Their performance was quality flawless, tiptoeing the line between athletics and art. Ekaterina Gordeeva, 16, and Sergei Grinkov, 21, dressed in powder blue and skating to the music of Chopin and Mendelssohn, represented the Soviet Union in the pairs finals with a gold medal program that was a tribute to beauty and youth. "It was heaven," said Sandra Bezic, a former Canadian pairs champion who is now Brian Boitano's choreographer. "He presented her so beautifully, like a cherished little sister. They are everything pairs skating should be."
So enchanting were the champions that the first U.S. medal of the Olympics, the bronze, won by the top U.S. pair of Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, became little more than a footnote to the competition. Watson fell during a side-by-side double Axel, but the American pair recovered to finish third, skating what was, technically, the most demanding program of the competition. But Watson and Oppegard, who display more toughness than togetherness on the ice, leave one with the impression of two athletes rather than of a single pair. "Gordeeva and Grinkov were head over heels over the rest of them," acknowledged U.S. pairs coach Ron Ludington. Added Bezic, "They were so beautiful in unison when they did their spins and jumps that you didn't notice the difference in their size."
Gordeeva and Grinkov, who have reigned as world champions since 1986, are the latest in a long line of Soviet Olympic pairs champions that goes back to the legendary Protopopovs, Ludmilla and Oleg, who took the gold in 1964 and '68. "The Protopopovs were very balletic," says Victor Ryzhkin, figure skating coach of Moscow's Central Army Sports Club, in which virtually all the top Soviet figure skaters train. "Then came [Irina] Rodnina and her two partners, Alexei Ulilov and Aleksandr Zaitsev, who were more powerful and technical. This pair of Gordeeva and Grinkov has a style that projects life and youth. You must skate the way you are, and they are very simple and natural people. Her smile is not something she has to work on. It comes out of her heart."
Gordeeva is certainly a thoughtful sort. "When she came off the ice after skating for the gold medal, she asked me how my heart was." Ryzhkin said. "She was worried about me, even though there is nothing wrong with my heart, because it is always the [coaches] who are the most nervous during competitions, and, as you can see, I am not a young man. She is an enormously agreeable child."
February 29, 1988
Katya, as Gordeeva is called, has been skating since she was four. Her mother is a teletype operator for Tass, the official Soviet news agency, and her father is a dancer for the Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Army. "He worked with me on movement very often when I was little," says Gordeeva, whose attitude on the ice, particularly the way she holds her arms, is a study in natural grace. She was paired with Grinkov when she was 10—now they are one of just eight pairs in the Central Army Club—and 3½ years later they won the junior world title. The next year, in their first appearance in the world championships, they upset the reigning Soviet, Olympic and world champions, Oleg Vasiliev and Elena Valova—who were the silver medalists in Calgary. "It was a sensation back in the Soviet Union," says Ryzhkin. "It is usual for our Olympic champions to retire before they are beaten."
Gordeeva, who is in her last year of school, understands English but is too shy to speak more than a few words of it. She is a doll-like five feet and weighs 90 pounds, but she grew 1.2 inches last year and hopes one day to be as tall as her mother, who is a statuesque 5'10". She likes knitting, reading and baking cakes, though she seldom samples her wares. "It is a holiday when they get her to eat," says Ryzhkin. In Calgary, she did some shopping—she bought a skirt for her mother last week—and she received hundreds of letters from North American well-wishers. "They all want to meet me and for me to write back," says Gordeeva, who reads the letters with the help of a translator. "Some of them ask for a date."
As yet Gordeeva has had no time for dates, although when she wound up in a hospital last fall after suffering a head injury in a training accident, a steady stream of male classmates and sports club skaters came by to wish her well, including the son of the late Soviet hockey great, Valery Kharlamov. Still, her skating partner remains the only man in Gordeeva's life. "They are like brother and sister," says Ryzhkin. At their press conference last week, when Katya was asked if, because of their age difference, she was worried that one day Grinkov would be too old to skate with her, Gordeeva's gray-blue eyes widened with surprise. "I have never answered such a question," she said, "but I don't think I will need another partner." Asked her personal thoughts a few days later about training with Grinkov, she said, with a mysterious air, "I am used to him."
Grinkov, whose parents work as Moscow police, has deep-creased dimples in his cheeks and Newmanesque blue eyes. He is a lanky 6-footer with a wide and ready smile. A onetime singles skater, he was "terrible," he claims, and had no choice but to agree to try pairs when the Central Army coaches teamed him with Gordeeva in '81. He has never seen the Protopopovs, even on film, and has not modeled himself after any of the older skaters at the Central Army Club, although he has learned from their work habits. Strong and unassuming on the ice and very much the silent leading man, Grinkov is the stem to Gordeeva's flower, a role with which he is perfectly content. Grinkov is just as unpretentious away from the arena. He called Calgary "a neat town," and the favorite thing he did there—besides winning the gold medal—was going to the top of the Calgary Tower, from which he could see all the way to the mountains. At home, after the competitive season is over, he likes to play hockey with friends.
Some pairs project the image of a man and a woman; some the image of a brother and sister. In this pair there also lies the tension of youth ready to blossom, of the older brother's friend, say, who suddenly realizes that the little girl with whom he is dancing has grown into a woman. "Skating a slow duet is something that seems to come only with age," says Ryzhkin, "but these two have mastered it already."
When asked about girlfriends, Grinkov claims not to have time for them. But Ryzhkin shrieks with laughter at this response and makes a bawdy remark about what they must do to control him on the road. Then he says, "The girls like him better than ice cream." Does Katya mind these attentions? "On the inside she probably suffers," says Ryzhkin. "But she doesn't show it. Anyway, it is not good for a romantic relationship between pair skaters. They start to argue all the time."
It is conceivable, because of their youth, that this could be the first of three Olympic gold medals for Gordeeva and Grinkov. They are still growing as performers and plan to add side-by-side triple jumps to their program soon. But grow as they might, it is doubtful they will improve appreciably on the feeling they left the audience with in Calgary. As Grinkov says in assessing his and Katya's future, "We will skate as long as we're still young."