Petrenko still has golden touch

Olympic champion excites audiences worldwide

Johnny Weir and Viktor Petrenko after their holiday show in Wayne, New Jersey.
Johnny Weir and Viktor Petrenko after their holiday show in Wayne, New Jersey. (Lynn Rutherford)


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By Liz Leamy, special to
(12/29/2008) - Viktor Petrenko, the 1992 Olympic and world champion, seems to have a golden touch with almost anything involved with skating.

Petrenko performed with the Champions on Icetour for 20 seasons, until the show ended in 2007. In recent years, he has worked as an International Skating Union (ISU) technical specialist on behalf of his native Ukraine; has been elected an officer of the Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation; and become as a top international coach, helping guide Johnny Weir to his first world medal last season.

When asked about these accomplishments, Petrenko said his success is due to good, old-fashioned hard work.

"If you want to be good at something, it takes a lot of time and work," he said. "To be an Olympic champion takes much more than just talent."

Petrenko's disciplined approach seems to be quite effective, especially considering the good results he and Galina Zmievskaya, who is his former coach and mother-in-law, have had with Weir. Since the trio started working together at The Ice Vault in Wayne, New Jersey in 2007, Weir has won a silver medal at the 2008 U.S. Championships in a tight skate-off with Evan Lysacek; earned bronze at the 2008 ISU World Figure Skating Championships, where he was the only American to bring home a medal; and recently placed third at the ISU Grand Prix Finals in Korea, his highest-ever finish in the event.

"Johnny is great, he is always fun and interesting to work with," Petrenko said. "He also sets a good example for others because he is such a high-caliber skater."

Petrenko, meanwhile, has kept up his own skating skills. Several weeks ago, he performed a high-energy routine to Western-themed music at the rink's annual holiday show and definitely wowed the crowd.

The soon-to-be 40-year-old reeled off a triple toe from running-forward inside three- turns; two solid double Axels; and fast straight-line footwork.

"I would say the footwork might have gotten a high level, maybe even a five [the maximum level is four] if I was awarded an additional mark for doing it at my age," laughed Petrenko.

This show, which was held on December 17th, also featured Weir, whose elegant rendition of "Ave Maria" was a huge hit with the audience. At the end of the evening, Weir and Petrenko made sure to congratulate one another on a job well done. The duo didn't seem to miss a beat, despite the flurry of autograph and photo seekers. They just chatted and laughed until almost everyone had emptied out of the building.

"I really enjoy working with Johnny," Petrenko said. "He works very hard and is willing to do the work it takes to get the results."

Petrenko added he is happy with where he is in terms to his own skating, having long since moved on from the competitive arena.

"Competing is something I do not want to do now, I'm not 18 anymore and I have been busy doing other things," he said.

Petrenko's direct and honest approach certainly seems to have served him well over the years, right from his youth up until the present.

He was born in June 1969 as the eldest son to Tamara and Vassily Petrenko, engineers in Odessa. Prone to illness as a toddler, he began skating at age five in order to build his strength. Within a few years, he and his younger brother, Vladimir, the 1986 World junior champion, began to flourish out on the ice. By age nine, Viktor had made such an impact on the Odessa skating scene that Zmievskaya, a prominent Ukrainian coach, was inspired to there in order to train him on a full-time basis.

"I was nine when Galina came to the rink where I lived, and we worked hard," he remembered.

In a few years, their efforts began to pay off. In 1984, Viktor was crowned world junior champion. At that time, he represented the Soviet Union, since Ukraine was then a Soviet satellite republic. Four years later, he won the bronze at the 1988 Winter Olympics, again skating for the Soviet Union.

That Petrenko was good enough to make the Soviet Olympic figure skating team at that time spoke volumes about his talent and skills, since the majority of the athletes trained in either Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) or Moscow. This accomplishment represented a big achievement for the skater, and it also helped establish Ukraine as a burgeoning skating power.

"You had to be very good to make the team and I knew I had to be strong," he said.

In 1992, Petrenko won the gold medal at the Olympics in Albertville. At this point, he skated for the Unified Team since the Soviet Union had disbanded and Ukraine had not yet been declared an independent nation. His victory represented a historical benchmark, since it was the first any Soviet or former-Soviet skater had won an Olympic gold in a singles figure skating event.

In June 1992, Petrenko married Nina Milken, Zmievskaya's daughter, now a well-known skating choreographer. The couple, in turn, decided to move to Las Vegas, which had been Petrenko's favorite city on his travels with Champions on Ice. There, he honed his entertaining style and became a favorite on the then-popular pro circuit.

Later that year, Petrenko reinstated his eligible status to compete for Ukraine, now an independent country, at the 1994 Olympics. He went back to Odessa with his wife and mother-in-law to resume competitive training. At that Olympics, Petrenko wound up ninth in the short, but pulled up to fourth overall with a fine free skate.

Following that event, Petrenko, Nina, Galina and Vladimir collectively moved to the International Skating Center of Connecticut in Simsbury. There, they built a strong and loyal following of students, and Vladimir continues to coach at the facility. In 1997, Viktor and Nina had a daughter named Viktoria, who is now 11 and a competitive skater. While at Simsbury, Petrenko spearheaded several skating shows and charity drives, and the proceeds were used to equip a neonatal intensive care clinic in Ukraine.

In 2005, Petrenko, his wife and Zmievskaya relocated to the Ice Vault. Since they have been there, the trio has been busy with a stable of young students, mostly single ladies competing in the juvenile to novice ranks, and have also worked with international competitors including Italian champion Silvia Fontana; Israeli champion Tamar Katz; and Georgian champion Elene Gedesvanishvili.

"There are good skaters here of all different ages and levels, which is good," said Petrenko.

In 2007, Weir moved to Wayne, and Petrenko became even busier. In addition to his still show schedule, which includes tours in Europe and Japan, he became Weir's technical advisor, concentrating on jumps and the all-important "code of points."

"You have to stay current with the International Judging System rules, make sure he is happy and doing well, and look at many things," he explained.

Last summer, Petrenko and Zmievskaya briefly worked with Stéphane Lambiel. This situation, however, didn't pan out since Lambiel was struggling with an ongoing groin injury that prompted his retirement from competition. In spite of this, Petrenko remained on course with his work, especially with Weir.

"I try to do a good job in whatever I do," he said.

According to the Karen Cohen-Prosnitz, the director of the Ice Vault's skating school, Petrenko's attitude has had been infectious, spreading enthusiasm throughout the rink.

"He is such a good person and has such personality, he really cares about what he does and the kids love him," she said.