Georgia is not exactly a figure skating mecca. This small, mountainous country with a population of five million lies sandwiched between Russia and Turkey at the eastern side of the Black Sea. It was once part of the Soviet Union and became independent again in 1991.
Thus far, Georgia has never produced any outstanding figure skating champions, with the exception of Vakhtang Murvanidze who achieved top-ten placements at Europeans and Junior Worlds. But then came Elene Gedevanishvili.
Gedevanishvili was a tiny 14-year-old in her international debut at the 2004 World Junior Figure Skating Championships where she placed a respectable 12th. She went on to become the first skater from Georgia to medal at and to win a Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating event (Skate Slovakia in 2005 and Tallinn Cup in 2005). She finished 5th at both the 2005 Junior Worlds Figure Skating Championships and the 2006 European Figure Skating Championships, and was 10 the at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.
Gedevanishvili became a celebrity in her home country and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili awarded her the Order of Honour for her achievements as an athlete. Gedevanishvili enjoyed her experience at the Olympic Games.
“It was just a competition for me,” she said, “because I didn’t go there for anything, or a medal. It was a competition like any other, Olympics or not. I tried not to think “oh, what a big competition” and tremble in awe. I was very pleased and I didn’t expect my placement.”
Gedevanishvili began skating when she was two.
“My parents wanted to put me into alpine skiing, like later they did with my brother,” she recalled. “My mother somewhere read that it would be easier to switch to skiing after starting with skating. There was an ice rink and we went there all the time.”
Her parents had difficulty finding suitable skates for her, but Gedevanishvili enjoyed skating.
“The first thing I remember is a competition,” said Gedevanishvili. “I finished third, and I was seven or eight-years-old. After I started, I skated for two years, but then the ice was removed and they made ice again only when I was six. So I had a break. I started competing when I was seven-years-old and I improved year by year.”
By then, the coaches realized the talent of the girl and persuaded the parents to let her skate instead of ski. The practice conditions in Georgia were, and still are, far from good. The children were sent with their coaches to Moscow for training camps.
“We skated there and returned home to Georgia,” said Gedevanishvili. “But then it was decided that I should relocate with my mother to Moscow and we went. I was nine-years-old. I trained with a coach there and over the summer we went to Georgia until I was 11. Then I joined the group of Mrs. Vodorezova (Buianova).”
Under the tutelage of the experienced coach, the young athlete progressed quickly. Gedevanishvili learned all the triples up to the Lutz as well as triple-triple combinations. While her jumps are impressive, her spins are even more so. Gedevanishvili shows great speed and flexibility in her spins and spirals and earns high levels for these elements.
Gedevanishvili was on the rise and her career looked very promising when she suddenly became a victim of the political crisis between Russia and Georgia. Political tension rose between the small country and its powerful neighbor in the north, and Russia strictly enforced visa regulations for Georgian citizens. Moscow is home to the largest Georgian ex-pat community in the world with about 300,000 native Georgians living in the Russian capital.
Gedevanishvili and her family were part of this community until last fall. During a passport control, Russian police discovered that her mother didn’t have a valid visa and was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours.
“My mother did her (official) registration through an agency and it turned out that they didn’t do it the right way,” explained Gedevanishvili. “Everything was fine with my father’s documents, but not with my mother, unfortunately.”
The17-year-old didn’t want to stay on her own in Russia so she returned to Georgia with her mother. They couldn’t go back to Russia.
“My mother got a stamp in her passport,” said Gedevanishvili. “You can’t remove it.”
Due to the circumstances, Gedevanishvili lost half of the season. There was almost no ice time, practice conditions were horrible, and on top of that, the skater fell sick with whooping cough.
“For a long time we didn’t know what it was,” recalled Gedevanishvili. “I took all kinds of medicine, but nothing helped. We went to all the doctors until finally the last one said, ‘Maybe I have whooping cough, because I was coughing a lot and had trouble breathing.’ I wanted to run at least (to train), but I couldn’t do it. I’m still getting coughing attacks, most of all when I’m tired. It takes up to a year until it is completely gone.”
The Georgian Figure Skating Federation tried to send their top skater to Estonia for training, but it turned out to be too complicated as Estonia doesn’t have an embassy in Georgia. So Gedevanishvili stayed until December at home and then relocated with her family to the United States. As a result, she missed the whole Grand Prix season and started to practice fully only three weeks before the European Championships where she placed third in the Short Program and finished 8th overall.
Gedevanishvili is now coached by Galina Zmievskaia, who also helped the family to settle in the new country.
“My new coach has helped us a lot and did everything for us when we came,” said Gedevanishvili. “She welcomed us and we stayed in her house for the first time.”
Shortly thereafter, the family rented an apartment, and Gedevanishvili felt at home quickly.
“I adapted right away,” said Gedevanishvili. “My English has improved a bit and I’m attending school.”
Her younger brother Dmitri, who turned 14 in January, is a competitive skier and attends a college in Lake Placid, New York where he can live, train and study.
At the 2007 World Championships in Tokyo, Gedevanishvili wasn’t yet back in top shape and finished 17th after missing her triple Lutz in the short program and making some errors in the free skating.
“I think my performances at Worlds didn’t go well,” said Gedevanishvili with regret. “I don’t even know what prevented me from skating better. Maybe I was just too nervous.”
But now Gedevanishvili has time to prepare for the next season. She wants to work her programs, choreography, and elements.
“I need to learn to put them together into the program, because I can do everything separately!”said Gedevanishvili, who plans on doing two new programs for next year.
Gedevanishvili names Olympic Champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Viktor Petrenko as her early idols in skating. Petrenko was actually a student of Zmievskaia, and Gedevanishvili is taking some lessons from him as well. Today, she is mostly looking up to Irina Slutskaya and Shizuka Arakawa. Gedevanishvili would like to have the consistency of Slutskaya’s jumps for example, and admires Arakawa for just being a great skater.
Off the ice, Gedevanishvili is interested in fashion as you notice easily as she wears quite fashionable and unusual outfits.
“I’m choosing them,” she stated. “I like fashionable clothes and handbags. I’m reading magazines and I design myself. I would like to become a designer. I’m designing pants. I’m drawing and I’m sewing sequins onto clothes. I’m also thinking of costumes sometimes and take part in the process (of making a costume).”
Gedevanishvili likes listening to music, mostly to Hip Hop and R&B.
Asked to explain what her biggest dream is, she answers quickly: “My biggest dream obviously is to become Olympic Champion and that they construct an ice rink in Georgia! Then children can train there. When they heard about me, many people came to the small ice rink, but they can’t accept anyone else, because it is already too crowded.”
But Gedevanishvili hopes to start a tradition of figure skating in her country.