gordeeva began training in January with Zueva in Canada and later practiced alone at the International Skating Center near her Simsbury home. She was shaky at first, but gradually felt stronger. Just before the performance, Zueva told her, "You should remember that Sergei will help you to skate; try to feel that he is around you."
Indeed, almost as soon as the lights flooded the ice, Gordeeva's fears vanished. "It was like I had double strength," she says. "I didn't even feel that I was skating. My arms were so free." As she glided to center ice, the audience rose and thundered their support. She hesitated, unsure whether she should acknowledge the applause; then, as the melancholy strains of Mahler's Fifth Symphony filled the arena, she began a series of lovingly choreographed gestures—her hand searching for another hand, her body, draped in diaphanous white and gray, arcing to the shape of another invisible body—that suggested she still was one of a pair. The program, choreographed by Zueva, was a wrenching dramatization of Gordeeva's struggle with grief and renewal. At the end she skated with joy, her fingers reaching toward the sky.
The performance brought the tearful audience to its feet again, and Gordeeva herself started to cry. But she took a deep breath and skated to the edge, where she scooped up Daria. The tiny blonde threw her arms around her mother's neck, and gently, very gently, as Gordeeva carried her onto the ice, patted her mother's back.
It was Daria, in the terrible weeks after Grinkov's death, who kept Gordeeva from succumbing totally to her grief. The little girl shares her father's lopsided grin and the silky blond hair he had as a child. In Simsbury, she spends mornings at nursery school. "I speak only Russian with her," says Gordeeva, "but she's picking up English at school. I am so happy to have Daria, because she will smile at me and I can talk to her, and talk with her about funny things. You cannot talk about sad things all the time."
Friends recall Grinkov as a doting father. Said former world champion Kurt Browning, in a taped tribute at the Feb. 27 performance: "Sergei was the kind of father that you don't want to meet as a 19-year-old boy coming to the house to date his daughter." After Sergei died, Gordeeva was advised by her mother, Elena, to say that Father had gone away on a trip. Daria's nursery school teacher thought differently. "She told me to use all the words you would use to explain to anyone: that he has died, and he will never come back, and he will be our angel, and you will be able to see him in your dreams."
Occasionally, though, Daria is made somber by the incomprehensible loss. "One day she was just sad, very sad, and was sitting for a long time in the morning, something she never does," says Gordeeva. "She asked me, 'Mom, when will we see Father?' I started to tell her we would not be able to see him anymore, but she said, 'I miss him; I want to see him very, very much.' "
Until now, Daria has never known her parents to skate apart. At one show last year, recalls Paul Wylie, Daria burst into tears when her parents went out on the ice. "She didn't want them to go," Wylie says. "At the end of the number, Sergei just took Daria up in his arms and they put skates on her." Since then, the little girl has embraced skating, while admitting she has something to learn. "I a good skater," she tells a visitor. Then she points to Gordeeva. "But my mom a very good skater."
Gordeeva's long-term plans are still uncertain. "I don't want to think about it," she says. But she does want to stay in Simsbury. "I love this place," she says. "I love Connecticut and the seasons. I love snow, and the fall is so beautiful." Since her return from Russia, she has started to talk more openly about her emotions. "Sometimes I feel better when I talk," she says. "Sometimes I don't want to say anything at all, and sometimes I get angry" at questions from reporters. Piles of fan mail surprised her. "I never expected to have such support," she says. "I never thought we meant so much to people."
She walks over to her bedroom dresser and pulls out a favorite picture of her husband and Daria. It is a simple photograph, a black-and-white candid. "I miss Sergei and everything about him," she says. "Absolutely everything. His voice, his hugs, his kisses, everything." She sits on their bed, fingering the antique emerald ring he bought her in Germany before their marriage. "He would never come into a room and not touch me in some way," she says, starting to cry softly. "All the time, we would never cross without touching our hands or giving a kiss."
At first after his death, she blamed herself—as if the tragedy was God's retribution for her failure to appreciate the joy she had known. "I always had happiness, and maybe I didn't realize how great it was," she says. "I had my own world, with Sergei and Daria and my skating. I didn't really care about anything else." Having her family around her has helped. Her mother and her father, Alexander, both retired, followed her from Moscow and will stay in Simsbury as long as their daughter needs them. "I talk with my mom a lot," says Gordeeva, "and she tells me nothing could have been done for him."
Her faith, too, has given her perspective. "Every person has something they have to go through," she says, "and God wanted me to go through this. He wanted me to be stronger."
As the Hartford tribute came to an end, the skaters paired up in positions from famous G&G performances. Gordeeva skated around them, a triumphant smile on her face, and then Hamilton handed her a microphone. She thanked the skaters and the audience, then seemed to search for words. Finally they came to her. "Try to spend your life in happiness," she said. "Each day, just say, 'I love you.' "
ANNE LONGLEY in Simsbury
- Anne Longley.
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