Golden Skate

Slutskaya: Ferocious Fighter or Playful Pixie?

There are two sides to Russia’s Figure Skater Irina Slutskaya.

There are two sides to Russia’s Irina Slutskaya — the hard-nosed competitor you see on television and the mischievous imp that her friends know. Both sides were on display last year when Slutskaya won her first World Figure Skating Championships in Nagano, Japan, the same place where her skating career had almost ended four years prior. The fighter scored a knockout, winning all three parts of the competition. When she drew first to skate in the last group for the free skate, Slutskaya was confident she would win. She knew she could go out full speed and fully warmed up and she did, jumping high and landing each jump with authority. She dared the others to out jump her and they couldn’t, letting her take home the coveted prize.

Then the pixie in her showed up. To say that Slutskaya was ecstatic after her victory would be a huge understatement. She sang the Russian anthem proudly, noting that the words had changed since she went to school. She kissed her medal, tasted it, hugged everyone, and tossed off one-liners at the press conference with Kwan. She didn’t stop smiling for days. At the skaters’ party, she played all the games, kicked a soccer ball around, and even stepped in as goalie.

Later, she partied for hours into the night with several long-time supporters, exchanging gifts with many of those present, saying that she’d have to buy some new suitcases to take everything home. The fans had gifts for Irina, her husband, her parents, and even her dog. She tried eating the Japanese delicacies with chopsticks, excelled at playing some new Japanese games, showed off her navel jewelry, demonstrated her modeling poses, checked out websites fans had made for her, and joked with everyone.

After the disappointment of finishing second in Salt Lake City, when she thought she should have won the short program and thus the gold medal, winning Worlds could not have been sweeter. “I got 6.0s here for the same program I skated in the Olympics, she said. “If one judge had given me another tenth in the short program, I would have been the champion. But that’s sport. Only one can win. For me each competition is different and I try to forget about it when it’s over. Each competition is a new beginning.”

Like most skaters, her goal has always been to win the Olympics and Worlds. No Russian woman has ever won the Olympic championship. When Slutskaya won the silver medal in 2002, it was the highest a Russian woman had ever reached at the Olympics. When she won the World Championships, she became only the second Russian woman to hold the title. Maria Butyrskaya was the first, ironically winning in the one year that Slutskaya has missed Worlds since 1995.

Slutskaya appeared on the international scene at the age of 14 with an 8th place finish at Junior Worlds. She was virtually unknown until she won the short program at Skate America in 1994, finishing third overall, then took the bronze at Junior Worlds. Next year, she won Junior Worlds, then finished fifth at Europeans and seventh at Worlds. In 1996, at age 16, she became the first Russian woman to win the European Championships, placed second at the Champions Series Final and took the bronze at Worlds.

Opening the 1996-97 season, Slutskaya won three Champions Series events, finished third at the Champions Series Final, repeated as the champion at Europeans, but again failed to win the Russian Nationals. At the 1997 Worlds, a back injury from a nasty fall in practice made jumping painful for her in the long program, but Slutskaya persevered and finished fourth.

That summer, she trained in Simsbury, Connecticut due to a lack of available ice at the Young Pioneers Training Center in Moscow, her usual training site. And her experiences with the American lifestyle didn’t help her training. “I didn’t train as hard as I should have,” she admitted. She was also hampered by persistent back pain related to the nerve damage she had suffered in the fall at Worlds. By the fall, she was overweight and had poor results, dropping to second at Europeans and fourth at Russian Nationals. After missing two weeks of practice before the 1998 Olympics, she tried acupuncture as well as injections of painkillers to be able to skate. But she only finished fifth, before recovering enough to finish second at the World Championships.

Next season, she was again fourth at Russian Nationals and was dropped from the international team. The blow was worsened when Maria Butyrskaya and Yulia Soldatova, her prime rivals, finished first and third at the 1999 Worlds. Although disheartened, Slutskaya’s luck was about to change. Sergei Mikheev, an on and off boyfriend for three years, comforted her after Russian Nationals and listened to her while she talked about her hopes and dreams. “I realized that I couldn’t live without skating,” she said. “It was my life.”

Mikheev later proposed and the couple were married in August 1999. Mikheev, a physical education instructor seven years her elder, had first met Slutskaya at a summer camp near Moscow. “Everyone’s heard that story,” she laughed. “When he first saw me, it was on television from Junior Worlds. He didn’t know me. He said, `I really like this girl,’ but I was just the girl in the white dress. It was like in the movies. Our first date didn’t go very well. It was some time before I began to care for him.”

Secure and happy in her marriage, Slutskaya blossomed from a tempestuous teenager into a mature woman who knew what she wanted and was willing to work for it. “This (skating) is my work,” she said. “I used to do just a few jumps. That was enough. Now I’ll do ten or 20 jumps until I get it right.” She increased her training time from about 15 hours a week to 24, lost weight, and started refining the mental toughness that made her a champion. “I’m a fighter,” she said.

For the next three years, she skated superbly, winning three Russian Nationals and three ISU Grand Prix Finals, three more European Championships, and the 2001 Goodwill Games. She has never finished lower than second in any major event since 1999. Along the way, she has continued to add her name to the history books as one of the most technically inventive skaters of all time.

Her first entry into the annals of the sport came when she perfected a double Biellmann spin with a foot change. She didn’t like spins when she was a youngster, but practiced the Biellmann every day by stretching on the floor of her parents’ apartment. In 1997, she made history by landing the first triple salchow/triple toe loop by a woman in competition at Worlds. Then at the 2000 Grand Prix Final she set two more records: the first triple lutz/triple loop combination and the first woman to complete two triple/triple combinations in one program. In 2001, she landed the first triple lutz/triple loop/double toe loop at the 2001 Worlds.

Slutskaya has been skating since the age of four. Even though her parents don’t skate, her mother started her in the sport in hopes of improving her persistent bronchitis. “My mom told me I was sick too much and must work outside,” Irina related. “When I first went skating I cried, but then I liked it.” Soon after she began skating, Irina also started ballet, which remains a part of her training regimen. “I liked skating but hated ballet,” she said. “My mother had to keep me from escaping.”

Irina never wanted to be a pairs skater or a dancer. “All the best skating is singles skating,” she said. “And I am a good skater. I’m always jumping, jumping, jumping. I love jumping, but you know all jumps are difficult. I have to think about them. I must work at them all. I don’t have harder or easier ones. And if I don’t practice for a few days, I start to lose them.” Among her jumps are a double Axel and a triple toe loop with one arm above her head like Brian Boitano. She doesn’t use the ‘Tano jumps in competition anymore but occasionally throws one in for an exhibition. Emulating Boitano’s style is not surprising. He and Katarina Witt were Irina’s favorite skaters as a child.

Zhanna Gromova has coached since she was six. Although Gromova used to do most of her choreography, assisted by Elena Tchaikovskaya, Slutskaya has added new choreographers in recent years. Elena Mateeva did her 2001-2002 short program to Franz Schubert’s serenade Leise flehen meine Lieder (Softly do my Songs Plea to You), while Giuseppe Arena, a choreographer from LaScala, did her free skate to Puccini’s Tosca. Margarita Romanenko choreographed Slutskaya’s 2002-2003 programs, Victory by Bond for the short and Verdi’s La Traviata for the long. Romanenko also did her interpretive program, Samson and Delilah and her 2001-2002 exhibition program, in which she played a cowgirl skating to Cotton-Eyed Joe by Rednex.

Irina said she likes to skate to “something fast. I don’t usually like slow music.” Her favorite program music of all the dozens that she has skated is “Culture”, the 2000-2001 season’s short program. Off ice, she said, “I listen to rock music, and some classical music. I like Vivaldi and Moonlight Sonata. Before I liked Michael Jackson, but now I like to listen to Russian pop music.” Although she hasn’t had lessons, she said, “I try to play the piano, the small piano.”

Slutskaya said she doesn’t participate in many sports off ice: “I love rollerblading and skiing. I like hockey, but I’ve never played. I love to watch gymnastics. But I don’t like football. Maybe I’ll try parachute jumping.” Her mother has already done so. She also enjoys “scary movies and comedies” and likes to read. “Always I’m reading newspapers and magazines for young people. Sometimes I read too much,” she said.

Travel is one of her favorite pastimes. “I love to travel. It’s very interesting when you get to see new places. I really, really love New York. I like the big cities and the shopping. And I like Florida, especially Orlando. I go to Disney World whenever I go there and ride all the rides. One summer, I rented a Jeep and went to all the parks – Sea World, Universal, Epcot. I loved them all.” She also took her parents to the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, but not her husband. “I had to leave my husband home to watch my dog,” she laughed. The diminutive trio went everywhere they could, cruising on the river, shopping in the downtown malls, and visiting animal parks, where they held koalas. Few Australians recognized her, but when they did, Slutskaya proudly introduced them to her parents. “I love Australia,” she said.

Slutskaya saves all the toys that are thrown to her when she skates. She has hundreds in her collection. “Big toys, small toys, I like them all,” she exclaims. “I have several huge bears and a giant monkey that I got in Japan. Sergei gave me a huge elephant and a koala. He gave me lots of elephants. The trunks are turned up for good luck. Some of the toys are bigger than I am. But I have to keep them up high now. Bars likes to play with them and he eats all my small toys.”

Bars is the current love of her life. He’s a 35-kilo black and white Akita that a friend found for her as a puppy in the States. “He’s a good dog,” she said. “He never barks and he sleeps all day long so he’s ready to play when I get home. We go for walks before practice and when I come home in the park across the street. He has so many toys. I don’t even know how many toys he has. But he loves slippers. He ate all my sheepskin slippers. And he really likes my mom because she’s always playing with him. He likes to sleep in the bed with us, but he’s too big now. I can’t move him.” She also has an iguana, named Guan, which she’s had for a few years. “It’s not too warm in Moscow, so he sits in a cage in his own small room where it’s warmer,” she said.

With the income from her skating, Slutskaya has been able to buy a nice apartment for her and Sergei and another a few minutes away for her parents. She also bought a new SUV for herself and a car for her parents “With money, you can live OK in Moscow. I have my apartment, a car, my family, and my dog. That’s all I need,” she said. “I don’t plan to move to America.”

Slutskaya has finished her studies at the Russian Academy for Physical Education, so she could coach in the future. “I don’t think about it too much right now. I had a very hard season. And I am too young to think about a career. Maybe I’ll be a sports commentator or a journalist writing about sports, like you,” she kidded.

Last summer, Slutskaya performed for three months on the Champions on Ice Tour, but was exhausted by the time it ended. “My body was fine, but my head needed a rest. It was like this,” she said, making a wringing motion with her hands. Then her bronchitis acted up again, costing her valuable training time so she wasn’t ready for the Grand Prix Season. She failed to win either of her two events, but qualified for the Grand Prix Final where she finished second. Later she finished second to Elena Sokolova at Russian Nationals, but came back to beat Sokolova for the gold at the European Championships after finishing second in both the qualifying round and the short program.

Unfortunately, Slutskaya was unable to defend her world title in Washington, DC in March. Instead, she elected to stay by the bedside of her sick mother, who had been hospitalized for some time with kidney problems. Her father, Edouard, has also been hospitalized several times in the last few years and is declining before her eyes. Since she’s their only child, Slutskaya wants to have a baby soon so her parents can see their first grandchild.

Slutskaya plans to remain eligible until the 2006 Olympics to gain the one gold medal that has yet eluded her. “I’m still young and I’m skating with a lot of power. I think I can do even more. So it’s not time for me to retire yet.” No matter how long she continues, Slutskaya doesn’t want people to remember her for how many medals she won. “I want people to love me for my personality in both life and sport,” she said. “I want them to remember me for always being myself, like the way Katarina Witt skates.” She’s already getting the wolf whistles once reserved for Witt when she skates on tour.

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