Follow the links for some pics as well
Part 1 - http://ptichkafs.livejournal.com/43158.html
Part 2 - http://ptichkafs.livejournal.com/43514.html
Part 3 - http://ptichkafs.livejournal.com/43574.html
MY ICE: STORY OF LOVE AND HATE
I suddenly saw Shliakhov’s blade really close. I wanted to yell – “What are you doing!” but there wasn’t time. A hit in the temple, and I fall. A scarlet puddle grows on the ice.
The practice was drawing to a close when Shliakhov and I started having troubles with the triple toe loop. I fell several times. Oleg’s mouth twisted, and he squinted his eyes. I tried as hard as I could, but it wasn’t working.
“Get up, why are you playing zamboni?! A real cow you are! Lift those hands!” growled Oleg.
Finally, our coach Tamara Moskvina gave up and told us to wrap it up. Skating past me, Shliakhov painfully hit my shoulder and didn’t even glance back.
“Lena, stop by when you get a chance”, called Tamara Nikolayevna. I nodded.
I was used to the coach’s invitations. Moskvina well deserves her reputation of a good psychologist. It’s not for naught that she took us on – a promising pair with a “difficult partner”. Coaches all left us. They’d fire Oleg, and I’d lose the chance to practice along with him.
Moskvina was the one to invite us to Petersburg. She took it seriously, bringing in several professional psychologists who could work with Shliakhov regularly. Oleg was keeping a lid on it, but I could feel him just waiting for a spark to let out his aggression.
“Lena, come on in”, smiled Moskvina when I showed up at the coach’s doorstep.
Over the month we worked together, she asked many questions about my family, my parents, and my relationship with Oleg. At first, I was surprised at Tamara Nikolayevna’s questions. Why were we living together? I answered that he’s my partners, we’ve been practicing together for a long time, and that Oleg said we’d save money this way. We each have a room. There can never be any love between us, so when Oleg says I’m his girlfriend – it’s all a lie. Let him blab whatever he wants. Yeah, Shliakhov forbids me to talk to other skaters. That’s just a kind of person he is. I’m not much interested in looking at or talking to anyone either. I’m happy either way, why make him angry. No, at home he’s quiet, he doesn’t fight or yell. Just one thing – he often locks me in and leaves, and I just sit there on the sofa watching the TV. Of course he has all the money, I don’t need it anyway. What would I spend it on anyhow?
Tamara Nikolayevna never drew any conclusions, but just listened and nodded.
Those conversations usually started from practice analysis. That day, I thought we’d talk about the practice and why the jump wasn’t working. Yet Tamara Nikolayevna poured me some tea, pushed forward a bowl of cookies (“It’d do you good to gain a bit of weight!”), and kept silent. She then got up and walked up to the window behind my back.
“Here is what I wanted to talk to you about”. Moskvina paused. “Do you understand that you’re living in slavery, and there is just no other word for it?”
I was shocked. I just sat there silent. She went on, “Yes, it’s scary to end up without a partner. Perhaps, though, it’s better than to be with such a partner? Lena, you can’t change him. Don’t you see? You’re just nineteen, you’re strong, talented, and you can achieve a lot by yourself. Think about it.”
Her words were like thunder out of a clear sky. How can I be alone? Who needs me?
Still dazed, I walked out into the hallway. Shliakhov set there on a windowsill, “I thought you decided to spend the night there!”
* * *
At home, it took me a long time to get to sleep. Moskvina’s words didn’t let me rest. Mom – that’s whom I urgently needed now. But she wasn’t not nearby, and for many years now I’ve been walking through life on my own, hardly understanding where I was headed or why.
* * *
I was born very small, and only weighed seven kilos  by age one. Doctors diagnosed dystrophy. I cried a lot, both during the day and at night. I’d only fall asleep after being rocked so hard it was almost like shaking, together with the song “Enemy Windstorms”.
Mom wanted to find something for me to do. She tried to get me into ballet or dancing, but nobody wanted me. At four, I was at last let into a figure skating club. I was very flexible, almost like a contortionist. I loved whizzing by on the rink – a little fly in a pink dress.
I then acquired a real coach, Nina Ivanovna Ruchkina. She moved to Nevinnomyssk from a Moscow suburb together with her husband and two sons. She often needed to change jobs because of her temper. We, though, were ecstatic – “Nevinka is getting a real Moscow coach!” I was eight when I started working with her.
“How many times do I have to tell you to jump higher?!” I see the furrowed eyebrows, the lips pressed into a thin line, and the white knuckles drawn into a tight fist.
I jump again. Again, it’s no good. Nina Ivanovna roughly grabs me by the shoulder and twists me, trying to explain how I should jump. It’s so painful that I cry.
“Stop that wining and get to work!” yells Ruchkina.
I wipe away the tears and take the ice again. I jump as high as I can. It works!
“Good job!” Nina Ivanovna pets my head. “You can do it when you try.”
I never told mom about what was happening at practices. I really liked skating, and so I put up with it. In general, that’s how children are – they cry and then they forget. Also, I heard how Nina Ivanovna answered other parents when they’d go discuss their kids’ complaints with her, “How else can you talk to those bums? How can you make them work if they don’t understand the gentle touch?”
The moms and the dads would nod agreement – all wanted their kids to become champions and become somebodies.
It would likely continue this way, but one day my step dad noticed my bruises as I was changing.
“What’s that?!” he demanded.
“Nina Ivanovna was showing me hot to jump right…”
Uncle Misha shot out of the room. I don’t know what he said to her, but Ruchkina never laid a finger on me again.
Back then, cruelty in sport was considered the norm. Many coaches exerted both physical and psychological pressure on the athletes. At the summer training camps, Stanislav Zhuk often raised his voice, and one time a coach kicked a guy in the butt so hard he flew several yards. We just laughed as the poor kid was crying.
At least I was living at home, which was a true blessing. My real dad liked to drink, as do many men in little towns like Nevinka. He’d be plastered by the time he got home. Mom kicked him out once, twice… They finally divorced when I was five. My stepfather brought up me and my brother. Uncle Misha was a good person, and did it without moralizing and tedium. We soon learned to love him. He cared for us as if we were his own. After that incident with Ruchkina, uncle Misha didn’t want me to go on skating.
“Why does she need it anyway?” he asked mom.
She just replied, “The child skates, and is good at it, so just let it go.”
* * *
I was indeed the best in the group. One time, Ruchkina came up to me and said, “You wanted to try out pairs, so why not skate with my Sasha, and then you can go train at CSKA in Moscow.”
Nina Ivanovna dreamed of making her son a champion. Sasha was too weak for a pairs partner, and his mother looked for a light girl for him. I was perfect. I wasn’t too keen on it, though. Sasha was the only boy in our girls’ group, and we always mocked him for being so tall and awkward.
“No”, I said. “I changed my mind. I want to skate alone.”
The coach pressed on, but I just shook my head.
She realized it was pointless, and started talking to my mom instead. She talked of the golden mountains awaiting us in Moscow, and mom finally gave in.
I doubt she fully realized what I’d have to deal with at thirteen – a boarding school at a strange city, with practices from dawn till dusk. Today, in order to help their kids’ sports careers, moms quit their jobs, rent something in Moscow, and attend all practices just to be nearby; back then, that wasn’t an option.
As we were leaving, I was hoping we’d fail. “I have poor eyesight, that’s a no-no in pair skating.”
But we passed. Though coach Vladimir Viktorovich Zakharov asked me after seeing us skate, “Do you really want to skate with his boy?”
This was my last chance to get rid of Sasha. “No, I don’t!” said I.
Nina Ivanovna, though, was right there – “Of course she does! She can’t be without him!”
Zakharov shook his head, but didn’t argue.
The “army” routine began. We lived at the CSKA dorm. Normally, it was reserved for the touring athletes. Those included many boxers, almost all of the hot guys from the Caucuses. They all looked like bodybuilders. I cried every day, and was very homesick.
We went to the inter-city phone booth near the Sokol subway station every three days. “It’s all good, mom!” I’d say, scratching the dial with my nail. “Yes, Sasha and I are skating well, we’re getting praise, and it’s all fine.”
In reality, we didn’t skate well. I didn’t accomplish anything in the season. Sasha wasn’t cut out for pair skating. He could hardly lift me, and I was just 28 kilos . Then Sasha would talk to his mom. He’d say the same thing – we’re skating well, it’s all good. Afterward, we’d gloomily stumble back to the dorm. Then there would be a new practice in the morning.
With the army influences, the CSKA figure skating school was especially cruel. Hazing was awful. The girls had it especially tough. “How are you standing, you scarecrow! Go away before you learn it right!” “My partner is so fat, I should really beat her dome”.
And so they did. We, the little ones, saw it all and learned from our elders. The tradition of “beating the dome” passed on generation to generation. At thirteen and even later, I saw nothing wrong with this.
Then we got transferred to the boarding school, I got into the lessons, acquired some friends and it became easier.
When the season started, Zakharov beckoned Sasha and said, “Go and don’t come back.”
To me, he said, “I’ll figure out what to do with you.”
Nina Ivanovna came right away. She didn’t want to give up hope of making us into champions. She asked, pleaded, and insisted. Zakharov, though, was firm – the kid won’t become a skater, so why torture him.
When she finally realized she had no chance with the coach, she started with me. “Go back with us, what will you do alone here?”
saw those furrowed eyebrows and the pressed lips, and knew that if I’d give in, I’d always be under her control. I said no.
“Then please return the uniform, the skates, and the sneakers, I have to answer for them, you know!”
I took everything off and handed her the bag. “How will you skate without the skates?! Come back with us!”
I stared at the floor and was too scared to utter a sound. “You’ll regret this!” she muttered through her teeth, grabbed the bag, and left. I saw Nina Ivanovna one more time before they left. She just couldn’t come to terms with the loss. Seeing me, she almost cried compassionately, “How will you live here alone? Let’s go home, sweetie, you’ll be happier near your mom.”
“True,” I thought. “But I still won’t go anywhere with you.”
So I stayed. Vladimir Viktorovich Zakharov paired me with a boy my age. He had no clue about pair skating. We struggled through for a couple of months until Oleg Shliakhov freed up – he was dumped by his seventh partner.
* * *
…I made an awkward move and knocked over the alarm clock. It rolled off with loud clink. In horror, I searched for it on the carpet, but it was too late. The light went on in the hallway, and Oleg walked into the room.
“Are you nuts? It’s five a.m.!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“You know what happens to those who don’t mean to?” he grumbled. “Anyway, why aren’t you asleep? You feeling all right? You want some tea?”
“No, thanks”, I said, “I’ll just go back to sleep.”
Oleg left, and I thought, “Tamara Nikolayevna is wrong after all. Oleg isn’t bad. Sure, he has a temper. But we’ve been skating for four years, what will I do without him? And he used to be so much worse…”
* * *
“Berezhnaya!” I turned to face the coach. “Come here!”
Oleg Shliakhov was standing next to Zakharov. He came from Riga to work with our coaches.
“You want to skate with him?”
Shliakhov was the hope of the national figure skating, and I could only dream of such a partner. “Good. You start training tomorrow.”
Oleg was a strong and experienced athlete four years my senior, and things clicked immediately. My breath would catch during practices – wow! That’s what pair skating is all about! Cool! Oleg was also happy – I was small, light, and picked up everything fast.
We skated well and even won some prizes. Eventually, though, I noticed that he’d get ever more aggressive as the level of competition increased. Shliakhov started yelling at me, “Where’s your head?! Look here! Get a grip!”
One time at a practice, after struggling with a jump, I turned my back to Oleg to catch my breath, and suddenly – wham! – felt a fist between my shoulder blades.
“Where are you going? Do it again!”
“Not good”, I thought, but didn’t say anything because I saw so many times how the girls get “beaten on the dome” like it was normal. Then Oleg came up to me guiltily after the practice.
“I am sorry; I don’t know how it happened. I just lost it. Are you mad?”
“Already forgotten”, I said. This was a mistake.
That was just the start. At first, he’d only hit me when there was nobody around, and would apologize afterward. Then, Oleg seemed to have gone crazy after we started winning the major competitions. If I made the tiniest mistake, he’d get riled up immediately, and start beating me with his fists. He no longer cared if there were people around. People would yank him off, try to reason with him, but he’d just say, “It’s her own fault!”
His mood switches were astounding. At the rink, he’d fight and scream. Once we’d leave, he’d immediately calm down. He’d ask compassionately, “Are you hurt? Let’s stop by the pharmacy for some ointment. It’s nothing, it’ll go away soon. Sorry about it, I didn’t mean it to be so hard.” Then he’d take me for a walk, may be even buy me some chocolates. That got me confused. Every time, it seemed it would never happen again. Yet every day the same thing would repeat, and every day Oleg just got worse.
* * *
… In the morning, Oleg popped his head into my door, “Hey, why aren’t you up yet? You alive there?”
I shuddered at those words. He said in the same exact voice he used at a practice the first time he dropped me onto the ice from his outstretched hands…
Shocked skaters gathered around me, while Oleg, barely glancing in my direction, just barked, “She’s alive”.
“You!” screamed Zakharov. “You touch her one more time, you’ll be training at home! Nobody will work with you here, you get it?”
“What? It’s her fault… She’s not doing… I didn’t want…”
Afterwards, there were many times I’d dropl from the lifts. I’d come home, make compresses, rub some ointment in, and it all became routine.
Strangle as it sounds, I didn’t hate Oleg. I was still a child, and sport was everything to me – I had to compete and try to win medals, and that was that. I didn’t think of myself. I had no one to come to for advice, and no one to look to for protection. At some point, coaches seemed to stop noticing Shliakhov’s antics. Nobody could do anything with him while we did show good results.
I didn’t tell mom what was going on. I worried about her health. I thought it was better for her to not know anything, and that I could handle it all myself.
One time Oleg and his mom were waiting to me in the hallway after the practice.
“Lenochka, here’s the deal”, said Svetlana, clutching her purse nervously. “Oleg and I think it would be better for you to represent Latvia. The country has seceded from Russia, Moscow ice is expensive, and Riga has better conditions. Besides, you’ll have less competition.”
I gasped, “Riga?”
“You’re a team, you need to be together. You can’t let each other down. We have an apartment in Riga. There are three rooms there, plenty of space for everyone. We’ll look for a coach, and you can start competing once we find one.”
I didn’t want to leave but didn’t know what else to do. International competitions were just around the corner. What would I do without Shliakhov? CSKA coaches didn’t make any proposals, and I had nowhere to go.
I called my mom. She just said, “Honey, you have to decide for yourself…”
* * *
So we left. We lived with the Shliakhovs. I had one room, Oleg had another, and his mom lived in the living room.
She knew everything about her son. She thought the evil eye made him that way. She brought in the fortune tellers and the psychics to try to remove it. What evil eye?! Oleg’s father was a sailor who spent six months of the year at sea. Mom raised her darling son alone. She really wanted to see him a champion and spared no expense. She spent a lot of money, but she also pressured him a lot. He still didn’t get outstanding results, though. She’d often blow up, “I put so much into you, I sent you to Moscow, and what do I get in return?!” It got him mad, but Oleg didn’t dare talk back to his mother and got in on his partners instead. He saw us as the reason for his failures. He was too weak to face up to his own shortcomings.
In her own way, Svetlana did love me. She fed me and gave me her stuff to wear – there was no money to buy anything anyway. She’d say, “All right, we need to dress Lena up. You’re going to a competition, after all.” And she’d open up her wardrobe.
If I came home from the practices all beat up, she’d put on a compress, “Hang in there, there is nothing you can do with him. That’s just how he is.” She didn’t understand she was the one who made him that way.
In Riga, everything continued the same way it did in Moscow. Oleg would jump at me, they’d yank him away and reason with him, and then we’d go home, first on one bus, then another. My face would be marked by scratches and bruises.
No one got involved. The alternative was to break up one of the best Latvian teams, and who would dare do such a thing? It was easier not to notice it.
Oleg stayed calm outside the rink. On the weekends he smiled and joked. We’d go to Yurmala together. In the evenings, we’d rent some videos and watch them together. Then, though, there would be weekdays again, we’d be on the ice again, and I’d be tied with fear once more.
His persistent complaints led to a constant guilt in me – Oleg keeps punishing me, that means I am bad, I deserve this, I can’t do anything right!
Seeing my state, Oleg’s mom would say, “You’ve been under the evil eye too! You need to go to the psychic.”
I had a real depression. I wanted to get into some dark corner and turn invisible. I said may times, “If I am so inept, let me leave! You can find another partner.”
The response was always the same – “We put some much money into you, and now you want to leave?!”
Money was the sore point in that family. If there was a fight, you could bet that was the cause. When we didn’t compete well, Svetlana would yell at Oleg, “I paid so much, when are you going to pay me back?!”
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any earphones then…
* * *
“Lenka, come out!” Oleg rapped at the door. “You want to be late for the practice?”
I recalled Moskvina’s words, “Young, strong, talented, you can do anything yourself!”
Was that really the truth? You would I dare?
* * *
In Riga, Shliakhov and I trained on our own for the first year as no coach wanted us. Finally, we found Drei, who miraculously knew nothing of Oleg’s personality, and only knew of our good results. Mikhail Mikhailovich offered to take us to Britain where Tamara Moskvina had a school. We had free ice as long as Drei trained a British pair.
At first, we lived with a British family. I shared a room with a mother and daughter, and Oleg shared one with the owners’ son. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and the day’s schedule didn’t work for us. Finally, Shliakhov demanded that the federation provide us with a room. “Give us just one room. It’ll be cheaper, and we can figure it out”. I wasn’t against it, as Oleg behaved himself at home. We started living together in a small room with two narrow beds.
We bought some bikes, and biked to the rink.
Drei was horrified when he figured out what he got himself into, but it was too late. We were already scheduled for international competitions. Mikhail Mikhailovich tried everything – he talked to Oleg, he disciplined him, but it was all of no use. He’d say, “Don’t touch Lena, you made a mistake, not she.” But what was the use?
At the time, it never occurred to me that I could do anything. I thought that was my fate. I had no money – federation paid the living expenses, and while we got some good money for participating in and even winning competitions, those tended to settle in Oleg’s pockets. I couldn’t run away, and neither did I try – who would need me? Ultimately, Drei fired us. I think he just got to frustrated with not being able to change anything.
People talked to Moskvina about us. “Tamara Nikolayevna, may be you’ll take them on? They’re a good team! You have authority, may be you can get a grip on that boy.” At the 1994 Goodwill Games, she came up to us and said, “Move to Petersburg. We’ll be working together.”
“…Lena, how’re you doing?” asked Moskvina at the morning practice.
“All’s good, Tamara Nikolayevna.”
“You remember what we talked about yesterday?”
Moskvina is a good psychologist. Every day, she’d repeat that I couldn’t go on living like that.
Slowly, I was acquiring a different worldview. Figure skating was no longer the whole life, but only its part. Friends I acquired when we moved to train with Moskvina helped me see it that way.
Peter school was the complete opposite of CSKA. Everyone was calmer and more welcoming. Of course, sometimes people would yell and get all agitated – it is, after all, a sport. But getting physical on the ice? There was none of that here. I wondered at the “Yulibejni” skaters – they smiled and supported each other. They in turn wondered how I could put on with Shliakhov’s behavior. It was too scary to change anything, though. Under the watchful eyes of the psychologists, Oleg at least stopped getting loose with his fists. Who knows what would happen if I tried to get more independent! The pain of his fists was all too vivid in my mind.
Shliakhov didn’t like me acquiring friends. He forbade me from seeing anyone without him. I guess he was too scared to lose control over me. Oleg was especially incensed that Sikhuralidze liked me.
Anton often met up with me in the hallway after practice, would joke and not let me go until I smiled. In a car, he’d be driving, and I’d be in the back with the others. Anton would chat, but watch me in the rear view mirror all the time. Oleg got angry, but didn’t dare show it with everyone there.
I liked Anton but just marveled – what does he see in me? He’s handsome, he could have anyone in Petersburg; what does he need me for?
We all trained together, up to eight teams on the ice at the same time. Anton skated with Masha Petrova with coach Velikov. They didn’t get along. Anton was a trendy guy who liked to show off his businessmen friends and his car. He also liked his freedom and was often late for practices, whereas Velikov needed his skaters to do nothing but train. They argued viciously all the time, though of course it was nothing like Oleg and I. Peter skaters were shocked when they saw what Shliakhov was capable of.
Oleg kept up his model behavior for half a year, and then again dropped me from the lift. This, however, wasn’t Riga where no one would dare say anything, and neither was this CSKA where fighting was the norm. This was a place of civilized people. The guys jumped to my defense.
“Are you crazy?”
“Who do you think you are?”
“Don’t you dare!”
Oleg just got more riled up. “Don’t defend her! It’s her fault – she’s one making mistakes!”
That was the first time I “revolted”, “You are the one who’s making mistakes!” Then I surprised myself by hitting Shliakhov with my little fist.
He was shocked. He was used to having his partner stay quiet through all kinds of abuse. He didn’t even say anything then, but kept it inside and the next practice found some fault with me, hit me, and yelled, “I’ll kill you!”
Anton was the first to jump in, “You again?”
They almost had a fight. That night, Sikhuralidze gathered his friends together. They waited for Shliakhov. They wanted to explain to him what the rules of behavior were in Petersburg. Oleg, though, is a coward and ran off right after the practice.
Peter skaters like to stay civil, so it didn’t grow into a real scandal, and Oleg did not get the silent treatment. He was still treated like a normal person. For a little while, he even managed to control himself.
Anton really wanted to help, but he saw that you couldn’t approach Shliakhov with brute force. So he devised a plan. He asked some friends to invite Oleg over. Shliakhov left, locking me in like always. I was sitting there, when there was suddenly a knocking on the window. It was Antoha with a friend. They helped me out the window; luckily it was just the first floor. We walked around, laughed, and had some ice cream. Then they helped me back in the same way. Oleg got back, happy and content, to find me at home like I was supposed to be. I was ecstatic to see you could trick Shliakhov!
Yet the new season was approaching, and Oleg was already getting more aggressive. No one could do anything – not the skaters, not the psychologists, and not Moskvina. Then he dropped me from the lift again – fly on, little birdie! It was a huge scandal. Anton and his friends caught him and explained things to him in his own language. “You touch her one more time, and you can forget the road to Peter!”
Oleg quieted down, seeing his antics just wouldn’t cut it here.
I got bolder and said I wouldn’t go back to sharing the apartment with him. Moskvina supported me and got the leadership to provide me with my own room! I was living alone for the first time. I could decide myself how to spend my free time and where to go with whom. It’s standard for people that age, but it made me so happy! I also had reservations, though.
I really liked Anton. He felt the same way. There was nothing yet between us except for long tender looks, shy kisses, and light touches.
The explosive mixture of worrying was literally ripping me apart – the first real feeling of my life with the awful fear of losing everything at once – my newfound freedom, Anton, and figure skating. Both teams could fall apart if anyone found out about out. We were, after all, rivals.
We had to be very careful. At first, we’d sneak out to take a stroll through the city or go watch the Peterhof fountains. Oleg, though, spied us out. We only found out later, as back then he managed to never get noticed.
Soon enough, we went to a championship in France and decided to sneak in a stroll with Anton. We were walking, holding hands, watching the shop windows, and the mood was just great. And then suddenly we see Oleg, his face all twisted with hate. Fear paralyzed me, and I yanked my hand from Anton’s as if we weren’t together. He just whispered,
“Don’t, just take my hand.”
Oleg said haughtily, “Come here, Lena, let’s have a little chat”
Anton responded calmly, “Talk to me.”
“Not you. I need her.”
“You don’t want to talk – fine.”
We turned back and walked away. My legs were wobbling.
I don’t know how Anton put up with all that without giving me up. I was like a knot of nerves, always scared. He, though, could always make me giggle. It was easy to be with him. Then, though, I’d go to the practice where I’d meet Shliakhov. He was now always gloomy and angry, though he no longer gave his hands their freedom.
October eleventh was my birthday. After practice, we went to Anton’s rented apartment. We had so much fun! We danced the night away! I was already tired after the practice, and just fell asleep as the party went on. Oleg wanted to wake me up and walk me home, but they didn’t let him. He left.
In the morning, Anton was the first to get up. I did so later. In the bathroom, there was a paper on the mirror – “I love you.”
That’s how he told me of his feelings. We then decided to stop hiding. Let the dice fall however they may. We saw each other every day and didn’t want to separate. Oleg watched it with eerie calm.
One time he approached me after the practice, “Pack up, we’re going to the Israel competition, and then to Riga to get ready for Europeans.”
“So we don’t have to go here and there needlessly and lose time.”
I didn’t argue. I wanted to do well at Europeans. I counted the days – we’d spend three weeks in Riga.
Anton got upset when he found out, “Lenka, don’t go. Just dump him!”
“What do you mean? I can’t just not go!”
I knew I shouldn’t go, but I was still too dependent on Oleg, and too afraid to draw it to a close.
Anton and I spent the whole night walking the Peter streets. He hugged me tight and didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to leave him either. Yet in the morning, I grabbed by bag and Anton drove me to the train station.
The second Shliakhov and I were alone, he started recounting all of my “sins”. Using Anton’s absence, he said things about him that made my fists ball up. Oleg was baiting me but I didn’t say anything. It was meaningless to protest, so I could only wait. I was counting the days until getting back to Peter and breathing free again.
We competed in Israel, came to Riga, and again settled in with his mom. Now, though, it was even harder on me then before. I changed and could no longer stand it.
I called Moskvina when Oleg and Svetlana weren’t at home, “It’s awful here, I can’t stand it anymore!”
“Just hang in there, Lenok, just until the Europeans. We’ll figure something out after that.”
Two weeks remained until Europeans. Everything in me protested with a feeling of impending doom. But I gritted my teeth and decided that if I already put up with so much, a little more wouldn’t kill me.
The sixth of January came. One week remained to Europeans. We came to the morning practice. We started the warm-up. Then, suddenly, I saw Shliakhov’s blade really close. I wanted to yell, “What are you doing!” but there was no time. A hit in the temple, and I fall. A scarlet puddle grows on the ice…
There was no sharp pain, I was conscious and watched it all as an outsider. A whole crowd gathered.
“Lena, are you OK?”
I tried to respond, but couldn’t say a word. Oleg grabbed me and carried me to the medical center. The crowd followed.
The ambulance came. Oleg and Svetlana came with me. On the way, they kept saying, “No big deal. Don’t worry.”
I didn’t. I just thought – that’s that. Finally. No more figure skating, no more suffering, and no more fear. I’ll go home, and won’t ever need competitions or victories again.
In the hospital, the doctors asked, “What’s your name?”
I was silent.
“Don’t worry, it’s just shock. It’ll pass!” They sewed up the wound and got me admitted to a room.
Sometime later, a neurosurgeon stopped by.
“Do you remember what happened?”
I was silent, but blink my eyes.
“Do you understand me?”
I blinked – yes, I understand.
“And you can’t say anything?”
I blinked again. Immediately, she yelled, “X-ray immediately! Get the OR ready!”
It turned out that the blade, cutting through the right temple, damaged the speech center. That’s why I couldn’t talk. I needed immediate brain surgery.
The nurses came to ask for consent for the surgery. I was just apathetic. They were shaving my head, and I was just thinking – do whatever you want with me!
Oleg and his mom showed up the next morning. Shliakhov sat next to the bed, his voice and his hands were shaking. “Forgive me; I don’t know how it happened. I know you’ll get better. We’ll get ready for the Worlds. Europeans is no big deal. We still have time.”
I just wanted to laugh. No, pal! I won’t have no more championships with you!
Svetlana took my hand, “I talked to the fortune teller, and she says you’ll be fine. Oleg and you will soon become Olympic champions.”
If I could talk, I’d scream at her a hundred times, “No! No! Again no! I won’t ever skate with your son again!”
Mom and Moskvina came five days later, bringing with them toys, flowers, and boxes of chocolates. That was from the Peter friends, while Anton sent heart-shaped earrings and a huge stuffed dog.
I was sitting with my mom when Oleg came by. She told him we’d be leaving soon.
Shliakhov got angry.
“What right do you have to leave? Do you have any idea how much money we put into her! You’ll never pay it back!”
Mom shot back, “I’ll see you in prison for what you did to her!”
For Oleg, of course, it was a catastrophe. I was gaining my freedom as he was losing his footing. There was nothing he could do about it.
I am sure Oleg didn’t do it intentionally. An injury is an accident, and comes from a technical mistake. It doesn’t matter if it was his or mine, but it changed both our lives.
I spent a month at the hospital, and mom visited me every day. She talked to me and read me books. I still couldn’t talk well and had difficulty reading – I’d recognize a letter but not remember how to pronounce it. I still have some residual effects of the injury. When I worry, I can’t get a word out, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
When Oleg and his federation realized they couldn’t keep me, I was moved from a double into a common room. The ten beds were occupied, so they put a folding bed for me in the hallway near the door. That’s how Anton found me.
I opened my eyes and so him in a white coat with a bag in his head, “Hi, Masjanya. ”
The poor soul, he must have been terrified to see me. I was thin, pallid, and bold; I could hardly walk, let alone talk. He didn’t let on, though. He hugged and kissed me, and talked to me just as before.
He was a pro in getting my attention away from my troubles. We’d go into a nearby café, and he’d tell me about our friends – who went where and who bought what. He kept telling me jokes and making up outrageous lies. Anton was the only one I really wanted to talk to. I could even forget I wasn’t very good at it yet. Sitting on my folding bed, Anton would read aloud to me and then leave to sleep in his hotel.
In the last few days at the hospitals, doctors showed me off to the students. They asked me to stretch out my hands and hold them parallel. I did, but the second I closed my eyes the right one would fall.
After I checked out, Oleg kept watching me. He couldn’t come to terms with losing me! Just as we entered our hotel room, there was a knock on the door. Oleg’s friends! They came to find out how things were going, and how long I planned to spend in Riga. I said a few more days, but we bought the tickets and left that same night.
Sitting in the train between mom and Anton, and kept saying like a vow, “No more Shliakhov! Freedom!” I was so happy, I didn’t even think of the tomorrow.
* * *
I only spent three days in Petersburg before going to Nevinnomyssk with mom. I wanted to rest to see what to do next.
I arrived to find a whole house full of relatives. My uncle and aunt died, and their three kids moved in with mom. Despite the constant noise and clatter, I was happy there. I was surrounded by my people. Uncle Misha came to visit me – he and mom have divorced by then. “So”, he asked. “Was it worth it?”
Anton soon came as well. He left his coach and was now free. We moved to Pyatigorsk to stay with his grandmother, and spent a whole month there. We were now tied by a whole new set of feelings. It was real love, strong and mature. We were each other’s bedrocks, and so decided to come back to Petersburg together. I figured my legs and arms were moving, so I should be able to skate. I’ll come to Tamara Nikolayevna, and she’ll figure something out.
The most difficult thing in Peter was to find myself among friends again. I was still talking very poorly, always feeling that the tongue couldn’t quite twist the right way, and the words came out really slow. The guys thought it was a joke. They’d horse around – “Say something else!” Sometimes, I’d sit there, and get all ready to say something, and then not be able to do it. It was terrible. I could have lost faith in myself if it weren’t from Anton. He can be an airhead, but he was very sensitive. He talked to me as before, not paying any attention to the speech impediment. That helped me not get too introspective. I don’t know if I could have learned to talk normal without him.
We lived in his rented apartment while I visited all the doctors. One of them said, “The sooner you’ll get back to what you were doing before the injury, the better.” So Anton and I started to skate together to warm up. Then Tamara Nikolayevna put us together as a team.
A little later, there was no longer any money for rent, so we moved in with Anton’s parents. It was just a regular two-roomer, no palace. Toha and I shared a room with his older sister while his mom and dad slept in the other one.
It was cool despite being so crammed. Perhaps this was the first time I saw what a real family looked like. I saw people who loved each other, waited for each other, were interested in each other, and were happy for each other. The house was always noisy and fun.
We still didn’t know that sport and family life don’t mix. There is no pair that skate together and has a good life together.
By May, Anton and I were doing difficult elements and lifts; in the summer, we went to the training camp at Colorado Springs; by the start of the season we decided we were ready to compete.
It then turned out that we took on something important and it was too late to back out. The real work began. Three hours of practice in the morning, three more in the evening, and then you go home or go out. We were known to lose patience at practices, but not at each other. Each one would get angry at himself. Anton would yell,
“Figure skating can just go to hell! To hell with competitions! I’m done!”
I, too, would worry,
“It’s all bad! The program isn’t good! The music is all wrong!”
That’s how it’s supposed to be in a functioning team – each one blames themselves for all the problems. That’s the paradox. You’re in a team, but you’re still alone. You have to do your work yourself.
Half a year later, we came third at the European championships, and that was a huge victory for us. I bought an apartment, and Toha and I rushed around the stores, choosing furniture and dishes. Anton would split his time between my place and his parents’. I am a homebody, whereas he can’t live without friends and parties. All the more often, we’d only see each other at the rink...
* * *
In 1999, Moskvina moved us and one more team to America. We decided to get to know the country a little before the upcoming Olympics. We lived in a small town of Hackensack, typical of a one-story America. Anton and I were too bored. There was just nothing to do.
On Sundays, I’d watch three movies in a movie theater. I signed up for art and karate classes. But that didn’t help. Then I noticed I was gaining weight! I stood in front of the mirror, bent my arm at the elbow, and thought, “My God! I’m turning into Rambo!”
Turned out the culprits were the American products and the preservatives that go into them. I did everything – asked friends to bring in produce from Russia, went to the Russian stores on Brighton Beach, starved myself – but the extra pounds melted away very slowly.
Just before Europeans, I got sick and went into the pharmacy to buy some cold medicine. Anton and I performed, won the gold, and then two months later at Worlds we’re told we’re disqualified. Berezhnaya failed the doping control.
We were shocked – what’s that? What doping?! I’m handed the analysis report – blood contained ephedrine, coefficient 13. We dug in, and then I remembered that cold medicine I bought at the American pharmacy. We fought, trying to prove it was an accident, but we still had to hand back the medals. After my incident, the minimal significant coefficient was raised to 25, but it didn’t get us back our championship.
In other words, our time in America wasn’t all that good. We were homesick, and finally in 2001 we could no longer stand it and returned to Russian half a year before the Olympics. We decided to prepare there; having friends and family nearby provide that support that always makes things easier.
I still recall the Olympics and all that happened afterward as a nightmare. We win the gold medals, we get the award, we are congratulated, and then Anton and I go out with friends. Hurrah to freedom! Later that night, I get back to my hotel room and turned on the TV – Canadian silver medalists Sale and Pelletier were on every channel. They were crying into the cameras, “Berezhnaya and Sikhuralidze stole our hard earned gold medals! It’s unfair judging!”
I pretty much collapsed.
Anton knocked at my door. His eyes round with surprise, he nodded at the TV - you heard?
Our friends all came over – calm down, it’ll be fine. What will be fine? We didn’t even think the Canadians should have medaled – they fell in the short and shouldn’t have made it into the top three going into the free. But you can’t argue with the judges!
We talked through night, discussing how to handle it. In the morning, we came to Moskvina, all pale and scared.
“Will we lose our medals again?”
“Calm down, guys. No one can take your medals away. You certainly didn’t do anything. It’s politics, and it’s a whole different ballgame. Americans are fed up with the Russians winning every Olympics. The Olympics’ rating is fast dropping, they need a scandal. You’re just in the epicenter. We’ll try to smooth it out. Relax and don’t take it personally.”
That, however, was hard to do. Each channel seemed to smear Anton and me with dirt. “Undeserved gold! The Canadians were just one judge away from the gold! Russian mafia bought the judges! Berezhnaya and Sikhuralidze are in cahoots with the Taiwanese!”
They said so many things! It was all a lie. Anton and I walked around hardly looking up. Athletes living in America called to support us. Fetisov said to us, “Guys, my wife said – how can you compare a Honda with a Mercedes? You’re the best!”
One famous director, though, said, “I’d just flush that medals down the drain!”
To which Antoha said, “First, you flush your Oscar there!”
That became a refrain for us.
Three days later, we thought – why is it that they’re talking while we’re silent? We must respond! So we flew to New York and did a few TV and radio shows, even going to the Larry King Live. At the same time, we never wanted a fight with the Canadian pair. Running into each other, we’d just smile and joke – they weren’t at fault.
When the decision came down to do a second medal ceremony and award another set of gold medals to the Canadians, we giggled – it sounded like complete nonsense!
They must really be fed up with Russian dominance of pair skating! I also told myself, “Who else gets a chance to ascend to Olympic podium and hear their anthem not once but twice!”
There was also much noise about it in Russia. I flew to Nevinnomyssk, and happened to run into my father. We’ve run into each other before, and just do small talk. This time, though, he asked me to stop by his office. His coworkers were ecstatic. They asked to take a picture with me. My father then said with pride, “That’s my daughter”.
Following the Olympics, Anton and I turned pro and never planned to come back. We got an offer from Stars on Ice for four years. We agreed – one just doesn’t turn an offer like that away. Canadians Sale and Pelletier also took part in the show, and we even had a number together to commemorate the scandal.
So it was America again. Touring. Hotels. Visits to Russia were rare. The rules dictated we couldn’t leave the continent when we had less than five free days in a row. But we always made it on New Year. Fun, champagne, friends are having fun, and throughout the hour handle slowly inches toward five. I grab the bag – “Bys, guys!” almost crying from not wanting to leave.
Sometimes, we’d visit Petersburg for forty eight hours and immediately go our separate ways. I’d visit my friends, he’d visit his. We’d then meet up at the airport.
One time, we almost missed a performance. We flew through Paris, and the plane was delayed for technical reasons. We spent the night at the hotel and only left in the morning. Like lunatics, we grabbed the taxi and made it to the rink an hour before the show.
We really needed those getaways. They brought us back to life, letting us drag on for a couple of more months. Meanwhile, our relationship has changed and we became friends. We talked a lot, discussing what has happened. We sat there at dinner once, and just realized that our feelings were greater than love. We are like brother and sister – it’s not like we love each other any less now.
Before leaving, he said, “We should have gotten married right away…”
I added, “And never skated together. Then it would have been all right.”
I was always reading on tour, always having with me a large bag with books. That’s when I started understanding myself, what I did and did not like. I was finally becoming myself.
I had a lot of time to think about what I looked for in a man. Our story with Anton taught me I didn’t want to get involved with my coworkers. The same went for actors.
I really liked Alexander Domogarov; I saw all his movies and all his plays. A friend once brought me backstage. I was so scared! The producer said, “Sasha, the Olympic champion wants to congratulate you!” I wasn’t even one at that time. I handed the flowers, and we chatted. I started joking, “Sure, our athletes just all live in America now, sure-sure!”
We became friends. Sasha and I are still close, and I am well aware of what’s going on in his life, though I still worship him a bit. I was never free with him, often feeling embarrassed. No, I knew I couldn’t create a family with him either.
Finally, I concluded that it should be a normal guy, not married, not an actor, not a skater, and not a foreigner – we must have the same language!
Dreaming of Mr. Right, I didn’t notice that I was for the past two years next to the man I’d fall in love with.
Steven and I skated in the same show, but we didn’t really notice each other. We lived in parallel universes so to speak. One time, the tour ended and the skaters all went home. In June, a friend invited me to Toronto. I sent all the Canadians from the show a text message – “I’m in your country, come entertain me!” They came. Steven did as well. We sat in a restaurant, laughing and joking. It turned out we all had a lot to talk about!
I got riled up, “Guys, come to Petersburg! It’s white nights there now!” Steven did. He was a skater, a foreigner, and he was married.
I can’t explain how our relationship started. He came, and it was immediately apparent that something was about to happen. It was like we always knew each other. Steven loved shish-kebob, my friends with their saunas and their dachas with the bathrooms outdoors. He exclaimed, “That’s how one should live!”
We walked, drank coffee, and talked endlessly. It came so easy! There was no tightness, no embarrassment. He even said,
“You’re the only person I can be myself with.”
“What about your wife?”
“Don’t even ask.”
I still don’t know what made him marry the first time. May be he was getting on in years, and all his friends were already married. His wife came from a very religious family. Any step out of line was a sin. He didn’t know what to do in their house.
I looked at Steven, and saw that he was very different form Russian man. He didn’t pressure, but tried to understand and explain everything. If I’m silent, he doesn’t bother me, “Why are you silent? Say something!” For him, as for me, words have no meaning.
Steven was flying off, and was seeing him off at the airport. He said,
“I’ll come over again really soon.”
“Are you just planning to go back and forth?”
“I’m used to traveling. We have phone for communication.”
Once he landed, text message started flying both ways, telling of things we couldn’t say to each other in person. I wrote, “If we happened to be at the altar, and the priest asked me if I was ready to marry you, I’d say yes.”
Steven was floored. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him, who always felt useless in his family. He wrote back, “You saved me from the most terrible marriage on Earth!”
We discussed his divorce and what we were going to do. When he came over again in September, it was all serious. We lived together in my apartment, and I introduced him to my friends as my civil partner.
Steven and I never talked of love. Why? If you love someone, do things to demonstrate it to the other without words.
I felt his attention and care every second. Every detail was important to Steven if it had to do with me – what I thought, what I felt, what I decided. One time in the morning after a party I woke up to find he’d already been to the store, bought breakfast food, and cooked it. “That’s cool!” I thought.
Steven made me realize that relationships are simple. If you can’t be yourself, then it’s the wrong person.
In October, we went to visit his parents in Canada. They’re British, and they spend half-a-year in Britain and half-a-year abroad.
I had a hard time understanding their British accent. I kept asking Steven to explain. He was patient, and nobody gave me any looks. After we left, I got a call from his mom, “Thank you so much! It’s the first time in three years that I’ve seen happiness in my son’s eyes.” His dad also called. This touched me very much.
In the few years before that, I thought I was happy. Loneliness sucks you in and becomes pleasant. It’s easy to be alone, and to not have to care for or worry about others. There are always friends when you need to chat. After meeting Steven, though, I understood how lacking my life had been. Having Steven in my life has made me whole. He’s always with me, even when we’re not together.
We both really wanted a child, and when I found out I was pregnant, I sent him a text message where I called him daddy. He replied back, “You’re pregnant?!” He then called every five minutes. “What are we going to do? Where will we be delivering? What do you need?”
He got really agitated and said, “Don’t tell my parents, I’ll do it myself!” They don’t discuss those things on the phone. He bought some cards, and signed them in the baby’s name, “I don’t know you yet, but mom and dad say you’re great grandma and grandpa, so I love you already.” He planned to give to it to them when he saw them next, but his parents found out from the Internet. He was so upset!
Anton said once, “Mas’, don’t make any babies yet.”
“It’s still half a year until the season ends, you still have time to get a job.”
“Well, and then he’ll dump you and I’ll have to make money to feed you and your kids!” he joked in return.
That’s our thing, that’s how we are.
I worried a lot over where to give birth – in Russia, in Canada, or in Britain. We decided it was important to ensure British citizenship . Just before the due date, we went to Chester where Steven’s family has a small house.
I got a list of Welsh names from the library. The only one I liked was Trysten. So we decided to call the baby that, without even discussing it with anyone else. My relatives and friends were shocked – how can one live with such a name? We held fast, though. Steven later said, “Thank you, I’m so happy we called him Trysten!”
Steven and I went through labor together. He was watching the monitor. British doctors pursue natural childbirth, but it didn’t work for me. I ended up with a Cesarean.
Trysten was born October seventh, like Putin, and we call him President. Eleventh was my birthday. The little house had a whole crowd – grandmas, grandpas, aunts and uncles. The table was set, everyone ran around with the baby. I felt completely exhausted. But just a few weeks later the three of us drove to London. We strolled around, relaxed, and we knew we were a family.
Steven was very upset that the baby was born before he got the divorce. I just said, “We have to live, not think about what others are going to say. That’s their problem, not ours.”
Our baby is very handsome, active, social, and never stays in one place. He always smiles and babbles. When Anton saw him, he said, “High, Trysten, I’m you grandpa Anton”. So he’s called grandpa now.
Anton himself isn’t eager to start a family. He introduces me to his girlfriends and asks for my advice. But he can’t settle down yet. He likes the feisty ones, but can’t stand it when they start telling him what to do. That’s when he quickly backs out!
Mom often comes over to sit with the little one and read him Russian fairy tales. When we visit Steven’s parents – they adore their grandson – they read to him in English.
Steven tries to spend as much time with us as possible, staying for two weeks every two months. So far, he hasn’t insisted I move to Canada because he knows I have many important projects right here. We’re still happy together. The more I get to know Steven, the more I wonder at how lucky I am!
I trust him and know for sure that Steven is sure to allay any fears I may have. He recently wrapped up the rather unpalatable divorce proceedings, meeting his now ex-wife one more time. He sent me a message, “Without you and Choka (that’s what we call the baby) I was like a broken pencil”.
I am now starting skating from scratch again. I’m learning to skate alone for a new project. More importantly, I have a feeling of a full life. Until Trysten’s birth, I was lukewarm when it came to life. I could jump with a parachute or bungy jump. Now, even if I got a chance to go to the moon, I’d say, “Thanks but no thanks. I’m needed right here on Earth.”
 ~15 pounds
 CSKA is the “army” sports club
 Caucus mountain republics (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) have a culture very much seeped in machismo.
 ~62 pounds
 Latvian resort town
 Russian internet cartoon character, especially popular among internet users in Saint Petersburg in the late 90’s/ early 00’s.
 Anton is also Trysten’s godfather.