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Leonova and Khvalko strike a balance

Pro duo combines life in Russia with summers in Sun Valley

Pairs/adagio skaters Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko are enjoying summer in Sun Valley with daughters Elizabeth and Annabelle.
Pairs/adagio skaters Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko are enjoying summer in Sun Valley with daughters Elizabeth and Annabelle. (Bob McDowell)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(08/06/2010) - Russian-born pairs/adagio skaters Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko are probably one of the great American success stories in skating. Both had good results in amateur competition -- particularly Leonova who was a two-time world junior pairs champion and alternate on the 1988 Soviet Olympic team. When the opportunities to travel abroad increased they each left Russia to skate professionally.

Fifteen years ago they were touring Europe in a show produced by Tatiana Tarasova when they decided to team up on and off the ice. Thirteen years ago they got married. They set their sights on coming to the United States and soon were touring with Disney on Ice.

Although they loved the nightly ovations on tour, they wanted more individuality and freedom in their performances and decided to enter the challenge round at the 1997 U.S. Open. They won the challenge round and then the main event and received an invitation to compete at Dick Button's world professional championships. In 1999, they won world pro and defended the title a year later -- even landing their side-by-side double Axels, which had often been their nemesis.

"I don't know what would be if it had turned out a different way. What if we didn't win that U.S. Open?" says Leonova of the competition that thrust them into the spotlight and propelled the last 13 years of their lives.

"We had to put all the money we had into that," she continues. "We knew we had to practice for the U.S. Open on big rinks, so we rented a car in every city. We paid for the ice. We paid for music, choreography, skating. We went to work with Alexandre Zaitsev [two-time Olympic gold medalist who was then living in the U.S.] because we needed a coach to fix the technique."

From their victory at the U.S. Open and appearance at world pro came job offers. They soon settled in California and combined coaching with performing.

When skating surged in popularity in Russia, Leonova, 37, and Khvalko, 42, decided to move back...temporarily. In 2005, they rented out their home in northern California and settled in Moscow, where Leonova appeared on one season of the TV competition show Ice Age and Khvalko did two. They've also toured extensively with shows produced by Ilya Averbukh and appeared in various Russian TV productions.

Every summer, they come back to the U.S. and spend three months in Sun Valley. They find the atmosphere ideal for them and their two daughters, Elizabeth "Liza", 7, and Annabelle, 20 months.

"I'm trying to spend as much time as possible with the girls," Leonova says. "My kids in Sun Valley are running around. I get Liza to camp and she spends eight hours and I'm never worried what's happening with her or where she is. It's very safe." Leonova and Khvalko perform in the weekly Sun Valley ice shows and do a little coaching, but most of the summer is family time. In Moscow, they run their own adult skating school at the Europeski rink, where students range in age from 15 to 55. They also do some consulting with aspiring young pair teams.

"Teaching adults is a really fun thing to do," says Leonova, adding it's some of the most interesting coaching she's ever done. "It is quite challenging for me."

After nearly 10 years in the U.S., adapting to life in Russia hasn't been easy. The first couple of years -- when they were touring constantly -- it was relatively easy, but settling into a routine in Moscow has been more difficult.

"It's a different environment and it's a different mentality," she says. "When you actually start living there, raising your kids, getting them to school, that is where you start to meet the things which seem for me shocking because I got used to America.

"It usually takes me a couple of weeks to adjust to Russia now when we go back."

With an eye toward returning to the U.S., Leonova says she had Liza do U.S. first grade curriculum via distance learning. Although Liza will enter elementary school in Moscow this fall (in Russia children start school at 7), Leonova will also have her follow U.S. second grade with distance learning to keep her prepared for a return to the U.S.

Liza skated a bit when she was little and continues to do it recreationally. Annabelle has already expressed interest in going on the ice, so her parents are on the lookout for some tiny skates.

In addition to their summers in Sun Valley, Leonova and Khvalko perform in the U.S. whenever they can. Last season, they did three TV shows: Kristi Yamaguchi & Friends, Skating and Gymnastics Spectacular and Brian Boitano's Skating Spectacular and they're booked to do Boitano's show again this year.

Leonova says she had no problem getting back into shape after her pregnancies and Khvalko is very good at staying in shape -- hitting the gym every day. She sees to it the whole family are healthy eaters.

Right now, they're enjoying their family time and pushing the kids' English skills.

"I speak English with Liza in Moscow. People sometimes look at us because in the middle of Moscow I turn to my daughter and start speaking English," Leonova says.

"For the summer, Sun Valley is the perfect place."