The smell of diesel fuel hangs over the ice at Moscow's Young
Pioneers training center, a gray, windowless building that calls
to mind the bleakness of the Stalin-era Soviet Union. At the
door an old man with jaundiced skin sits at his desk watching as
mothers deliver their children to this mid-November morning
practice. The lighting is poor, the ice uneven, the air bitter
cold. One of the coaches is smoking at rinkside, a few feet from
a NO SMOKING sign. At the center of this cheerless scene seven
young skaters, hoping to be future champions, wordlessly circle
An eighth skater, Irina Slutskaya, joins them, and suddenly a
ripple of energy dispels the gloom. Gregarious and chatty, she
shares a word with the first two girls she passes, making them
laugh. Her manner is gleeful, puckish. Her distinctively red
cheeks are so brightly flushed they look painted. Her eyes shine
as she turns backward to begin her crossovers, and she quickly
gains startling speed.
The 22-year-old Slutskaya has the ability to light up a room.
Judges take note of it when she competes, you'd have to be blind
not to, and audiences come to their feet in appreciation. She
makes the arena feel fun and alive. Slutskaya may not be as
graceful as her 21-year-old American rival, four-time world
champion Michelle Kwan, but she's more athletic, more expressive
and a lot more entertaining. Though she has never won a world
championship--three times she's finished second to Kwan, and in
1996 she took bronze while Kwan won gold--Slutskaya has beaten
Kwan six times in the last two years and, having improved her
artistic presentation over the summer, is 3-0 against Kwan since
September. That's why a lot of skating experts believe the
dynamic Russian, not the elegant Yank, will explode to gold in
Salt Lake City.
Win or lose, explode is the right word. Slutskaya is a
firecracker. This becomes clear midway through the practice when
she starts to struggle with her triple Salchow-triple
loop-double toe combination, a breathtaking trio of jumps that
she unveiled during the 2000-01 season. No other woman has
landed one in competition, and no one will land it today.
Because the temperature in the rink is so cold, the ice in the
Young Pioneer Training Center is too hard to effectively plant a
toe pick. Still, Slutskaya tries. Two times in a row she builds
up speed only to have to stop to avoid a 10-year-old who's
practicing her program. It's an unwritten rule of skaters that
whoever's music is playing, as the young girl's is at the time
of the near collisions, has the right-of-way. Still, on
Slutskaya's home rink she sets the rules. "Stop the music!" she
yells at the child's coach.
Almost instantly it stops. The 10-year-old, pale as death, tries
to disappear into her own silent horror, while the other skaters
drift nervously toward the boards to give Slutskaya a wide berth.
Slutskaya's coach, Zhanna Gromova, says nothing. She's coached
Slutskaya for 16 years and is used to her willful ways. Screaming
at each other is normal. Slutskaya circles the ice, recomposing
herself en route, and tries the jump. When she falls, the
assemblage braces for another eruption, but instead Slutskaya
slaps the ice once in frustration, rolls onto her back and lets
out a belly laugh. The tension is broken.
She isn't done exploding, though. There's the matter of the
granite-hard ice, and after practice Slutskaya makes a point of
removing her skates near the old man at the desk, who doubles as
the rink manager. He gets an earful. Too hard. Too cold. How can
she land doubles, never mind triples, on such a surface? Her
voice rises as she warms to the scolding, and the man, his yellow
face pinched, finally rises and walks away.
Asked about these incidents while she drives home through the
jammed streets of Moscow with the panache of a New York City taxi
driver, Slutskaya is unapologetic and slightly bemused. "This is
nothing," she says in her self-taught English. Grinning
mischievously, she tells the story of her battle with a
15-year-old boy who skates in her group. A promising youngster
who moved to Moscow to train with Slutskaya's coach, the boy
recently had the cheek to practice a jump at the very spot on the
ice that Slutskaya had selected for her takeoff point. His
violent picks were ruining the ice. "What do you think you are
doing?" the 5'3" Slutskaya recalls saying to the larger boy while
punching him in the chest. "I'm the star here, not you. You're
nothing, a piece of s---," she continued, punching him twice
more. The boy skated off in tears. "Oh well," she shrugs. "I'm a
fighter. I fight for things my whole life."
Her mettle has served her well. With her skating earnings
Slutskaya has been able to buy a three-bedroom, 16th-floor
apartment in one of Moscow's better neighborhoods where she lives
with her husband, Sergei Mikheev, an Akita named Bars, an iguana
and about 500 stuffed animals that make the place feel cramped.
They have a view of the city and a park across the street where
the dog can play. Grocery shopping is in easy walking distance,
and there's a parking place for Slutskaya's new Land Rover. Her
mother, Natalya Vladimirovna, who frequently comes over to help
with cleaning and washing, lives five minutes away. "If you have
money, you can live normally in Moscow," Slutskaya says of her
comfortable, if unostentatious, digs. "I have apartment, car and
family. That's all I need."
And skating. Two years ago Slutskaya discovered how much she
needed the sport, which she picked up as a young girl after
doctors suggested she exercise more to cure her persistent
bronchitis. She liked skating but hated the ballet training that
went with it. "The first few times she tried to run away,"
Vladimirovna says. "We had to hold the door to keep her in."
The training schedule was taxing. Up at 5:30 to make the 7 a.m.
to 9 a.m. session and then back to the rink for the late session
from 10 to 11 p.m. Mother and daughter seldom got to bed before
12:30. Once Vladimirovna, believing Slutskaya was chatting too
much at practice instead of working, hid her daughter's skates in
the washing machine. "Irina screamed, squealed and poured over
with tears," Vladimirovna says, "but that night she went to
practice and worked."
On the ice Slutskaya stood out because of the power and height of
her jumps. "I was always jumping, jumping. I didn't like to spin
when I was small," she says. "But I practiced my Biellmann every
day by stretching on the kitchen floor."
The Biellmann, which requires the flexibility of a licorice
string, is the visually dramatic move in which a skater grabs the
blade of her skate behind her back, pulls it over her head and
spins. Slutskaya, innovative by nature, taught herself to do it
with either leg, thus becoming the first skater to, with a change
of feet, do a double Biellmann. In 1996 she won the European
championship at age 16, the first Russian woman to do so, and
later that year went on to finish third at worlds.
She had unlimited potential, but her training habits and willful
nature made the next few years difficult ones. An overweight
Slutskaya finished a disappointing fifth at the 1998 Olympics.
"It was like I was sleeping in Nagano," she says. "I didn't train
as hard as I should have. I can't explain why."
In 1999 Slutskaya was out of shape for the Russian Nationals and
finished fourth, a placement that kept her out of that season's
major international competitions. She walked out of the arena in
a daze, brushing right past Mikheev, who'd been her boyfriend for
three years and was waiting for her with a stuffed toy. "I was
thinking about quitting," she recalls. "Sergei told me, 'Come on,
get in. Don't worry. Everything's O.K.' I'm crying and he's
driving in circles, but I don't even notice. He's so quiet and
calm, he calms me. The third time around I say, 'Why are we going
in circles?' That's when he knew I would be O.K."
She asked Mikheev to take her to Red Square. While it snowed, the
two walked for an hour, talking about her future. "I realized
then I can't live without skating. It's my life," she says.
That summer, in August 1999, they married. The strong, unassuming
Mikheev, a physical education teacher who's nearly seven years
her senior, was a perfect complement to Slutskaya's high-energy,
mercurial nature. "I love being married," she says. "I know he'll
be waiting for me at home, and will say a sweet word for me no
matter how I have done. I'm not alone."
Happy and focused, she lost weight and began training as never
before. "I changed everything. Before, two or three jumps was
enough," she says. "Now it's five, 10, 20 jumps at a time."
It didn't take long for the skating world to recognize the
change. Written off after 1999, Slutskaya won the Russian and
European championships in 2000, then upset Kwan in the
prestigious Grand Prix finals, landing the extraordinarily
difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination--another first for
women. She was faster than Kwan, performed more interesting spins
and attempted far more difficult jumps.
Technically, she was--and is--the best female skater in the
world. Nevertheless Kwan, carried to victory by superior
presentation marks, beat Slutskaya in the 2000 and 2001 world
championships. In the opinion of the judges, Slutskaya's skating
lacked an element of grace and sophistication. "It was
especially hard at last year's worlds," Slutskaya says. After
winning the short program, she landed her triple Salchow-triple
loop-double toe loop combination in the free skate, a series of
jumps no other woman had performed. Still, Kwan scored higher
presentation marks from eight of the nine judges and won the
event, which left Slutskaya in tears. "My expectations were very
high, and I thought I skated well enough in the long program to
win," she says. "But I knew if my artistic marks were small, I
needed to work harder at it."
Over the summer Slutskaya concentrated on her artistry, working
with a ballet instructor and a new choreographer. "When I move my
arms now, I do this from my soul and right to the tips of my
fingers," she says.
The judges have noticed. In the four competitions in which they
have faced each other since September (the Goodwill Games,
Masters of Figure Skating, Skate Canada and the ISU Grand Prix
Finals), Slutskaya's presentation marks have been on a par with
or better than Kwan's. Meanwhile, she has maintained a clear
Kwan, a year younger than Slutskaya, has been going sideways as a
skater. Most observers, in fact--noting that she has lost speed in
the past four years and that the joy seems to have been wrung out
of her skating--would say she has slipped. Unable to learn the
triple Salchow-triple loop combination, which she had been trying
to master for two years in an effort to keep pace technically
with Slutskaya and the U.S.'s Sarah Hughes, Kwan fired her
longtime coach Frank Carroll this fall. Unwilling or unable to
replace him, she has gone it alone since then, relying on her
father, Danny, who as far as anyone knows cannot skate, as her
primary adviser. Asked when the last time an Olympic athlete in
any sport competed without a coach, Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg,
replied, "It's never been done to my knowledge. Michelle's going
to write the book on it."
That'll be one small tome. The biggest change Kwan has made since
firing Carroll has been to bring back the short program she used
in the 1998 Olympic season, in which she skates to Rachmaninoff's
Piano Concerto No. 3. Paul Wylie, the '92 men's silver medalist,
has compared Kwan's return to Rachmaninoff to a fashion designer
recycling a spring line four years after its debut. The
critics--in this case, the judges--are apt to agree.
Still, at the U.S. nationals, in January, Kwan skated well, if
cautiously, not even attempting a triple-triple combination.
Slutskaya knows the only competition that matters in 2002 is
still ahead. "Today I win. Tomorrow Michelle may win. Sarah
Hughes will compete with us too," Slutskaya says of the
16-year-old American who beat her and Kwan in November at Skate
Canada. "It's nice. I love it. It's sport. I can't have
mistakes. Both Sarah and Michelle will do well. I'm sure of it.
They're very strong. I need to fight for my place."
Better step back, ladies.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Flower Power: Skating has enabled Slutskaya to buy a three-bedroom apartment in Moscow, where she and her husband live.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Glide Path: Kwan, the six-time U.S. champion, is an undeniably elegant skater, but she lacks both speed and athleticism.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Spin City: As a child Slutskaya worked daily on mastering the Biellmann, which requires the flexibility of a licorice string.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD KOROL [See caption above]
Kwan, who is a year younger than Slutskaya, has been going
sideways as a skater.
Working with a ballet instructor and a new choreographer helped
Slutskaya on her artistry.