Skating colleagues remember Sergei Grinkov, 25 years after his death

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On Nov. 20, 1995, two-time Olympic pairs champion Sergei Grinkov, aged 28, died of a heart attack in Lake Placid, New York, while practicing with his wife and partner, Ekaterina “Katia” Gordeeva, for the opening of the Stars on Ice tour just five days away.

Twenty five years have passed, and it is still painful for Grinkov’s colleagues and friends to talk about his death.

“It’s hard, and you don’t want to put yourself though it again,” Byron Allen, producer of Stars on Ice (SOI), said. “But it’s got to be talked about, because he was that important. Five years ago, we posted a (tribute) on Facebook that is the most viewed SOI social media post ever, because of the fans’ love for Katia and Sergei.”

“It seems like yesterday and it seems like 100 years ago,” Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, said. “Lives have changed so much… I said back then, it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with or get over. That’s true to this day.”

Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, remembers the impact Grinkov’s passing had on his own life.

“I was kind of undone by the specter of death, the possibility of death at that stage of your life,” he said. “It made me want to maximize everything. At that time, I was thinking about continuing pro skating or going back to graduate school.”

Wylie continued performing for several more years before enrolling in Harvard Business School, earning his MBA in 2000.

“And I never regretted the decision,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘[Performing] is the calling for you, at this moment of your life.’ … In a way, Sergei led me to that.”

Gordeeva and Grinkov, who represented the Soviet Union, have an illustrious competitive legacy, winning four world titles (1986, 1987, 1989, 1990) and 1988 Olympic gold before turning professional in late 1990. The couple regained their Olympic eligibility for the 1993-1994 season and won a second Olympic title, that time competing for Russia.

They made their marks in the professional ranks at a time when pro competitions were televised several times a month in the winter, and the Stars on Ice tour stretched to three or four months and over 60 U.S. cities.

“It was more than people coming to see great skating; they came to be members of our family,” Hamilton recalled, a bit wistfully. “It took on a greater identity, not just as an entertainment entity, but as a human thing. It became something remarkable, people came out to support us, to grieve with us, to celebrate life with us.”

For Hamilton, who co-founded Stars on Ice with IMG in 1986, Gordeeva and Grinkov were a revelation: athletes raised and trained in the Soviet Union, who entranced American audiences with their exquisite skating skills and, of course, their love story.

“When they joined SOI, they were so young and so eager to build a career and just do whatever we asked of them,” he said. “As pros, they got better and better, and having more Olympic credentials on the marquee made a big difference in the tour.”

“It was the quality they brought,” Hamilton added. “They were Olympic champions, and Katia was sort of the Nadia [Comăneci] of the 1988 Games. She was so young (16) and beautiful, or adorable rather than beautiful. She captivated a lot of people. It was really fascinating [because] at that time the Soviet Union was a mystery to a lot of people.”

When asked what made the pair so special, colleagues cited not only the couple’s personal story – they began skating together as youngsters, married in 1991 and had a daughter, Daria, in 1992 – but their matchless skating skills.

“Sergei had the look, the line, the quality, and he had great feet in lifts,” Hamilton said. “He was a very strong and big man (about 6 feet, 175 pounds), but he skated with this effortless power. It didn’t seem like it was making any noise over the ice. With Katia, she was always sort of floating above the ice, and they sort of meshed [with] each other. There was no heaviness to their skating, it was beautiful and light.”

Elena Bechke, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist with Denis Petrov, grew up in the Soviet Union and competed against Gordeeva and Grinkov while skating with an earlier partner. She and Petrov performed with Stars on Ice for many years, and were present in Lake Placid when Grinkov died.

Now a coach in the Raleigh, North Carolina area, Bechke minces no words about how the couple compares to current pairs.

“No one is as good as they were,” she said. “Their skating was simple and understandable and clean and perfect. You didn’t have to sit there and rack your brain and think, ‘What are they trying to do?’ It was like black and white – ‘We are here, we are clean and beautiful.’ These days everybody is trying to outdo everybody – ‘Oh, I’m going to do this lift upside down, one leg in this position, or this or that.’ Some of it doesn’t even look pretty, it’s just chasing after points.”

Bechke believes Gordeeva and Grinkov’s greatness was rooted in ballet training with teachers from Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, as well as strong basic skating skills – attributes she tries to instill in her own students, via her moves-in-the-field classes.

“These days, some people can do tricks but they can’t skate,” Bechke said. “That is something that can be taught to an extent, but if you can’t naturally skate, it takes a lot of work to develop. If you watch (Gordeeva and Grinkov) skate on YouTube, they weren’t even skating. They were flying; they were like feathers. That’s what made them special.”

Marina Zoueva, the pair’s longtime coach and choreographer, echoes Hamilton and Bechke’s words.

“They were very light, like (three-time world champion) Patrick Chan,” she said. “That is the difference. (Chan) skates like a feather, flowing on the ice. It’s the same talent Katia and Sergei had. They had natural rhythm; that’s why their pair elements were perfect. They had natural harmony… I saw this, and I emphasized this in the choreography I did for them: the lightness, the connection, how they looked at each other, the bodylines.”

Following Grinkov’s death, his colleagues at Stars on Ice and IMG honored the skater with a special show, “Celebration of a Life,” in Hartford, Connecticut, on Feb. 27, 1996, with opening and closing numbers choreographed by Zoueva.

“I can remember going down to The Cottage, a little pub on the lake, on the day Sergei died, and we all hung out there the rest of the night,” Wylie said. “It was a bad time. The saddest thing to think about was Katia, and what life would be like for her and Daria without Sergei. We decided that night to have a show.”

“It was a benefit for Daria and her education,” Allen said. “And that ended up being an incredible night. CBS broadcast it. Other skaters, who were not in SOI, appeared and it was an incredible show.”

“Celebration of a Life” marked Gordeeva’s debut as a singles skater, in programs choreographed by Zoueva to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” and Mahler’s “Adagietto.” Just 24 when Grinkov died, the skater wrote a bestseller (with E.M. Swift) in 1996 about her life with her first husband, “My Sergei,” and enjoyed a decades-long performing career. But in 1995 her professional future, and earning power, was uncertain.

“Katia’s life then was a struggle,” said Zoueva. “For years after (Sergei’s death) I worked with her on her singles and I saw how she fought with life. She was a warrior.”

To this day, Grinkov’s colleagues often reflect on the time they shared with the man Hamilton called “a gentle giant,” remembering his fleeting life and the spell Gordeeva and Grinkov wove on, and off, the ice.

“He was very humble, worked hard, he got the joke, there was always a smile on his face,” Hamilton said. “He and Katia were in a beautiful place. During that rehearsal period (in Lake Placid) they were having fun, kind of competing with each other on jumps. It was sweet to see how their relationship truly blossomed. Daria was 3 years old, fun, beautiful. Life was full.”

“All of Katia and Sergei was a love story,” Zoueva said. “They started skating (together) when they were around 11 and 14. First, they were very friendly like brother and sister, then they fell in love, then they were married and had a baby. It was always about their love… Sergei was very, very happy. Always laughing, had lots of friends, loved to skate, loved to perform, loved Katia and loved his daughter. There was a lot of love.”

Wylie thinks of his late friend every day. Now director of sport for Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) in Lake Placid, he often visits the arena where Gordeeva and Grinkov shared the ice for the final time.

“There is a memorial plaque with several pictures of Katia and Sergei that sits on the wall steps from my office, which is a daily reminder of Sergei,” Wylie said. “Whenever I go to the USA rink, which is where Sergei passed away, I go to the blue line to the right of entrance and I think about that moment. And whenever I stand where the Zamboni comes on, I remember when Elena Bechke ran in and said, ‘Oh my gosh, Sergei fell down.’ It was one of those moments where your life just changes.”