Pure Gold

Katia's photo

From some help from 1954 Olympic swimming gold medalist Donna De Varona, 1968 figure skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming managed to nab a moment with Yekaterina Gordeyeva while she was hanging out in Calgary this past February – after winning the gold medal for pairs figure skating. Here’s what Katya had to say (through a translator) about her partner, Sergei Grinkov, her life as a skater, and what it’s like to win a gold medal.

She blazed into the Olympic Saddledome looking graceful and calm with a bouncing ponytail and a bright smile. Her intricate lifts and jumps seemed spontaneous, effortless. In fact, sixteen-year-old Yekaterina Gordeyeva was under enormous pressure to bring home the gold medal: The Soviets have won every Olympic pairs figure skating gold medal since 1964.

Katya (as friends call her) and her partner Sergei Grinkov, were paired six years ago by Soviet officials who saw them as contenders for international fame and good public-relations representatives. So far the two have lived up to Soviet expectations. They’ve won two World Championships, the 1988 European Championship, and the gold medal at the XV Winter Olympics. They’ve become national heroes, mobbed by fans every time they go out in public.

Gordeyeva’s life sounds glamorous, but long hours of training and intense dedication lie behind her fame. The road to the 1988 Olympics began more than twelve years ago: “I started skating at age four when Mama, a former swimmer, and Papa, a dancer, took me to a rink. Now I train seven hours a day during the summer, five during the season, and three before competitions.” Despite the heavy schedule, she says she looks forward to the work: “Honestly speaking, it is very rare that I don’t feel like practicing.” Her life is shaped by her commitment to skating. She studies at a special sports school, spends much of her spare time planning her skating costumes (sewn by athletic-clothing specialists), and wants to be a coach when she retires.

Katia and Peggy Fleming

But it would probably take that much misfortune to deny Gordeeva and Grinkov at the Olympics. Their bravura athleticism, as well as adagio lyricism, makes them a pair apart, able, for example, to throw a trademark quadruple twist lift as no other couple can. Critics contend that Gordeeva and Grinkov sacrifice finesse for physicality. The charge, which they reset, is nonetheless easy to understand. At 5 ft. 11 in. and 150-lb. the bean-poleish Grinkov towers over his waiflike 4-ft. 11-in., 79-lb. partner: the disparity in heights and weights allows them to manage spectacular lifts and throws that confound skaters who are more evenly matched in physique. Admits Grinkov: "Some components can be performed much better because of this, and that's good."

Like most Soviet duos, Gordeeva and Grinkov became partners by official rule rather than personal choice; they were ten and 14. Quiet and intense, they are heroes in the homeland , and are mobbed whenever they are in public. They profess to be nervous about Calgary, although they expect to win the gold. The Soviet pairs have reason to be nervous, there always seems to be fresh talent waiting on the wings for champions to falter.

By J. Elson. Copyright © Time: February 15, 1988