As they skated to the strains of "Love Story," their playfulness and passion were so convincing that enthralled spectators wanted to know if the romance was real. But Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier offered few clues over the next wild six days, as a world-class judging scandal—were they robbed of the gold medal or not?—kept the pair in the spotlight. Ironically, it was to Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, the Russian pair who had bested them on Feb.11, that the Canadians permitted a glimpse of their romantic spirit. On Feb.17, after the four athletes shared a dual gold-medal ceremony, they shared a private moment backstage. "They thanked us for our sportsmanship, and we thanked them," says Anton. Then Jamie and David presented the Russians with two small packages gift-wrapped in gold. Inside? Two crystal hearts.
The toast of the Winter Games, Sale, 24, and Pelletier, 27, seem as well-suited to each other as they are to the rigors of Olympic competition—and controversy. "They're both charming and feisty," says their choreographer Lori Nichol. "The balance is who will be charming or feisty when." Paired on the ice since 1998, they are growing into a live-in relationship that they guard ferociously—hardly a surprise in the hothouse world of skating, where relationships fizzle as often as quadruple toe loops. Offering a rare look at their home life in Edmonton, Alta., Jamie told PEOPLE, "I'm the type to be laid-back, while he's very intense and very private. He's the most caring person I know, and he's funny." David admires Jamie's social skills. "She's always nice to people, she's approachable, not intimidating," he says. "She's always in a good mood." Together, says Jamie, "we're very balanced."
That poise was on display for the world to see in the tumultuous time after the judges awarded the Russians the gold by a vote of 5 to 4. Moments after the Canadians' scores were posted and boos filled the Salt Lake Ice Center, Jamie shrugged as if to say, "Oh, well," then stood and waved to the 16,000 spectators. In the following days, as attention focused on Marie-Reine Le Gougne, 40, a French judge who indicated then later denied that she had been pressured by unnamed sources to favor the Russians, Jamie and David remained dignified and gracious. Repeatedly David said, "Anton and Yelena are our friends," stressing that their beef was with the judging, not the Russians. "If you were going to do central casting for people to play this role," says their agent Craig Fenech, "they are perfect."
So was the Russian pair. "Anton and Yelena have kept their cool and been positive role models," says Naomi Lang, 23, who trains with the Russians at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., and placed 11th with her partner, Peter Tchernyshev, 31, in the ice-dancing competition. "At the rink back home, they're genuine people, very respectful, and get along with everyone." Awarded a gold stripped of joy, Anton, 25, lost 5 lbs. after the Feb.11 competition; both he and Yelena, 24, got little sleep. "We are not the bad guys, and we don't steal anything from anyone," says Anton. "We have a good relationship with Jamie and David."
When the two pairs finally met up again just moments before their shared gold-medal ceremony, David said, "Wow, Anton. I am so tired." Anton replied, "I'm so tired too." They exchanged quick congratulations, then launched into an intense debate—about who would win gold in hockey. And Jamie and Yelena? "They were trying to figure out which hockey players were the cutest," Anton says, laughing.
Neither couple's road to gold has been smooth. At 12, David moved from Sayabec to Rimouski, both in Quebec, to train as a singles skater. Leaving behind his parents, Jacques Pelletier, a school principal, and Murielle Bouchard, a teacher, and his brothers Martin, now 30, and Mathieu, 24, was hard. "We did his homework over the phone, gave him discipline over the phone, brought him up through the phone," says Murielle. "We often wondered whether we were doing the right thing."
A year later 10-year-old Jamie endured her own domestic drama in her hometown of Red Deer, Alta., when her father, Gene Sale, an electrician, and her mother, Patti, split. Jamie's older brother Jason, now 30, moved in with Gene, while Jamie moved in with her mom. "She used to drive me up to Edmonton three times a week," Jamie says, recalling her schedule at a rink almost two hours away. "She never socialized, because she was always with me."
From the start Jamie, who turned to pairs skating at 12, had the spark of determination. When she was 8, her mom recalls, she said to her coach, "'When I am at the Olympics' or 'When I am world champion.' It wasn't if. It was always when." When Jamie was 15, mother and daughter moved to Edmonton, where Jamie's progress was rapid. She and her first partner, Jason Turner, placed 12th at the '94 Lillehammer Games before Jamie turned briefly to a singles career.
David, meanwhile, was discovering that his strength lay in pairs skating. Over five years, however, he lost one partner to a fatal car accident and quit his partnerships with two other skaters. When he was hunting for his third partner in 1996, Jamie's coach prodded her to travel to Montreal to try out with him. The meeting came to nothing. "I was not ready to move out west, and she was too young to move out east by herself," David recalls. Jamie says, "We weren't ready to skate together." But her mom, Patti Siegel, recalls that "Jamie was disappointed" when David chose not to pair with her.
After David and his third partner, Caroline Roy, failed to make the national team in 1998, he married a figure-skating coach, a union that proved short-lived, and went looking for a fourth partner. This time when Jamie expressed interest, he flew to Edmonton. "We had grown up a lot between the two tryouts," he says. "We were very different people and were committed to be the best in the world." This time their skating chemistry clicked.
Their romantic chemistry evolved more slowly. Initially hampered by a language barrier—he grew up speaking French, she English—David says, "We had a very small problem communicating at the beginning." A year later, the communications glitches ironed out, they began working with choreographer Nichol on the "Love Story" program. Jamie has said that it was during their practices for the program that she began to have romantic feelings for David. "Every time they do the 'spoon' maneuver, Jamie likes remembering how special it felt the first time," says Nichol. "But obviously she had to deny the feelings because there wasn't a relationship yet."
Now that there is, it is not always smooth gliding. "It's not a bed of roses every day," their coach Jan Ullmark told Canada's National Post on Feb. 16. "They go through hard times when something doesn't go right. They get upset with each other." After Jamie stumbled at the recent Canadian championships, David demonstrated what their agent Fenech calls his "quicker trigger" by throwing a public tantrum that reduced his partner to tears. "David likes to joke how he slept on the couch that night," says Nichol. Their strength, she adds, comes from their ability to "give each other space. They don't depend on each other to make the other happy."
At home David loves to fix things and Jamie languishes in warm baths. Both like to hang out together. "We love watching movies at home," says David. "In the summer we are both very passionate about golf." "Golf!" Jamie chimes in. "I haven't broke 100 yet." Asked his handicap, David says, "Our golf scores are like fishing stories: A lot of things get changed!"
Last December the pair hosted Christmas for both their families at their Edmonton house. "It was cute, because I never thought Jamie would be domesticated," says her mom. "She does a lovely job in her home. It's always very clean but lived in."
Going into Salt Lake City, the sudsometer favored the Russian pair to steal spectators' hearts. Theirs, after all, was the more wrenching tale, filled with dramatic setbacks. In January 1996 Yelena almost lost her life when her first partner, Oleg Sliakhov, stumbled and sliced her skull with his ice skate. "She was completely paralyzed and couldn't talk," says her mother, Tatiana Berezhnaya, 49, who raised her daughter and two sons alone after her husband, Viktor, an electrician, left when Yelena was 6. "They saw all these bits of bone inside and had to operate immediately." A week later Yelena spoke her first words: "Mommy, will I skate again?"
At the time, Anton was romantically involved with Yelena. Hearing of the mishap, he flew to Latvia to be with her. When he brought her back with him to St. Petersburg to recuperate, he decided to part with Maria Petrova, his skating partner of four years. "Oleg used to abuse [Yelena], and Anton wanted to help her recover," says their coach Tamara Moskvina. (Asked to respond to Yelena's charges that he hit and kicked her, Sliakhov says, "This is between us.")
Three months after her accident, Anton coaxed Yelena back onto the ice, and they began a rapid upward trajectory that led to a silver medal at the '98 Nagano Games. Then a new series of bumps ensued. In 2000 they were stripped of their gold in the European Championships after Yelena tested positive for a banned substance. (Yelena blamed U.S. doctors for prescribing the offending antibiotic to treat her bronchitis.) After the pair lost to Jamie and David at the 2001 World Championship, Yelena told Sovietskii Sport, "We didn't lose, but we were given second place."
Since 1997 Anton and Yelena have not been a couple off the ice. The shy Yelena says, "I like to paint and go to karaoke bars." When the gregarious, fun-loving Anton hesitates to describe himself, Moskvina offers, "He likes cars and girls."
Though the reputation of Olympic skating has been tarnished by the latest medal flap, both pairs of skaters have benefited from the brouhaha. "Our agent's dream came true," Jamie says with a wry smile. "He said, 'I want to make you guys household names.'" While endorsements and ice shows await them, neither pair has said if they will compete next month at the World Championships in Nagano. "I can't imagine that Jamie and David would ever want to be judged again," says Canadian choreographer and NBC commentator Sandra Bezic. As for the pair's life off the ice, choreographer Nichol says, "They are a real love story. Now I think our job is to give them enough space to be that love story."
Cynthia Wang and Lorenzo Benet in Salt Lake City, Juliet Butler in London and Rebecca Paley in Hackensack
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