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On Top Of The Worlds Russia may be crumbling, but its skaters increase their international domination

April 05, 1999
April 05, 1999

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April 5, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

On Top Of The Worlds Russia may be crumbling, but its skaters increase their international domination

Not even the ordinarily dependable Michelle Kwan could stop the
Russian onslaught last week in Helsinki. It was as thorough as
Siberian winter, as convincing as a cuff from a bear. The end
came last Saturday night at the Hartwall Arena when Maria
Butyrskaya, a minxlike beauty known for folding like blini under
pressure, conquered her nerves to easily upset Kwan, the shaky
defending champion.

This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue

It was a groundbreaking win, and not just for Butyrskaya, who
became the first Russian woman ever to take the singles title.
Hers was also the fourth Russki gold of the World Figure Skating
Championships, marking the first time since 1952, the year ice
dancing was added, that skaters from one country had swept the
pairs, the dance and both men's and ladies' singles.

Not that anyone should have been shocked. Russia has long been
dominant in both pairs skating and ice dancing. In recent years
it has also started taking over men's singles, producing a wave
of quadruple-jumping teenagers such as 1998 Olympic gold
medalist Ilia Kulik, who now skates professionally, and Alexei
Yagudin, who last Thursday, having just turned 19, won his
second straight world title. Pushing Yagudin is Evgeni
Plushenko, who at 16 is the Russian national champion. Plushenko
took silver in Helsinki, just ahead of the surprising Michael
Weiss of the U.S.

Only the women's title, which Americans had won six of the past
nine years, had eluded the Russians' grasp. Now, with the
18-year-old Kwan showing signs of burnout and 16-year-old Tara
Lipinski having given up her Olympic eligibility, the women's
field looks ripe for a Russian takeover. Finishing third in
Helsinki behind Kwan was Julia Soldatova, a 17-year-old charmer
from Moscow. According to her coach, Elena Tchaikovskaya, there
are "many, many young girls, a new generation of fantastic
jumpers" just like Soldatova back home. "What you see now
started 10 to 13 years ago," says Tchaikovskaya, whose pupils
begin taking two 90-minute lessons a day at age four. She has 10
coaches teaching under her and 300 students in a new facility
called the Blades of Tchaikovskaya, sponsored by a bank and
built by the city of Moscow.

That Russia should assert its skating preeminence now--with its
economy in shambles and its old state-supported sports system
disassembled--surprises even the Russians. "But we have a
saying: 'The hunting dog with the full stomach never runs
fast,'" says Plushenko's coach, Alexei Mishin. "Yagudin,
Plushenko--they come from poor families. Skating gave them a
chance to survive. This is why they are winning."

And why Americans are not. There's so much money in figure
skating now that U.S. skaters no longer have to be Olympic
champions, or even medalists, to make a cushy living. "They make
themselves financially secure by appearing in skating shows,"
says Linda Leaver, Brian Boitano's longtime coach, "instead of
staying home training, trying to raise the level of their
skating."

There are other factors at work. Quality of coaching is one. In
the U.S. there are thousands of rinks and coaches, many of them
barely qualified. "In Russia, coaches spend four years at
university learning biology, psychology, physiology, sports
medicine, biomechanics," says Mishin. "That scientific base is
one of the differences." As financially distressed rinks in
Russian cities beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg close, the few
training centers that remain attract the best coaches and
skaters, who push each other every step of the way.

"I'm working with Plushenko three hours every day," says Mishin.
"I teach four skaters. In the U.S., coaches train dozens of
skaters. Maybe 30 to 40 minutes they spend with their champion."

"You lose the attention to details when you go from one skater
to the next," says Tamara Moskvina, whose pairs skaters Elena
Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won their second straight
world title in Helsinki. "Americans don't pay attention to the
details, the line of the body, the position of the arms. It's
because American skaters practice lots by themselves."

Well, if you can't beat them, hire them. Moskvina is now working
with Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman of the U.S., who finished
ninth in Helsinki. Mishin, meanwhile, has been approached by the
Detroit Skating Club about becoming its director, though he
doubts he will be able to duplicate his Russian success. "In the
U.S. the parents pay the coach, so the coach must always stroke
the pupil," he says. "In Russia we have what I call
postsocialism prison rules. The skater is the prisoner. In the
U.S. I'll make more money, fewer champions."

Sounds like he'll fit right in.

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CHIASSON/AP Butyrskaya, known for folding like blini, conquered her nerves to upset Kwan.