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LOVE STORY THE DEATH OF 28-YEAR-OLD SERGEI GRINKOV WAS THE FINAL CHAPTER IN ONE OF SPORT'S GREAT ROMANCES

Dec. 04, 1995
Dec. 04, 1995

Table of Contents
Dec. 4, 1995

LOVE STORY THE DEATH OF 28-YEAR-OLD SERGEI GRINKOV WAS THE FINAL CHAPTER IN ONE OF SPORT'S GREAT ROMANCES

The tears came at Vagankovsky Cemetery last Saturday. Ekaterina
Gordeeva had held herself together for most of this longest day
of her life at the end of the longest week of her life--the
performer doing her job, making other people feel at ease, no
matter how bad she felt inside--but at the end there would be no
control. The tears came, and she could not stop them.

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

Wrapped in the arms of the same Russian Orthodox priest who had
married her to Sergei Grinkov only 4 1/2 years ago, she cried and
cried, cried for Sergei and cried for herself, cried at the
realization that the words "and they lived happily ever after"
were only words after all. What was it she had said to Scott
Hamilton, the 1984 U.S. Olympic gold medalist and her friend?
"Maybe everything was too good, too perfect. That was why it
could not last." Maybe so.

On this gray Moscow afternoon, on this day when she was supposed
to be half a world away, previewing a tour in Lake Placid, N.Y.,
skating on a frozen cloud, looking into Sergei's face, feeding
off his strength as she always had, she was burying him in this
cold Russian ground. The outpouring of grief had been constant
since her husband had collapsed and died in Lake Placid on Nov.
20, a 28-year-old victim of coronary artery disease, and it was
no different now. A Red Army band played the Russian national
anthem. An honor guard fired a salute. The mourners, famous and
not so famous, stood close. Viktor Petrenko, the Ukranian gold
medalist who had briefly led the funeral procession, still
clutched Sergei's picture to his chest.

Could anyone ever have more friends from more disparate places?
Could anyone ever have better friends, friends and family who
would do absolutely anything to ease Ekaterina Gordeeva's pain?
Could anyone ever be more alone?

She cried and looked very small and vulnerable in her black mink
coat. She was 5'1" and 90 pounds and 24 years old and a widow.
Could anyone know--really know--what had disappeared? If the depth
of a sadness must be proportionate to the height of a happiness,
then there was not much lower that anyone could go.

"You could see the power that they had between them when they
skated," Paul Wylie, the silver medalist from the 1992 Olympics
and one of the U.S. visitors at the funeral, said. "Their eyes
never left each other during the whole performance. No one else
does that in pairs skating. It can be very distracting, looking
into someone else's eyes while you're skating, but it never was
for them. It was natural.

"You could just see how much they loved each other. You would
watch them and just wish you had that sort of relationship with
someone. We all wish we could find that kind of feeling, that
perfect nuclear life. So few people actually do."

They were partners in the sweetest love affair in all of sport.
They were a real-life Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Only
better. No credits rolled across the screen at the end of their
eye-popping performance. No cameras and lights were broken down
and taken to another place. The greatest pair in pairs skating
was a total pair, 24 hours a day, every day.

She was the dynamo, the sprite, flying through the air, spinning
and twisting, part acrobat and part athlete, part prima
ballerina and a whole lot of Tinker Bell. He was the hand in
control of this spectacular yo-yo. Ten inches taller, stolid and
smooth, he was the quiet foundation to the act. He let her fly.
He brought her back. The gasp of the crowd always came when
Katya--her nickname--dropped close to the ice, her head only an
inch or two away from serious injury. The relaxed sigh was the
muted reaction when he did his job, bringing her home safely
again.

"They really are what pairs skating ought to be," John Nicks, a
prominent U.S. coach, once said in describing Grinkov and
Gordeeva at work. "They are the consummate pair. You can't
appreciate the capacity of a 180-pound man to move across the
ice without a sound until you watch him skate. They are a
symphony for the senses. Go to practice one day. Don't watch
them; just listen. Not a sound. No matter the ice condition, you
hear only the music. They move so freely, their blades don't
scratch the ice."

Paired together somewhat reluctantly as children in Moscow under
the old-line Soviet Union sports machine when she was 10 and he
was 14, they grew up, fell in love, married and found freedom,
all in public view. World champions when she was 14, Olympic
champions when she was 16, they first performed as if they were
brother and sister. They were a different sort of mismatched
pair, able to use his strength and her tininess to create
dramatic movements that had never been seen. They merged the
artistic and the athletic.

"They proved that this kind of couple not only can work, but
that this is the best way to do it," Stanislav Zhuk, one of
Sergei's first skating coaches, said. "At the beginning,
everyone laughed. They showed them all."

Surprisingly they retired from amateur competition after winning
their fourth world championship, in 1990. They rejoined Tom
Collins's Tour of World Champions, a troupe of amateur and
professional stars, figuring they could skate for four or five
years as professionals, make some money, then move on to
separate, comfortable lives. But things happened. Plans changed.

First, they fell in love. Sergei, who had been dating other
people, suddenly noticed in 1989 that the little girl who had
been holding his hand all these years had become a woman. The
little girl, who had noticed Sergei for a long time, was more
than ready for this change. They became as close off the ice as
they were on the ice. They married in 1991. They had a daughter,
Daria, a year and a half later.

"I think it was on my tour when they first fell for each other,"
Collins said. "You could see it happen. It was all very sweet.
They were with each other all the time. At first she was like
this little rag doll that he threw around in the air, but she
sure grew up. She became a beautiful young woman."

A change in skating rules for the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer,
making professionals eligible to compete, brought a second
chance for the couple to win a gold medal. When they heard about
the change there was little debate about whether to return. The
children who won the gold medal in Calgary wanted to see what it
would be like to win a gold as adults, as parents, in Lillehammer.

"Because I was so young before, I did not realize everything,"
Gordeeva said. "This time ... I have a husband and I know my
daughter watches me on TV. All this makes me more nervous, but
more excited."

The result was all they hoped it could be. Of all the former
champions returning from the pros, they were the only ones to
repeat as gold medalists. Their routine to Beethoven's Moonlight
Sonata was quiet magic, Grinkov measuring his strides to match
Gordeeva's shorter bursts. If he faltered slightly
twice--singling a double Salchow and bobbling the landing on a
double flip--the mistakes were more than overcome by the rest of
the program. Eight of the nine judges put Grinkov and Gordeeva
ahead of countrymen Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev,
gold medalists two years earlier in Albertville.

The pair returned to the ice shows and found a new home in the
U.S., in Simsbury, Conn. They already had bought a home in
Tampa, but when plans were announced for an international ice
training center in Simsbury, and Petrenko and gold medal winner
Oksana Baiul and other skaters and coaches from the former
Soviet Union started moving to town, this seemed to be a chance
to combine the many pieces of a happy life. Gordeeva's mother
arrived to take care of Daria while the pair went on tour.
Everyone was together.

"You'd see G & G everywhere around town," Jay Sloves, a
publicist for the ice center, said. "They were always at the
rink. In fact, they had just filmed a spot for a Christmas
program to run on a local television channel. It's set for
December 3. There is this set of French doors, and G & G come
skating through.... I don't know what's going to happen with
that now."

The "now" is what changed forever that day in Lake Placid.
Sergei and Katya were practicing their routine. He had a bit of
high blood pressure and had been bothered by a bad back that
caused some numbness in his left leg, but otherwise he seemed in
fine health. He was worried about some of the lifts that he
would have to do when he and Katya went on the Discover Card
Stars on Ice tour in late December. This was a chance to work on
those lifts.

When Katya rushed from the rink in tears, asking for help, the
other skaters thought at first that something must have happened
because of Sergei's back. Maybe he had dropped Katya. Maybe he
had hurt himself further. Maybe ... it should have been so
simple. He'd had a heart attack.

"He was blue," Wylie, one of 14 Olympians on the tour, said.
"There was just nothing you could do except wait for the EMTs. I
rubbed Katya's back, and with my other hand I just touched
Sergei's skate. He was lifeless."

An autopsy showed that two arteries to Sergei's heart were
blocked and that he'd had an earlier, undetected heart attack in
the last 24 hours of his life. There was a family history of
heart disease, including his father, who died in his mid-40's.
Sergei basically had drawn an unlucky number from the genetic
pool.

"Everyone took this so hard," Wylie said. "We'd all done this
tour for a number of years. We were a family. This was where we
came, Lake Placid, every year for Thanksgiving. We all just
stared out at the lake."

Katya made the necessary arrangements in the middle of a holiday
week in the middle of nowhere. She hosted a private wake at a
funeral parlor in Saranac Lake and talked with friends and
accepted condolences. Collins flew from Minnesota to Simsbury,
to tell her that he would help in whatever way he could. Calls
came from everywhere. Katya accompanied the body to Moscow, and
on Saturday, at the ice rink that houses the Central Red Army
hockey team and was the place where Sergei started skating, she
sat through the funeral.

Wylie and Hamilton were there, and Bob Young, the executive
director of the Simsbury rink, was there, and a lot of other
people were there, ordinary and famous, Russian people who had
watched the unfolding of this romance that belonged to their
country and also to the world. Katya was composed throughout the
service. She always had been the spokesperson for the pair, the
one in charge, especially in America because Sergei was shy with
his English, and she was in charge here.

And then she went to the cemetery.

And then she cried for all there was and all there might have
been.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Death Spiral This dazzling maneuver was part of Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov's gold-medal-winning pairs performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Now, with Grinkov's sudden death on the ice, they shall never skate together again (page 34). [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva skating]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOS BY BILL SWERSEY Ekaterina (with mother-in-law Anna) said goodbye to Sergei in a rink where he began his career. [Ekaterina Gordeeva and her mother-in-law Anna looking into coffin of Sergei Grinkov]COLOR PHOTO: ALLSPORT G & G (center), a pair not yet a couple, won the 1986 worlds. [Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva on medal stand with others]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOS BY BILL SWERSEY Baiul and Petrenko (top) lent their support, but when Sergei was buried, Ekaterina stood alone. [Oksana Baiul and Viktor Petrenko; funeral procession for SergeiGrinkov; Ekaterina Gordeeva watching burial of Sergei Grinkov]