The surest bet of the Winter Olympics is that Lidia Skoblikova, the attractive 24-year-old Russian speed skater shown at right, will win a gold medal. In fact, there is a good chance she will win two, as she did at Squaw Valley in 1960, and she might even win four, if the Russians let her enter that many races. Lidia Skoblikova, you see, is the world champion at all four speed-skating distances, having won all four races in the championships in Tokyo last year. It was an extraordinary performance, but Lidia, probably the best speed skater alive, is modest about it. "The others were just skating worse than I was," she says.
The Russians, however, may enter Lidia in only three of the women's races, the 3,000, the 1,500 and the 1,000 meters, because for the other race, the 500 meters, they have a powerful array of world-class talent, including Valentina Stenina, Tatyana Sidorova, Irina Egorova and Klara Nesterova. A major blow was dealt the Russians when Inga Voronina was hospitalized with a stomach ailment last fall. She could not regain her usual form and failed, just last week, to make the Olympic team. A formidable skater when healthy, Inga is the world record holder at three of the Olympic distances—500 meters, 1,500 and 3,000. Lidia holds the remaining distance record, 1,000 meters.
On the Russian team, the girls are intense rivals, and all work tirelessly to beat one another. A typical daily workout for one of them begins like this: snug in track suit and woolly sweater, she warms herself up with 10 minutes of leg and arm movements. Then for 20 minutes she does gymnastics—jumping, bending, twisting, chinning, flipping and flopping. This limbers her up for a quarter hour of simulated skating, raising the leg high, throwing the heel back. Then she runs 200 meters, slow, quick, slow, quick. After that, bending forward in skating stance, she jumps forward, jumps again, and keeps this up for 20 minutes. At this point she takes a short break. Then, as one girl says, the work begins. She runs 200 meters, takes a 90-second rest and runs that distance again. Inga used to run that distance only five times, but after her illness pushed it up to 20 times.
Such work by her teammates does not impress Lidia Skoblikova. "If anyone else runs 20 times 200," Lidia boasts, "I can do 40 times 200. And at faster speed." The girls do not find the training routine arduous, however, for they love skating. "I enjoy being the strongest in the world," says Lidia Skoblikova. "At the theater you applaud a good actor who gives you pleasure. When I have won a race, giving people pleasure, I like to skate around the stadium wearing the laurel wreath of victory. People applaud and that gives me pleasure."
When there is no ice, Lidia, Valentina and the other Russian girls practice on special roller skates fitted with a single central row of four thin rollers. Coach Elena Stepanyenko says the technique of skating is the same for ice skates and roller skates. "Even the mistakes in making turns we can correct on roller skates," Stepanyenko says. "In fact, roller-skates training is better because they are heavier than ice skates. They do more for the legs." Valentina, only five feet tall, complains: "They pull me down."
Coach Stepanyenko's girls are extremely conscious of their good looks, and take undisguised delight in displaying themselves at their shapely best. "Skating makes us more feminine," says Lidia. "We try to put on different costumes, depending on the weather. When it is warm we wear colored latex. We even knit our own hats. Mine's red and blue. And I have black skating costumes which suit me because I'm fair. We wear what we please."
What goes into these costumes, Valentina suggests, makes a difference too. "Cycling or skiing," she explains, "takes a lot of muscle. But skating does you no harm. It seems to me it must be interesting to watch women when they're racing along on skates."
Lidia, Inga and Valentina Stenina are all married. Inga is married to Gennadi Voronin, a former world champion—and one of those who did poorly in Japan last year as the Russian men lost their dominant position in the sport. Valentina's husband, Boris Stenin, was a world speed-skating champion in 1960 and, she says, "Skates bring us close together." Lidia's husband is a teacher at the Chelyabinsk Pedagogical Institute. "I think it's better not to be married to a skater," says Lidia. "You have more to talk about."
Though the Russians will be heavy favorites at Innsbruck, the girls themselves expect close competition. "The Poles are strong," Skoblikova notes. "So are the Germans, Finns and Japanese. We'd like to get some competition from the Americans. They're fine people."
But 30-year-old Valentina Stenina, soft-spoken and somewhat shy, is looking further ahead than that. "Our parents," she muses, "never thought we'd be skaters. Who knows? Maybe our children will be skating in space races."