"Stars on Ice: An Intimate Look at Skating's Greatest Tour" book excerpt

Chapter 5: The Tragedies

Gordeeva and Grinkov. G&G. Katia and Sergei.

No pairs team in skating history has stirred the passions of the masses the way this one did. She, the wisp of a teenage skater, seeming to float along the ice or in the air when he lifted her, carried her, threw her. He, the foundation of the team, the rock on which its masterful routines were built.

By the 1988 Olympics, they already were world champions. At Calgary they became the world's pair, an impossibly young yet inconceivably brilliant duo. In a span where it was supposed to take years, even a decade, to reach the gold medal level, they had done it in almost no time at all. "When they skated, you didn't hear any noise," Scott said. "They moved along the ice with such speed and grace and almost in silence. Even when Sergei would lift Katia, there was almost no noise and seemingly no strain. You remember things like that because you almost never see them in skating. And they were so made for each other, on the ice and off."

The romance only developed after Katia and Sergei had become champions. Their on-ice performances always hinted at it, but there was a four-year age difference: she was 11 when coaches teamed her with the then-l5 Sergei. Katia always stood by Sergei, right from the beginning. A coach once complained that Sergei missed too many practices and insisted Katia leave for another partner. Instead, Katia left with Sergei for another coach. The loyalty was reciprocal. When Katia hurt her foot and was placed in a cast, she fretted that Sergei would look for another partner. Instead, he supported her. On New Year's Eve of 1987 with perhaps a bit too much vodka in his blood, Sergei kissed her for the first time.

They joined Stars on Ice in 1991 and stayed for two years. That second season was Kristi Yamaguchi's first with the tour. "When I first joined the tour, the first year or so I was still in awe of Katia and Sergei," Kristi said. "I think I watched them every night. I loved their skating - my all-time favorite pair."

When the eligibility rules changed in 1993, Katia and Sergei were among the professionals who went back into training for the Lillehammer Olympics. They had enjoyed their golden moment at Calgary but they also felt a need to go back.

"We left to become professional skaters when we were so young, and we felt that maybe there was more to achieve," Katia said before the Lillehammer Games. "We didn't want to have that question in our minds. We were very excited when the rules were changed. We believed we could show the people what we had learned from being on tour in Stars on Ice. We are better skaters now; a better pair. We have learned to be more artistic, and we have been very careful to be technical, too."

Katia was right, so right. The defending champions, Natalia Mishkutienok and Artur Dmitriev were majestic, powerful, and precise - many thought their performance was worthy of gold. But G&G were almost heavenly in their free skate, to "Moonlight Sonata." Their return to the Olympics was enchanting. "I believe we made a very wise decision," Katia said after the gold medal performance. "This is a great moment for Sergei and myself."

The question for them now became, what next? The first answer was a family; Katia had given birth to Daria in 1992. The second was, happily, a return to Stars on Ice.

"We expected and hoped they would come back to the tour," Bob Kain said. "At that time everyone thought they were the best pairs team in the world, maybe of all time. Our plan was to invite them back and convince them, even with a baby that this was where they would fit best."

It helped that Russians Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, another exquisite pair, and dancers Natalia Annenko and Genrikh Sretenski were with the tour. But there also were more Russians on the Champions on Ice tour, which featured many skaters with remaining eligibility. The decision was easy, Katia said. "Stars on Ice had become, well; like family. We had made so many friends and we felt so close to the people in Stars on Ice," she said.

And when they did return, according to Kain, "They really were better than even. After Lillehammer, they started to become not only great quality skaters, but started to work as ticket sellers, more than any pair team of our time. And the skating world was blossoming then." As was Stars on Ice. It was hitting all the big cities; it had added the biggest of skating headliners. Life was almost perfect for Katia and Sergei.

Rehearsals were going normally on Monday November 20, 1995. Katia and Sergei looked forward to being at Lake Placid with the rest of the cast. Stars on Ice had become their second home. In the middle of their practice, they stopped skating. "Everything seemed to be fine," said Laura Nardiello, a skate instructor and one of a handful of people present when Sergei collapsed. "They went into their routine a little bit. He lifted her, put her down, and then just stepped back. Gordeeva asked, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'I just feel a little dizzy."

Katia helped her husband sit on the ice. It would be their last moment together in this life. Sergei lay down and lost consciousness. He was defibrillated three times on the ice by rescue workers, twice more in the parking lot, then rushed to Adirondack Medical Center in nearby Saranac Lake. Sergei Grinkov never regained consciousness. He was 28 when he died.

"I was in Cleveland when I got the call from Roz saying Sergei had gone unconscious on the ice and looked blue and that they were all scared to death," Kain recalled. "She said medics were there within a minute or two. We had phone lines into the hospital and into the Lake Placid building, and I was getting updates constantly. It must have been within an hour that they told me he was not regaining consciousness. I think I knew he was dead then."

When Kain received official word, he had to tell the skaters. They had gathered together at the hotel, praying, crying, holding each other. Some were hysterical. Making that phone call "was an unbelievably hard thing to do," he said. The troupe had been through tragedy before, but nothing could compare to this, Rob McCall's death was painful, but he also was far removed from Stars on Ice when it occurred. "Sergei was right there one minute, gone the next," Paul Wylie said. "There is no way to describe the pain and shock of that." "He was like a pillar," Kurt added. "He was strong and silent, and just very-very caring."

Kain chartered a plane and flew to Lake Placid, where the entire Stars on Ice crew was mired in confusion and denial and just plain shock "Byron and I worked with the Stars on Ice staff and skaters while Deb Nast and Jay Ogden (Katia's managers) went to work for Katia."

So much had to be done, including alerting family members and making funeral arrangements in the United States and Russia. But one thing had to take precedence: Katia herself. Sandra Bezic and Michael Seibert got all the skaters together, while Katia was back at her house. "They weren't sure if they should go over to see Katia," Kain recalled, "and I said, "Go, be with her and hug her. If she doesn't want you to be there, she can go into a bedroom. Go hug her and show her we love her."

The cast members and crew drove to see Katia in virtual silence, save for the sobbing. How would they greet her? What could they say? How was she holding up under the worst of circumstances, the cruelest of horrors? "I can't ever remember a more difficult and emotional time," Kristi said. "But Katia was unbelievable, she was so strong. I will always admire her strength." The group didn't stay for long. It wasn't necessary.

"I knew they loved me," Katia said. "I knew they would always be there for me."

Soon after, Kain held another series of meetings on what to do about the tour, which was due to open in Lake Placid in a few days. They decided to continue to rehearse and stay together, but to postpone the show. During the next few days, it was determined that Sergei died of too big a heart. While anyone who knew of his kindness and love for his family and devotion to his friends could have testified as to the size of his heart, it was in reality a medical condition that killed him.

An autopsy showed Sergei died of a massive heart attack caused by a blocked artery in an enlarged heart plagued by high blood pressure. "He was clearly in very good health except for this one problem," said Dr. Francis Varna, who performed the autopsy. "Athletes hearts are frequently enlarged, but his heart was disproportionately enlarged. Unless his condition was discovered and he had a bypass, it was only a matter of time. Many times in young people the first sign of coronary artery disease is sudden death."

Those findings caused a stir in Russia, where Dr. Lev Markov of the Moscow Sports Health Center, said it was a misdiagnosis. "We have had several such cases when an athlete's heart starts growing," Markov said. "It can become as much as twice the normal size. It causes a variety of heart dysfunctions and can cause such a sudden death."

However, a special medical test can detect the disease, according to Markov, and Sergei showed no signs of the problem. "In 1994, when we examined Grinkov for the final time before the Olympics, we didn't find anything wrong," Markov said. "I doubt the diagnosis of the American doctors saying that he died from a heart attack." Nevertheless, the autopsy confirmed the diagnosis.

Sergei's death was front-page news in many Russian newspapers, G&G were true Russian heroes, and both his passing and his funeral were treated as if he had been a head of state.

"It is hard to believe that Sergei is dead... He was not only a great sportsman, he was an open, easy person. It was always a pleasure to talk to him," said Valentin Piseev chairman of the Russian Skating Federation. Memorial services were held throughout Russia and at several Russian Orthodox churches in the United States.

Scott and Paul journeyed to Moscow for the funeral, along with Jay Ogden and Deb Nast, who had become Katia and Sergei's confidant on the tour, and who remains one of Katia's closest friends and advisers. "The loss of Sergei will never be thoroughly understood or accepted," Scott said. "But having shared in his perfection is something we can carry with us always."

Kurt said the only flaw in their Olympic program was that it wasn't long enough. "I guess that applies to Sergei's life as well. We only had him for a short while, but he lived a life of incredible quality. Knowing that makes his passing only slightly easier to take."

Sergei was buried in Moscow on the same day Stars on Ice was to debut for the season in Lake Placid. The cast had continued rehearsing, then everyone left upstate New York for Thanksgiving weekend. When they returned, their heavy hearts told them the right thing to do. "We had to put on a great show for Sergei and Katia," Scott said.

tribute to SregeiTen days after Sergei's death, the 1995-96 tour debuted at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid. "We couldn't get it all done fast enough, and I hope you understand," Scott told the crowd. "What we’re presenting, on Sergei's shoulders is the best we've got, and I'm sure it's going to be good enough. We're going to give you something real special. " The show's first act closed with a tearful introduction by Scott of "G&G" inviting the spectators to close their eyes and imagine the pair was on the ice. Grieg's "Concerto in A minor," the music to which Katia and Sergei would have skated, echoed through the arena.

Kristi said it was the most difficult performance she had ever skated. Rosalynn agreed, as did Paul, Kurt - heck, the entire cast. "I don't know why this happened, but I know that in a special way Sergei has touched my life," Kristi said. "The warmth of his heart and the love he gave to his family, to skating, and to life is what resulted in his perfection on the ice. Not only was he part of the greatest pair team ever to skate, he was an even greater man."

After the heart-wrenching show, with barely a dry eye in the house, Elena Bechke put it best. "This romance will last forever," she said, wiping tears from her eyes, "because they love each other as nobody else can."

Katia searched for a way to honor her husband. Each time she looked at Daria, she saw Sergei too. And she saw a need to be part of something, a tribute above all others for her lost love. "The idea of turning the Hartford show into a special tribute to Sergei seemed to make the most sense," Katia said. It was scheduled for the end of February so the crew would have time to develop something truly wonderful. Katia had the chance to go back to Russia for awhile in the meantime.

"We went to CBS to see if they would do a prime time special," said Kain, "and we would invite some close friends of Katia and Sergei into the show. Then we would take all the money raised from the evening and start a fund for Daria. We kept everybody busy thinking about how to do it, and we got Sandra and Michael and Lea Ann to start working on it. I think that was better than sitting around shell-shocked. What nobody knew was that Katia planned to not only preside over the tribute, but skate in it."

Together with choreographer and close friend Marina Zoueva, Katia put together a routine. She had not skated with anyone but Sergei since they were first paired by Soviet sports officials in Moscow in 1982. But she would perform - alone in "A Celebration of a Life." She would skate solo to Mahler's Fifth Symphony. "This is very different and a very important day for me," Katia said. "I cannot compare it with the Olympics or any of the competitions, because they always have been with Sergei. This is going to be my first step and I hope people will appreciate it. It was very difficult when we created this number. The first two to three days, it was hard to do anything. The old feelings were very fresh and my thoughts were very sensitive." Each time she took the ice to practice, she felt the unfillable void of Sergei's absence. At the same time, she was filled with desire to make everyone understand what Sergei had meant to her. And what skating means to her. "I skate for Sergei and hope the people will remember him each time I take the ice," she said. "I know that we could skate together beautifully and I know that we had a lot of fun, and I know that we had confidence, and I know when we were going to skate well. But now I am one, and I don't know if anyone wants to watch me and I don't know how I am going to skate by myself."

Ah, but everyone wanted to watch her, and they would be transfixed by her presence that night in the Hartford Civic Center "I will never again skate on the same level as I skated with Sergei," she said.

"It was the highest anyone can think of skating. But it was another life, and now is another life in which it is more important for me just to find the strength to skate and to be a mother. I really want this night to be a celebration of life. Sergei really loved life and he always tried to inspire me with the same feeling - that life is not only about skating but is beautiful itself."

"A Celebration of a Life" would feature many of Sergei's favorite numbers. In addition to the Stars on Ice cast, performers included Victor Petrenko, who had known Sergei since he was 12, Oksana Baiul, ice dancers Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, Brian Boitano, Yuka Sato, Alexander Fadeev and l3-year-old Fedor Andreev, the son of Zoueva, who had become Katia's constant companion since Grinkov's death.

The mood before the performance was not jovial, but it was not somber, either. "We each want to have a role in remembering Sergei," Paul said just before the show. "We each want to contribute a special moment as a memory to him. "I think seeing Katia yesterday (at the practice rink) eased all of us. We were a little nervous about it, and very excited about her wanting to skate."

But there were doubts about how well she was handling it. "Just watching Katia throughout the day, it seemed like it would be really difficult for her to perform," said Scott. "She seemed to be getting a little pale during rehearsal and we were all very concerned for her. But when it came time to do what she wanted to do and pay tribute to Sergei, the courage and strength and determination and love really came shining through."

The program began with piano music from Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata" and the crowd was absolutely silent as 19 skaters dressed in black and while took the ice. They formed a circle - a circle of champions, featuring three Olympic men's winners, two Olympic women's gold medallists, pairs and dance champs, the very best skating has to offer. Then, one by one, they left the circle, moving to other places on the ice. Scott, Kristi, Paul, Kurt, Rosalynn, Elena and Denis, Katarina. All of the guest stars.

Suddenly all eyes were drawn to the scoreboard, as a video of G&G 1994 Olympic performance was presented. On the ice, Oksana and Kristi were crying. In the audience, nearly everyone else was, too.

Then came the solos. Elena and Denis, so often competitors of G&G in another time, at another level, did their signature routine about two lovers who could not be together, set to the music of "Spartacus." The elegant Klimova and Ponomarenko also did their most famous program, to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," a story of love unfulfilled, of permanent, painful separation.

Paul picked "Apollo 13," the uplifting soundtrack to the film about man's ability to respond to even the greatest challenge. At one point, he blew a kiss heavenward. Oksana, dressed in black and skating to "Ave Maria," finished on her knees and hands, praying. And sobbing.

There also were lighthearted numbers, because, as Scott said, "Sergei loved to laugh. I could always make him laugh." So Scott did "Hair" - Sergei's favorite of all the Hamilton routines - and Kurt went with "Brick House," a number he said "always gave Sergei a charge." Fadeev, a world champion just when G&G were getting started, skated to a medley of Elvis tunes. Sergei loved Elvis, too.

Then there were the more direct tributes, such as Viktor's "Have You Ever Really Loved a woman?" by Bryan Adams. And Rosalynn's "Remember Me This Way" sung live by Jordan Hill.

It was all so touching, so heartfelt, so supportive. Yet it all seemed incidental once Katia took the ice.

tribute to SregeiThe packed arena seemed to hold its collective breath - skaters, fans, family and friends as a single spotlight lit the blue ice. The crowd rose as one, the applause built and lasted a half-minute, even as Katia skated to Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

Wearing a white and bluish-gray dress, Katia moved slowly as she held out her hand, as to skating with a partner. But no, Sergei was not there. She stopped, covering her face, understanding that he was gone. She searched the ice for him, circling, wondering where he was, why he was gone. She dropped to her knees, leaned over and kissed the ice. The mind's eye saw her kissing his grave, saying goodbye - forever. She looked skyward as if to once more ask why. One final time. Then she fortified herself, skating around the rink with grace and power and self-assurance. She spun. She jumped. Yes, she even smiled.

This was the girl Sergei partnered. This was the woman Sergei loved. This was her tribute to him.

Mahler's piece ended. Katia, her eyes awash in tears, skated to where her daughter sat and took three-year-old Daria in her arms. Then she put her daughter down and hugged Ana Grinkova, Sergei's mother. Finally she hugged Zoueva warmly. And she was gone as the house lights came on to signal the end of the first act.

For the finale, the entire cast – all in white – took the ice and paired off. Then Katia reappeared, wearing a traditional Russian costume with headpiece. Skating through the couples – who were posed in positions that started G&G's different routines through the years – she joined with Scott. But for only a brief moment.

Katia then skated, jumped, and spun around the ice to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Alone, for sure. Yet ready to take on the challenges ahead. "I don't have enough words," Katia said to the audience at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show. "But I also want to wish to every one of you: try to find happiness and at least once a day, smile to each other. Every day, say just once, I love you. It is so difficult to talk. I want you to know I skated today not alone. I skated with Sergei. That is why I skated so good."

As the crowd stood once more, cheering warmly, lovingly, the skaters took turns embracing her. Scott brought Daria to Katia again and told her, "For as long as you need all of us, we'll be here for you."

After they'd left the ice and the crowd had filed out, many of the skaters remained in the caverns of the Civic Center, too drained to even pack up and leave. Or maybe they sensed a certain presence in the building, and they wanted to be near it for just a little longer.

Katia understood that she had to make the Hartford performance a beginning, not an end. She knew Sergei would want it that way. "I have a lot of things to say to people," she said, "a lot of things to show people, and the ice helps me with it. I have a lot in my soul and I want through my skating to show it."

There would always be a place for her to show it - with Stars on Ice. "They are people who believe in me," she said. "I didn't believe that I could skate by myself. They showed it was possible."

But Bezic insists it is Katia who has contributed something special to Stars on Ice, not the other way around. "Katia has taught us so much," Bezic said. "The thing about Sergei and Katia is they were so elegant as people, and so undemanding and professional. They were refined. Without Sergei, she has blossomed in a way that maybe she would not have under his protective arm. She had to go out on her own. I can't imagine what that has been like for her, but she always carried herself with so much dignity."

As Kristi put it, "Obviously, there was the initial shock, and I know there were some difficult times, some nights on the road, when she told me she doubted whether she belonged out there, whether it was something Sergei would have wanted. Yet she still was able to get on the ice and improve and find another part of the sport that she loved. And it's been fun to see her come out of her shell, to see those bright eyes looking at the world, trying to observe everything. Before, she and Sergei were kind of in their own world, sheltered, but she had to step out of that. Katia was half of what everyone considered the perfect pair. And then to go and skate singles and when you have never done it at all, that is incredible."

Which is exactly what the last few years have been like for Katia, now an accomplished soloist, and for Stars on Ice. The two-fold challenge to come up with routines that fit Katia, and for Katia to master those routines has been met superbly.

Katia has been part of ensemble numbers, and she has been on her own. She has done classical and she has done Elvis. She has gone from Bach to Bonham, from George Gershwin to Led Zeppelin.

"When I saw her solo for the first time," Katarina said "I stepped back to the boards to watch, and she was so delightful. It's so wonderful for me to see how she found her spirit and how she's doing what she's loved to do all her life. She's been through a tragic time with her husband's death, but you almost forget when you see her. I mean, you do forget, which is nice, because you should watch her and enjoy her skating and not think about the sadness."

Exactly. Because, thanks greatly to her place in Stars on Ice, it no longer is about the sadness.

"She is something exquisite completely exquisite," Bezic said. "We would all like for her to be the artist she is. But do you know how hard that is, to go under the spotlights alone if you've never done it? It is so difficult."

But, as Katia has proven, it is so possible. And so necessary. Sergei would have told her that.

By Barry Wilner. Copyright © 1998. "Stars on Ice: An Intimate Look at Skating's Greatest Tour."