Trio predicts return to prominence for Russian teamGordeeva, Kulik, Slutskaya looking forward to Olympics on home soil
Katia Gordeeva vividly recalled being in Moscow the last time her home country hosted the Olympic Games.
"I was 9, and I remember the Olympic flame coming right by my house," the two-time Olympic pairs champion said. "I was standing on the balcony by my house, and it came right by. I remember it was a big deal."
These days, the Olympic flame is back in Russia, but for the first time, the country will host the Winter Games. And for the first time, the entire world is expected to come for the event. Back in 1980, when Moscow was the site of the summer edition of the Games, many countries, including the United States, boycotted the Games because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
For Gordeeva and other Russian skaters, there is hope that the arrival of the Winter Games in Sochi will help grow their sport in the country where they first learned to skate.
Gordeeva, along with her husband, Ilia Kulik, and two-time Olympic medalist Irina Slutskaya, was performing in Disson's Family Skating Tribute show at Penn State's Pegula Ice Arena last Sunday. (NBC will broadcast it Nov. 24 from 4-6 p.m. ET.)
In February, all three of them will be together again in Sochi. Slutskaya will be there as part of her official duties: She has been selected as an athlete ambassador for the Winter Games, and she also will be a broadcaster for Russian television. Just last month, Slustakaya carried the torch to the top of a TV tower in Moscow.
"I'm so excited about the Games coming to Sochi," said Slutskaya, who will turn 35 on Feb. 9, just a couple of days after the Opening Ceremony. "It will be history for our country, and it will be great for our kids."
Gordeeva and Kulik, meanwhile, plan on attending as fans.
Kulik is not only excited about what he might see on the ice -- the Russians are coming on strong of late -- but what might not be seen for several years to come. He believes the impact of the upcoming Winter Games will be similar to what happened in Japan after it hosted the Olympics in Nagano in 1998.
"I am really convinced that Nagano helped with the growth of the sport in Japan," said Kulik, who won his gold medal in Nagano. "Before those Games, there were a handful of Japanese skaters at the top level, like Midori Ito, but not many more. Now, so many of the best skaters are coming from Japan. And there is so much interest in skating in Japan. I definitely expect the same thing to happen in Russia after Sochi."
Kulik and Gordeeva both hail from Moscow, but today they live in California and operate an ice rink in Lake Forest, Calif., in Orange County.
They are hoping to see something of a rebirth for Russian figure skating in Sochi. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, conditions at many ice rinks deteriorated, and many coaches left to work in the United States, Canada and elsewhere.
Several have since returned to Russia, and the facilities have begun to improve. A proud skating history appears to be writing a new chapter as several Russian teenagers are taking the ladies scene by storm this season. Russia also has a strong chance to win a gold medal in pairs and should contend for a medal in ice dancing.
Nearly four years ago in Vancouver, no Russian figure skater came home with an Olympic gold medal. At every Games from 1964 to 2006, Russia (or Soviet Union/United Team) had won at least one gold medal in figure skating.
In 2006, Russia claimed three gold medals and a bronze. (Slutskaya says now that she was told before she skated in Torino that "I had no chance [to win gold]. There was no way, even if I skated perfectly, that they would let Russia win all four gold medals. I could do everything I could, but there was no way we could sweep." As it turned out, Slutskaya did make mistakes in her program and ended up with the bronze.)
A Soviet team won the first Olympic ice dance title back in 1976 (Lyudmilla Pakhomova and Aleksandr Gorshkov), and a team with Russian ties has won seven of the 10 Olympic dance crowns.
Beginning in 1964, with Ludmila Belousova (later Protopopov) and Oleg Protopopov winning the gold medal in pairs for the Soviet Union, a team representing the Soviet Union, Russia or the Unified Team was the winner of the Olympic pairs title every year until 2006 (although the Canadian team of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier was awarded dual gold medals along with the Russian team of Elena Bereznaya and Anton Sikharulidze in 2002). Gordeeva and Grinkov won two of those pairs titles, in 1988 and again in 1994, when professional skaters were allowed to return and compete in the Winter Games.
Russian men also have a strong Olympic skating history. Although Viktor Petrenko is from Ukraine, he won his gold medal in 1992 as a representative of the Unified Team. The next four Olympic men's champions came from Russia: Alexei Urmanov (1994), Kulik (1998), Alexei Yagudin (2002) and Evgeni Plushenko (2006).
Russian women have been the weakest link for the country, as no Russian woman has ever claimed an Olympic gold medal in the sport. Slutskaya came the closest, earning a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002 and then the bronze four years later in Torino. The only other Russian lady to win an Olympic medal is Soviet skater Kira Ivanova, who earned a bronze medal in 1984.
At the 2014 Winter Games, however, the ladies should provide much of the Russian team's strength. Russia qualified only two ladies spots in Sochi, and the competition among a group of teens will be especially fierce. Among those who have already made a case for themselves are Julia Lipnitskaia, 15, who skated brilliantly en route to winning the Skate Canada title, and Anna Pogorilaya, another 15-year-old, who won Cup of China. Pogorilaya beat another Russian woman, Adelina Sotnikova, for the title in Shanghai.
Others in the hunt include European bronze medalist Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and former world silver medalist Alena Leonova.
"Russia has about four or five girls right now who are ready to go, but we only have two spots," said Slutskaya, who is looking forward to being in the broadcast booth for the ladies competition. "I think back to when I started competing when I watch some of them. Some of them are so young. They don't have the pressure. They just go and do.
"At that age, you just worry about yourself. I remember those times when I was just fighting for those triples. Then it becomes about titles, and you worry about everything -- about your country, about other people."
The country's top pairs team, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, are the reigning world champions and the heavy favorites entering the Games.
"They're really amazing to watch," Gordeeva said. "They are so light when they skate, and they have so much unison."
Added Kulik, "They make it look so easy."
As strong as Volosozhar and Trankov are, Gordeeva and Kulik warned there are never any guarantees when it comes to Olympic competition.
"They are expected to win, and that's hard," Gordeeva said. "And at this point, getting ready for the Olympics, you just want to stay healthy."
Kulik said the biggest obstacle he faced entering the Winter Games in Nagano was his back.
"I felt pretty confident with the programs we had laid out in the summer, but I had back spasms leading up to the Olympics. Russian nationals were very difficult for me to do because of the pain. I ended up missing the European championships because of it."
Russia has a good chance at earning a medal in ice dance, as the team of Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev are the world bronze medalists. They finished second to France's Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat at last week's Cup of China by fewer than three points.
As for the Russian men, the field on that front remains weak. The top finisher at 2013 worlds, youngster Maxim Kovtun, placed 17th. Plushenko, of course, remains a factor. If he is physically up to the task, he will likely get the country's lone men's spot.
Gordeeva said that, these days, skaters are well recognized in Russia because of TV shows that feature skaters. Maybe after Sochi, skaters will be recognized for skating on TV.
Kulik said he still has the skates he wore when he won his Olympic gold medal in Nagano, but he no longer has the well-known, yellow-and-black costume he wore for his program to "Rhapsody in Blue." As a competitor, he was often asked by reporters about the color choice, since the music had "blue" in the title. "It was about the feel of emotions," he said. "The color of the costume didn't have to be blue. The only thing I told Tatiana [Tarasova] (his coach at the time) was that the material was light enough for me to wear on the ice. Other than that, she had a creative team work on the costume, and I completely understood what they were trying to do. The talk didn't bother me. And then I wore it for 70 performances in Champions on Ice, and it didn't bother me for a second." Afterward, Kulik said he donated the costume to the All-Star Café and has not seen it since. He did mention that there was a black-and-white version of the costume, which he wore in practice but never in competition. … Naomi Lang also performed in the show at Penn State. Lang said she is thrilled to be among the finalists (along with partner Peter Tchernyshev) for the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. The ice dancers, who won five U.S. titles and competed in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, are among six candidates up for Hall of Fame honors. The others are Olympian Terry Kubicka, retired Haydenettes coach Lynn Benson, longtime official Albert Beard and choreographers Ricky Harris and Sarah Kawahara. "Just to be on the final ballot for the Hall of Fame is an incredible feeling," Lang said. "We've accomplished so many things in our careers, and to be among these names is one of them." Voting for the Class of 2014 is done by a panel of electors, which includes members of the Hall of Fame. Those elected to the Class of 2014 will be announced Nov. 15. An induction ceremony will take place at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.