The following article appeared in the "Caravan" magazine as a "Love Story". See the translation in my blog - http://ptichkafs.livejournal.com/35990.html to see some lovely Irina pics.
In the last week before the due date, during the live filming of the “Ice Age”, I’d joke, “Guys, don’t film without me. I’ll just quickly go to the birthing center and back!” I already knew when the little one would arrive, and I planned to quickly be back to the project. Some shrugged like I was crazy. Others smiled meaningfully – let’s see what you say when the baby is here.
Serezha drove me to the hospital when I was 39 weeks. I took my son into my arms right after he came into this world. Artemka was so tiny!
The first night at home, I couldn’t sleep even though my son wasn’t crying. I jumped at every sound coming from the bassinette. How is he? May be he needs something? Serezha would comfort me, “It’s all fine! Sleep!” But I ended up lying there with my eyes open the whole night. As I listened to the breathing of my most loved men, I thought, “Now I know why God created a woman…”
They say the character determines one’s fate. I think that’s true. I was always stubborn; nothing could affect me after I made up my mind. Neither honey nor stick would work.
I was four when I was signed up to the figure skating club. I went immediately into the second year group to make up for the lost time. My mom and I had to skate all the time, even in the summer – on roller skates. When it rained, mom would hold an umbrella over me. Next season, I was supposed to take part in a show, but I became sick. I come back and find out that I’ve been stricken from the list. I go to the coach.
“How’s that?! I want to be the Snowflake!”
“You were sick a long time.”
“No, you won’t perform.”
Then, I just went to my mom without even taking my skates off: “I won’t skate here any more!”
Mom could not convince a five-year-old me to change my mind. We had to go to a different club.
It was the same thing with preschool. I’d train in the morning, and would make it to school at naptime. The teacher would put me to bed right away, without lunch. I put up with it a couple of times, and then said, “I won’t go to preschool any more! They don’t feed me there!"
Mom talked to the manager, and they started leaving a lunch on the table. Obviously, it would all get cold, and nobody was going to warm it. I rebelled again. “The soup is cold! They don’t give me the desert! And, besides, you have to stand in line to go to the bathroom!”
A family conference decided to try leaving me home alone, provided I behaved myself, and reported back to mom on the phone. I solemnly swore, but still did whatever I wanted. My parents were at work all day – dad at the Moscow Automobile College where he still teaches, and mom as an engineer. I came home from practice, played, read books, and listened to the music. In short, I felt very self sufficient. One time I even decided to make my own lunch. I took a sausage from the freezer, warmed it up on the space heater, and happily ate it...
My personality also came out in the sport. I did not show any special talent as a child. I was a fast jumping bean, but I wasn’t too artistic. The “well wishers” would tell mom, “She is so awkward. You’re just wasting time. She won’t become a skater!”
Mom, smiling politely, would say, “We’re just doing it for overall fitness and health”.
At home, she’d stretch me, and practice extra with me. She thought I could be the first. Dad, watching us struggle, would say, “Leave the child alone!”
But I wanted to skate myself. One time, I saw a skating medal ceremony on TV, and it lit me up, “I want a medal!” “That’s right!” agreed my mom with a laugh.
From that point on, I started practicing with even more determination under the watchful eye of my coach Zhanna Fedorovna. If a jump didn’t work, I got up and jumped again; I now knew what I was working for. Then it started working. When dad saw me on the ice for the first time, he told mom, “Look, our girl skates differently from everyone else. There is something in her…”
Lives of all child-athletes are like Xerox copies of each other. It’s an early rise, practice, studying, another practice, and then doing homework at night. While in first grade I still had time to play in the yard like other kids, skipping rope and running around, I had to firmly forget it by age ten. Yet I still ended up a C student. I’d miss too many classes because of competitions. I remember always wanting to sleep. I’d come from the practice, sit in the last row with all the F students, and fall asleep.
Falling asleep at first chance became as much a part of me as learning to hide my emotions. You fall, it hurts, the tears are about to flow, but you spring back up, smile, and continue on with your program. Dealing with my temper was harder than dealing with my emotions. While I always obeyed Zhanna Fedorovna Gromova without reservations, I could certainly get fussy with my mom, especially after practices. She attended every single one; if something was wrong, there would be their two voices, “You’re supposed to do ten rotations in one direction, and ten in the other! Why are you skating like a sleepy fly?” I’d snap back, “I know better!”
Then, mom and I would argue all the way home. Dad, opening the door, would ask, “Girls, I could hear you all the way from the tram station. What happened?”
“Nothing!” we’d say in unison, and go into the separate corners of our studio apartment.
I’d sulk for a bit, and then go make peace.
It took me a while to see that it’s not worth it to argue with either mom or coach. My stubbornness only caused me more bruises. For example, I’d be doing some difficult element, and it just wouldn’t be working as I’d fall every time. Zhanna Fedorovna would tell me immediately where the error is, but I’d just mutter like always – “I know better!” and continue doing it my way. And so I’d fall, and fall, and fall. And I’d get angry with everyone. It’s not working? Well, let it all go to hell then! I’d unlace my skates and see where I could throw them away. It’s the skates’ fault, let’s punish them! Mom and Zhanna Fedorovna would just laugh – “Go ahead, it’s OK!” I think everyone would pick up my skates – mom, coach, and even our doctor Victor Ivanovich. Of course, they’d fly in their covers – I’d never lose my head completely! God forbid, they scratch or blunt. I knew I had to throw them such that they wouldn’t get damaged.
I remember my first medal well. It was aluminum, on a blue ribbon, with a sign “Kalinin 1987”. It made me want more. And more! And more! I spent my whole life in that quest. At thirteen, I came third at the USSR Junior nationals. I was going down the hallway after the competition, and ran into the skating Federation president. He shook my hand, “Good job, you skated well, I just don’t understand why you’re third and not first?”
I didn’t understand either, “I am sure to win next time!”
A year later, though, I took the ice and fell because of a silly mistake! I’m standing there after the competition, and crying with my face hidden behind my hands. They announce the marks, but I am so mad I don’t even hear anything. Mom shakes me – “Ira! Look at the display! You’re first, don’t you see? First! Now you can go to Worlds!”
I just cry – why the cruel jokes? I fell!
Going to Junior championships at such an age was plain out of science fiction. The girls there were two or three years older than I, and here I come, the little one, and come out seventh. Back then, I didn’t even see how great it was. I thought – why be happy when I’m not first!
The championships took place in South Korea. For a child from the Soviet Union, it was like stills from a fantasy movie – shiny advertising posters, luxury stores, bright toys, chewing gum in any quantities… Not like what we had.
I remember in Moscow my friend Masha calls me. “Irka, they sell foreign chewing gum by blocks! I reserved a place in line, so come! Just be quick, they say it’ll end soon!”
I call my mom almost in tears, “Hi, mom, the grocery store is selling foreign gum!”
“Get in line! I’ll bring the money over.”
I ran three tram stations without stopping, repeating in my head – “Let it not end!” I arrived, and the line there was like that at the Mausoleum. I stand there, and Mashka too. The line is moving, but my mom is not anywhere to be seen. Two people are left when mom arrives with the money she borrowed from someone. And then they run out of gum! My lips are trembling, and my hands are shaking. Then mommy goes up to some girl who managed to buy three blocks, and says, “Please, sell us one block. I will open it for you, and you can take as much gum out as you want.” So the girl sold it. I was so happy! I chewed that gum in small pieces, saving some for later and collecting the wrappers. I don’t know what I can compare it too, may be to the Mars or Snickers bars that appeared later on. I’d buy them at the sports camp in Novogorsk. I never ate it at once but take a bite and hide the rest for later to prolong the bliss.
In South Korea, I just couldn’t take it all in. I never saw anything like it before. I’d collect the complimentary toothbrushes, shower caps and soap to show to my parents. They were astounded! The looked at me with respect – good job, girl! In the early nineties, no one even thought of trips abroad, and their child did it!
Next year, I brought from Italy not only the medals, but also a coconut and a yogurt – nobody in Russia knew those things.
At fifteen, I went to Colorado Springs in America. Accounting gave us ninety dollars for pocket money. Just before the trip, mom gave me another fourteen. She saved her hard earned rubles and exchanged them for me. She herself saw those greenbacks for the first time in her life, “Buy something for yourself…”
I looked at her and realized, “No more just spending on myself. I have my parents to think of.”
I came back with a bronze medal and some gifts – a nightgown three sizes too large for mom and a key chain for dad. I bought myself a player, and a girl’s dream – a Barbie doll with a bunch of clothes and hairdos. I was, after all, still a child.
I liked that my parents were now proud of me, and that I can do things many adults cannot. Yet I also envied the kids without all those responsibilities. I, too, wanted to go out, go to the movies, and meet boys. Sometimes I’d snap – “I don’t want this life! I quit!”
Knowing my temper, mom and Zhanna Fedorovna didn’t take their eyes off me. During competitions, I shared the room with my coach. The girls would sympathize, “Poor girl, it must be so boring to always be chaperoned like that!” I’d get angry – I am not a little girl, right? But I never contradicted Zhanna Fedorovna. By that time, I had plenty of proof that she knows better.
Sure, I could throw my skates, I could revolt, I could grumble, but in truth I never wanted to leave the sport. The ecstasy you feel at you achieving victory is something is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Years passed, and the level of competitions increased. In 1995, I went to my first Europeans in Dortmund; despite being a pretty big girl by then, I was quite scared. The city is gloomy, getting to the rink takes you through some dark paths, and even the rink itself was somehow gloomy. And the camera goes this way and that on the ceiling. It’s not cozy. The practice before competition was at five thirty in the morning, I couldn’t even see straight. The head is still asleep, and so is the body. And the judges are all sitting there already, deciding who’s capable of what. Everyone around me is skating, jumping, and doing it all very well! Real stars, not debutantes like me. They all have amazing costumes, not like my one dress. For the first time in my life I felt insecure, “This won’t work, I can’t, they’re better.”
I was announced, I had a clean skate, I did a triple lutz, but then fell on a simple salchow. The nerves failed.
I call my mom, “I’m eleventh… I fell.”
She comforts me, “This is your first Europeans, you were nervous, you’re allowed. Besides, triple lutz is a very difficult jump.”
I listen to her, twisting the phone wire around my finger, and then fall into tears, “Mom, I did the lutz! I fell on the salchow!”
She was shocked, “Falling on a salchow – who’s ever heard of this?! Children do them cleanly!”
The competition took place over two days. The next day I pulled myself together, and did a clean free skate. In the end, I was fifth, lacking only one judge to get to third.
“All right”, I thought, “but I’m sure to win my next Europeans!”
Next year, I was first…
That medal showed me that I was now an adult, and that the sport was now my job. I also realized that apparently a good and clean skate is far more important to me than the medals.
So I lived from competition to competition; winning one, I’d start preparing for the next. The secret of success is simple – work more. My parents and coach were very supportive. Back then, I didn’t even guess that there are times when persistence and hard work are not enough, and that I could live for something or someone besides victories.
After finishing school, I got into the Physical Education Institute. I was catastrophically short on time as my fist Olympics were fast approaching. My mom often saved me by copying lecture notes for me, and even helping me write my thesis.
During a rare free day, a girlfriend invited me to a picnic.
I joked, “Will there be men?”
“Yes, Serega, he’s twenty three, perfect for you.”
Turns out Sergei, a general conditioning coach, saw me on TV and liked me. Later on, he figured out that he knew my friend and asked her to set us up. I arrived at the dacha, looked at Sergei, and he seemed quite ordinary. Nothing special. I sat there, giggled some, ate some shish-kebab, and went back to train. By next day, I was no longer thinking of him. Suddenly, he calls, asking “How’s it going, what’s new?” I was telling him something, but didn’t even think of asking him anything about his life. A couple of days later, he calls me again. Then again.
So we’d talk, and meet occasionally at a friend’s dacha on weekends. Then Sergei started coming to my practices. He’d watch me skate for a half-hour, and then leave. I was happy to see him, but would quickly forget him when he disappeared. I’d only remembered him when I needed something.
I could call him on December thirtieth, “Serezh! I need a spruce”.
We’d buy the tree, and I’d say goodbye, “All right, I’m going! See y’a!”
How does he live, what is he thinking, what are his wishes? I didn’t care, at seventeen I was an airhead! He started walking me home. At home, we’d chat in my corner until my parents went to sleep – after all, we only had one room.
I got used to Serezha as one gets used to something both useful and dependable. I knew him to be a calm, wise and understanding real friend. But I did not see him as the man of my dreams, because I’ve never had that dream to begin with. I only thought of the sport.
By then, I had a certain pre-competition ritual. I’m not superstitious, but some things matter. I needed to get a good night’s sleep and eat a piece of chocolate before competing; also to take a walk, and, if possible, stroll through some stores to get my mind off things. All of this I’d do on the day of competition, between practice and performing.
I never came to competitions at the last minute. I needed to look around, see where’s what, talk to the doctor, and stretch. I have my own stretching schema. I’d stretch and go where no one can see me. Before competition, cameramen tend to follow the athletes around everywhere, but I’d find some corner to hide. I also really liked skating in the final, closing the competition.
So months passed with Sergei nearby as a good friend, but nothing more. He delighted in my victories, sympathized with my losses, and supported me when I lost heart. I really needed all that. He never talked about what it was he needed. I didn’t ask. I was too busy – Russian nationals were approaching.
I come to the rink once to see Zhanna Fedorona discuss my costume with the choreographer. I hear they plan to make a dress with pearls, and add a tiara to the hairdo. I say, “We don’t need any tiaras!”
But they insisted. In the end, a couple of weeks later I came to the practice in a super heavy dress with long chiffon sleeves. I’ve got the pearl breastplate and the tiara on my head. I push off with a skate and see that the dress sways such that my balance shifts on the jumps.
“How can I compete in this?”
“Irochka, don’t worry, it looks great!”
All right. I grumbled and muttered under my breath but complied. I tried to get used to the costume, though I still disliked it.
So I start performing. I do a spin, and the damned tiara falls off and hangs by the clips alone. I jump, and it hits me on the head – boom, boom. Great! This competition determines who goes to the Olympics!
I finished, and went to the locker room without a word. I just passed my mom, coach, and choreographer. They go after me. I go in, take the dress off without a word, tie it in a knot, and throw it into garbage. After a second of silence, everyone erupts in laughter. I sit there on the bench in my tights and skates and bawl!
That night, I met Serezha in a café. By then, he knew nothing was more important to me than the sport. My whole life was defined by practices, competitions, victories, and losses. Upset, I tell him about the mishap, and suddenly I catch his glance, so tender and understanding… Then it hits me – he is in love with me! How did I miss it before? “And you?” I asked myself. I then realized that I’ve loved him for a long time, and that it just didn’t happen from the first glance like it does in the novels.
We ordered a gold heart with our names engraved, broke it into two, put it on chains, and each one started wearing his half.
After the sports seasons ended, I went on vacation with mom and invited Serezha along. On the sea, we were completely happy.
I was so engulfed in my new feelings that I didn’t notice right away that something was happening with Sergei. He suddenly became more distanced, even cold and guarded. I ask him, “Why are you sad?” He’s silent. “Did I do something” Again, no answer. I ask him once, I ask him twice – it’s the same thing. “That’s enough!” I thought. “If he doesn’t want to explain himself, so be it! I have my pride, too.”
Sergei didn’t look me in the eye; we almost stopped talking.
I asked my mom, “What do I do?”
She replied. “Nothing yet. Wait.”
We returned to Moscow, and he walked us home. Mom went in, and we lingered on the stairs landing. We stand there, not saying anything. Suddenly, he takes his half of the heart off, “Let’s remain friends.”
I almost screamed – how so?! I stand there, and just think about not crying in front of him. I’m the strong one! I say nonchalantly, “All right”.
The sports school helped – my voice did not even tremble. He put the chain into my hand and left.
I bawled at home. I couldn’t calm down all night, “Why did he do it? What happened?” I suffered all day. I was convincing myself – don’t call, show some gut, he refused you after all! By night, though, I dialed his number.
“Serezh, we need to meet.”
“I have some business to discuss.”
I came up with some trifle, as if I needed his help like always. He came, he helped, and then we spent the whole night sitting on the windowsill in the house lobby. Sergei hugged and kissed me again, but I could tell he wasn’t with me. I didn’t inquire why he changed, as I considered it beneath me to do so. I tried to pretend like nothing has happened, like we just had a small fight. When light came from behind the window, I handed Serezha his heart half,
He kissed me and left. I cried again, then packed my bags and went to America for three months. I thought I could forget him there. He decided to part ways – so be it! But logical arguments didn’t work. I called Serezha every day; phone cards lined the hotel room like candy wrappers. What did we talk about? I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything – not how I performed, nor what I did. It was like I was in the fog. For the first time ever, competitions didn’t matter. I needed Sergei, and the medals could all go to hell!
In August I returned to Moscow and moved to a new apartment. A mattress, a TV, and a stereo system – that’s all I had. I called Serezha, “I arrived. Let’s meet.”
I thought I’d see him, and immediately know what’s going on. We walked through the city, talked about everything, and laboriously avoided the elephant in the room. I’d steal glances at Sergei. “He’s a stranger, he’s not yours, leave him alone”. Yet a few days later I called again.
So we’d meet from time to time as friends. Sometimes I called, sometimes he did. Serezha would walk me home, and every time I’d ask, “Will you stay?” Every time I heard the same reply – “No.” That “no” seemed to burn me from inside, but I held firm. He never saw my tears.
One time, though, Serezha did stay. I wake up, and he’s hugging me. “God”, I think. “Finally! So great!” It was a magical morning – we had breakfast, we chatted as if those awful months never happened, and then we each went to do our things, deciding to call each other later.
He did not call.
I waited all day. Next day it was again nothing.
“Forget him, where’s your pride?!” I yelled at myself. Nothing helped.
At the end of the third day, a bell rings. It’s Sergei.
“Where have you been?”
He’s silent. I led him into the kitchen, and poured him some tea. Suddenly he takes me by the hand, “I won’t come here again…”
What’s going on? Why is he torturing me so?
I don’t know what it cost me, but I replied in an even tone, “If that’s what you want…”
He went away. I locked the door. Now it was all over between us. Period.
Yet everything reminded me of him – his shirt here, his cup there… I could no longer stay at the house, but moved back to my parents' home. They had already taken apart my bed, and I slept on a mattress on the floor. I tried to be with mom all the time. She said, “Hang in there, it’ll pass, it’ll all be dust”.
I cried constantly, looked for answers and couldn’t find any. I had no energy to think of anything else. So many times I was going to call him, but steeled myself with a firm “no”!
Finally, I dialed his number anyway. One beep, two three… I send him an SMS – “Serezha, please respond!” He didn’t answer.
At a Cup of Russia, I wait to be announced when mom comes over and hands me a pager, “Read. It’s for you.”
It was an SMS from Serezha, “All your friends are always with you. Don’t worry, be happy”.
“Be happy?” What nonsense! What does he want from me!
I skated my number, got my medal, went home, and went to sleep. For the next month and a half, I only trained and slept like a corpse. I just didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t understand how I could ever live without him.
Inside, deep inside, I now had a pain as if something had contracted and didn’t let me breath in deeply. I woke up and went to sleep with that pain. What can hurt there?
When I could no longer handle it, I called my friend Katya. “I love him so much, I don’t know what to do! I thought it’d pass, but it doesn’t! Nothing seems to work! It’s like I don’t exist without him…”
Katya comforted me. “Irka, don’t worry. It will all work out, trust me! I had no idea it’s all so serious between you two!”
I put down the phone, and a few minutes later I get an SMS. “Ira, please come outside in half an hour. I’ll be by. Sergei.”
I was suddenly so proud and hurt! Why should I come out? He goes away, and now he calls and I run? No way! I won’t go!
I did, of course, come outside. He drives by and comes to me smiling. I look at him and think, “How he made me suffer! I am so tired.”
Sergei came close, and I saw that his eyes were also that of a suffering, almost sick man. We rushed to one another. He was kissing me, “Irka, my love, I can’t live without you.”
I could no longer see straight.
He then told me that he fell in love with me from first glance, and did everything to be with me. However, seeing how light headed I was, he couldn’t understand if it was really serious for me. He dealt with it, but then decided to step aside to give me a chance to figure out if I really needed him. I, meanwhile, never cried in front of him, nor did I ever tell him how hurt and upset I was. It’s my pride, after all! So he suffered, waiting for phone calls. Finally they would come, but I would just do small talk – about practices and new elements, and such. I never asked why he changed his mind! When Katya called him and really tore into him, “What are you doing to her? She cries through the days because she loves you so! Why are you making her suffer?” then Serezhka understood that his test has gone too far.
From that point on, we started living together. I was now coming home to find not only my parents but also my love. Serezha and I would sit in the kitchen, drink tea, talk about everything in the world, and that was pure bliss.
I continued to travel a lot, but Serezha never insisted I quit figure skating; he knew I couldn’t do that. He had to go through a lot with me. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I’d had the strength to remain in the sport.
I skated well at the 1998 Russian Nationals; I went to the locker room without even looking at the boards because I was certain of a podium placement.
Then mom comes in, “Let’s go. You’re fourth.”
I was dumbstruck. “That cannot be!”
I ran out to look at the boards. “#4 Slutskaya.” How so? I had to medal! I earned it!
I don’t remember how I returned, got dressed, or ended up outside.
I turned around. Serezha stood there with a bouquet of roses and a teddy bear.
“I don’t know…”
He understood everything right away. Without a word, he hugged me, took me by the hand, and got me into his car. I was looking at a worn out snowy road, at a city shining with lights, and all I could think of was “Not fair! Why? What for?”
Just recently, I found out what happened then, who those people were, and whom and how much they gave to insure someone else won. I found out quite accidentally. I always knew much in sport was for sale, but when it happens to you, it’s always hard. For me, though, it was just for the better. A loss, and especially an unfair loss, is a burning incentive.
For a long time after that, Russian Nationals were a torture for me. A few weeks prior, I seemed to turn to stone, with my body stiff and my hands shaking. I feared taking the ice, though by then I was a many time European champion and World medalist.
Zhanna Federovna, my parents, and, of course, Serezhka all helped me get over it.
One time we were walking somewhere, and I said in a joke, “Listen, we’re living together anyway, why not get married?”
He was delighted, “Let’s to it!”
We started preparing for the wedding. I thought of everything, gave Serezha the list, and went to the training camp in France. I’d call, “So, are you handling it?” and give him more stuff to do.
I got back, and we got married. It was a very beautiful wedding, with a religious ceremony, a restaurant banquet, an awesome dress, and a lot of balloons. We celebrated, and two days later I was back at the training camp.
2002 became a test of our relationship. I was hardly ever at home. I’d come home for a few days and go away again. I’d call my husband constantly – I love you, I miss you! However, the Salt Lake City Olympics were still ahead.
I went to the summer training camp with my general conditioning coach. The mountain skiing resort in France seemed dead out of season. All there is around is one grocery store that’s open for two hours a day, and one restaurant where we eat. That’s it.
I woke up in the morning, met up with my coach at the restaurant, have breakfast, and go into the mountains – up and down, up and down. We do that for six hours; during that time the body would get satiated with ozone. Then we’d stretch and go home. Lunch, two hours nap, and then back into the mountains.
I was going nuts. There was nothing to do, no one to talk to! I talked with Serezhka on the phone, and knitted a huge rug. I’d knit until my eyes would start shutting. In the morning, it was the same thing all over again – mountains, nap, mountains, rug…
Each morning the coach would meet me the same way, “Well, Slutskaya, have you had enough?”
“Nope, Slutskaya, there’s more”
And we’d go hiking again… Half-dead, we’d crawl to a precipice, fall on the grass, and watch the valleys and the eagles soaring at our eye level.
We then went to train in Corsica; there was a field with some small houses, a stadium with artificial ice where an occasional thorn would peek through, and again – nobody around. The sun is roasting us from overhead, I’m sweating like a pig, and yet I have to be like a robot – jumps, pushups, running, squatting…
At one point, I broke down with my coach, “I’ve had it, I can’t do it anymore!”
“Slutskaya, you want a medal?”
“Then keep going.”
My only relief was a cute little restaurant on the seashore. It had the best fish! It was fresh just out of the water. We’d eat it every day.
One time, the coach got an old Ford, and we went to a faraway beach for a change of scenery. It was scorching heat of June, but the water was ice cold. Something happened to me there. I started shaking, tears were streaming down my face, and all I could think of was – why am I doing this? How am I wasting my life?
I was bawling, standing chest deep in the ice cold water. The coach was ashore, silently waiting for me to calm down. I rinsed my face, got into the car, and went to the stadium again – pushups, jumps, squats…
A regular person who’s not an athlete can’t understand what Olympic stress is like. For four years you’re approaching that medal, you’re holding yourself as in a tight fist. Just before the performance, you feel like throwing up from fear.
I came to our doctor, “Victor Ivanovich, it’s so bad! I feel like I'm about to die.”
He took my hand, looked me into the eyes, and said, “It’s OK if you’re shaking, it’s normal, it’s all good…”
I felt a little bit better…
Second place at the Olympics felt like a loss. Judges decided that American Sarah Hughes was better. I, along with many others, did not think that. I sat in the hotel room hugging my knees, and all I could think of was – why did I waste all that energy? Why do I need this sport if it is so unfair?
When we flew back, though, we were welcomed home like national heroes. “Sheremetievo” was full of people with posters, they screamed “Hurray!” and congratulated us with a victory. That’s when I felt like a winner. I was completely happy, totally oblivious to the shock I would soon have to live through.
I arrived in Peter for a Grand Prix with my mom. We stayed at different hotels, but the night before the competition I begged her to stay with me. We went to sleep when suddenly mom felt sick at three in the morning.
I turn on the lights – she’s paler than the sheets. I call our team doctor Victor Ivanovich and call the emergency.
The doctor talked to me in the hospital, “Your mom has serious kidney problems.”
I was lost. The hospital, IV drips, white robes – it was all like in a dream.
I ill understood how I would perform, but I firmly knew I had to do, for my mom if nothing else! I would gladly give up all of my already-won and future medals to have her recover.
Mom remained in the hospital. Her recovery was slow. I dashed between Peter and Moscow, always carrying my skates with me to be able to ask for some ice and train at the first opportunity.
I didn’t go to Washington, though. I was depressed, poorly prepared, and just didn’t have my heart in it.
In August, something started happening to me. There were bruises on my body as well as temperature fluctuations; my legs got so puffed up that Serezha had to carry me from room to room. I couldn’t walk; I’d fall down the minute I’d get up off of the bed. Then I lost sensation in my fingers. Just out of the blue, the finger would turn cold and white.
The doctors couldn’t understand what was going on. They came up with various diagnoses, but none of them was confirmed. I couldn’t skate, and had to go in to the hospital.
I relaxed a bit, seemed to feel better, and immediately demanded, “Let me go! I need to go to the ice!”
They tried to reason with me, “You’ll go through some procedures, get healthy, and then you can go back to work.”
I started training in mid-October to prepare for the November Grand Prix event in Moscow. One morning, though, I woke up to feel something was wrong. I yank the blanket and see the legs are bloated again!
There were injections and pills once again. I begged the doctors to do something. They just shrugged.
During a remission, I trained on the ice and was going to take part in the Igor Bobrin jubilee. A day before the performance, the legs got bloated again. Natasha Bestemianova, his wife, calls me, “Irochka, are you going to perform?”
I decided to take the ice no matter what. I came to the rink, but couldn’t even get my feet into skates. I cried and asked the Good Lord to help me. I guess He heard my prayers, because I managed to lace up somehow. I skated my number and went back to the locker room. I take my skates off – my God! The legs have swelled up even more!
It wasn’t until a few months later that I managed to be seen by professor Borisov, personal doctor to Mikhail Gorbachev. He finally diagnosed the problem as a blood vessel issue. I got into a specialized clinic where doctor Krovosheev said, “A few more days, and it would’ve taken years to cure you.”
That year was a nightmare. I was prescribed shocking amounts of hormonal drugs. I gained weight, would get tired quickly, and became too emotional – I could be laughing out loud, and be bawling ten minutes later. I don’t know how Serezha put up with it all. Be nannied me like a baby.
Everyone gave up on me as an athlete. I, though, decided to go to the 2004 Worlds and fight for a medal there.
The audience got quite when I took the ice. Nobody expected me at the championships. After a few seconds of complete silence, the audience erupted in cheer. I skated to the center of the rink. The body refused to listen to me. Little of my former condition remained.
I skated my program, sat in the corner breathing heavily, and watched the display.
“Irina Slutskaya, Russia” – the sign came up, and the marks started coming up, one by one… I’ve never received such low marks in my life.
With my legs hardly moving, I was going down the corridor when I caught a conversation from a half-open door, “Slutskaya is in ninth! That’s that! Now she’ll never climb back up!”
I ground my teeth. “That’s what you think! You’re the ones who won’t ever climb anywhere, but me – I’ll be first again!”
Next season, I won the Worlds in Moscow. After that, I had Grand Prix victories, my seventh European title, and a bronze medal at the Turin Olympics. That victory belonged not only to me, but to all the wonderful people who helped me to overcome.
The season ended, but I still had an aggressive schedule. I had performances in Switzerland, then America, and a little later Ilusha Averbukh invited me to the “Stars on Ice”.
After the TV project was over, I had a tour around the country. I’d get tired all the time, but couldn’t understand why. The illness seemed to have gone away…
I couldn’t stand straight on my legs after the first act, and would literally be falling down after the second. I then noticed I kept wanting to eat salty foods, and that I was always sleepy. Should I buy a test? Sure, why not. I checked it… No way!
I bought four more. The results were the same.
I was pregnant!
We were very happy; Serezha and I always wanted a child because the family isn’t really complete without one. But what about the contracts and the performances? I went to my doctor in Moscow. She said I was at six weeks. On my way home, I racked my brains over how to tell Serezhka about it. I wanted to do something unusual. So, I put the pregnancy note on his breakfast plate. He comes sleepily into the kitchen, and sees a piece of paper instead of his cereal.
“What’s that” he asks.
It took him a while to understand. He read and reread it, and then just erupted in “Yesssss! Finally!”
He’d then follow me around as if I were sick – don’t to this, don’t do that, relax, eat more… He kept worrying I wasn’t gaining weight enough.
He’d sit me on his lap and feed me. Me, though, I just wanted to eat pickles. Mom kept having to open new jars. I also wanted to eat lard. My appetite would normally peek at night. I’d go to the refrigerator, open it and eat, thinking to myself, “God, forgive me, I am after all pregnant!”
One day I woke up and just knew it was going to be a boy.
“Serezh, we’re having a boy.”
“Wait, maybe the ultrasound will show something else.”
The ultrasound confirmed that I was right.
At three months, I flew to Israel. My granny, grandpa, aunt, uncle, and two married cousins, one of them with a child, are all there. The press got wind of my pregnancy, but I just turned off my phone, taking on another number for the loved ones. I slept, walked, went to Jerusalem and Eilat, and swam. I’d get up in the afternoon, take my player, and walk barefoot on the beach for two hours. It was pure joy! I didn’t have to hurry anywhere, or think about anything. I could just concentrate on the baby.
However, idling away is not my style. I wanted back on the ice! Five doctors oversaw my pregnancy throughout. They soon understood that the regular prohibitions didn’t work with me, and instead recommended how I would train and what I should avoid.
When I found out about the “Ice Age”, I went to the Channel One general producer Alexander Faifman.
“Can I be the host again?”
He says, “Ira, you’re pregnant!”
“Sasha, it’s not an illness.”
Faifman just shrugged, “If you want to, sure. We’ll be happy to have you.”
Now there are three of us, and my heart breaks every time I have to leave home. How will they manage without me? I give a ton of instructions, but just a few minutes after going, I start calling to check in.
Because I’m constantly away, I’m always afraid to miss Artem’s milestones. Sometimes, unfortunately, I do. He said his first word “Quack!” without me. Serezhka told me about it with so much pride, but I just got very upset.
Recently, I was on tour in America when my husband called. “Listen to this!” My son’s tiny voice comes out of the receiver – “mooooommy”.
I was bouncing off the walls from happiness! But then I just burst into tears. Another one I missed!
I still have the same aggressive schedule, and I rarely spend more than three days a week at home. Now, though, when I am far away, I always yearn to return – I am awaited by mom little son, my husband, and my loved ones. Nothing in the world can be more dear than those loved people. That’s my happiness and my joy.
The full name is "Sergei". "Serezha" and "Serega" is a more familiar form ("Serezha" is a little more tender, whereas "Serega" has more of "pal" type connotation). "Serezhka" is more familiar still.
 The Mausoleum on the Red Square, housing Lenin's body, always had huge lines to get in.
 A country house. In Russia, even middle class often has them.
 Shish-Kebab is the picnic staple in Russia, like barbecue in the US
 Russians set up their trees for New Year, not for Christmas (which under the Orthodox calendar is on January 6th anyway).
 Sheremetievo is the Moscow airport.
 "Peter" is a diminutive for Saint Petersburg.
 "SASHA" is a familiar form of Alexander.