With his shaggy blond hair, earnest demeanor and romantic swagger, Ilia Kulik has brought a new brand of star quality to the rink. "He's the Leonardo DiCaprio
of figure skating," says Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. "The female fans go crazy for Ilia."
Kulik, 20, doesn't shrink from the compliment. "Leonardo is good-looking," he says. "Women like him, and women like me. We are the same." That's not much of an overstatement. Since winning the gold medal in Nagano, the 5'11" Russian skater has spawned a host of adoring Web pages, where he's hailed as the Romeo of his sport. After he skates, little girls habitually fling stuffed animals onto the ice; in Nagano, they tossed handmade dolls of Kulik in his trademark black-spotted yellow shirt. "I kept those," he says.
The son of a translator mother and an equipment engineer father, Kulik began skating in his native Moscow at 5. When he was 17, his gangly body filled out and he has since put on 30 pounds of muscle that now powers his triple jumps. Though he still returns home three times a year to visit his family, Kulik lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Marlborough, Mass., where he has been training since 1996. His girlfriend, Maria Anikanova, a 24-year-old Russian actress, visits regularly.
Skating and kickboxing keep him on his toes, but his "apple cheeks" are what make him "adorable," says NBC skating analyst Sandra Bezic. Kulik himself prefers the left side of his face because, he says, it is "kind and open-hearted. My right side appears a little more aggressive." Such rumination may seem vain, but, says Kulik, "If you're a great skater, it's good. If you're a good-looking great skater, that's great."