Ice Network

Protopopovs not letting age slow them down

Two-time Olympic pairs champion still going strong after 57 years together
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Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov started a run of 12 straight Olympic pairs gold medals won by teams representing the Soviet Union, Unified Team or Russia. -Sarah S. Brannen

Fifty years ago next February, Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov won the first of their two Olympic gold medals. Theirs was the first Olympic gold medal in pairs won by the Soviet Union, starting a 42-year streak of Olympic gold by Soviet and Russian couples.

The Protopopovs teamed up as a pair in 1956 and married in 1957. They defected to Switzerland, where they still live, in 1979.

On Oct. 5 and 6, they performed at "An Evening with Champions" for the 22nd year. At 77 and 81, they no longer perform lifts or their signature death spirals, but they still have the grace and smoothness that have inspired generations of skaters.

Ludmila shared an enigmatic reason for the success of their 56-year marriage.

"The secret is very simple: We are always in the refrigerator, like frozen fruits," she said.

The "frozen" part may refer to their preference for cool climates. The couple spends summers and autumns in Lake Placid, N.Y., before returning to Grindelwald, Switzerland, each winter. In Lake Placid, they participate in week-long camps in June and August, as well as do a bit of teaching, mostly with adults.

"We don't have any permanent students," Ludmila said. "For many years, the same people take lessons with us."

"Adults are not so creative as children," Oleg added. "Children watch you and know what to do."

"Children understand immediately," Ludmila continued. "With adults, we have to explain how and what to do. It's very interesting working with adults. It's different psychology."

Over the years, the two have taught countless skaters. They are famous for, among other things, inventing three death spiral variations: the "life spiral," "love spiral" and "cosmic spiral." In the original death spiral, the lady is on a back outside edge. The life spiral is on a forward inside edge, the love spiral is a forward outside edge, and the cosmic spiral is a back inside edge.

"In 1965, the first cosmonaut [Alexei Leonov] did a space walk," Oleg explained.

"We dedicated the cosmic spiral to that," Ludmila said.

"We taught many people how to do many elements," Oleg said. "But today, the ISU, they don't want to do the elements like we do."

"The rules are so strict," Ludmila went on. "Strange rules, very strange -- they don't think about beauty. They think you just have to have the right position, [or the] head or upper body has to be lower. They say the life spiral position has to be the same as the death spiral. But when I did these four spirals, we had a different position for each one."

"They call all spirals 'death spirals,' " Oleg said, shaking his head.

The Protopopovs still skate nearly every day.

"We skate a lot," Oleg said. "We skate eight days in a row, take one day off, eight more days, all year long."

In 2009, Oleg suffered a stroke, and he had surgery for an unspecified ailment last year.

"I must be careful, take it gradually, step by step," he said. "My doctor says, I release you for the next year."

"Now, no problem," Ludmila added.

After more than 20 years away, the pair returned to Russia in 2003 at the invitation of the Russian minister of sport. They have visited their home country a few times since then, notably to attend the world championships in Moscow in 2005.

Will they attend the Olympics next February?

"No," Ludmila said. "If they will invite us, we will go. We don't have any invitations. And to go there, it's very expensive."

Apart from the show at Harvard, the Protopopovs skate in a show in Lake Placid each December before they return to Switzerland. They are committed to continue skating there, and at "An Evening with Champions," for as long as they are able. Not only do they enjoy performing for their fans, but they also like to keep in contact with young competitive skaters.

"They give us young energy," Ludmila said.

"We are inside of this 'train:' past, present, future," Oleg said. "We share stories about the past and the future. When you wait for the train, it's gone! We will continue as long as possible."