Short but sweet program

Had he been merely a partner in one of figure skating's greatest pairs, the news would have been devastating enough. Had he been simply a young father with an adoring wife, a precious three-year-old daughter and so much to live for, his death would have seemed unfathomable. But because Sergei Grinkov was Prince Charming on and off the ice, his fatal heart attack at the age of 28 last week is agonizingly tragic, not just for the millions who have watched him and his wife Ekaterina Gordeeva perform but especially for the close-knit skating community that had come to believe in the fairy tale of G and G. "We don't need to have this lesson," 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said as the snow fell outside Lake Placid's Mirror Lake Inn two days after his friend's death. "This is just too hard to accept."

Wylie was one of the first skaters to reach Grinkov's side after he collapsed during a Nov. 20 morning practice at the Lake Placid Olympic Center for the upcoming Stars on Ice tour. Grinkov and Gordeeva had been rehearsing a program set to the music of Edvard Grieg's Concerto in A Minor. (Coincidentally, Grieg's wife Nina, a singer, was his professional partner.) After the routine, Sergei told Katia he was dizzy and slumped to the ice. For the first time since they began skating together in 1982, it was Gordeeva who softened Grinkov's fall.

As their coach, Marina Zueva, and two emergency medical technicians tried to resuscitate Grinkov, Wylie raced over. "I touched his skate to say a prayer for him," said Wylie. "But his leg was limp." Within four minutes an ambulance arrived to take Grinkov to the Adirondack Medical Center. For nearly an hour, Dr. Joshua Schwartzberg and the hospital staff worked to revive him, but Grinkov never responded, and he was pronounced dead at 12:28 p.m. When Schwartzberg gave Gordeeva the news, she sobbed on the floor, with Zueva at her side. She then asked if she could see her husband. "We went into the room," said Schwartzberg. "She spoke a few words to him in Russian. It seemed very tender. She caressed his face. She kissed him. I left her alone with him."

An autopsy revealed that Grinkov's death was caused by severe blockages of two coronary arteries, one of which is known as "the widowmaker." His father had died suddenly four years ago at age 52, and Grinkov had high blood pressure, as well as an enlarged heart. The autopsy also revealed that the skater had suffered a heart attack in the 24 hours before his death, but given his stoic nature and his high threshold of pain--he often skated with shoulder and back miseries--Grinkov might have brushed off the attack as mere discomfort. Indeed, the essence of his genius on the ice was that he sublimated his own presence to highlight the beauty of Gordeeva. "He was totally devoted to her," said JoJo Starbuck, a former U.S. pairs champion who has worked with G and G, "and she would look at him with this I'm-so-in-love-with-you look that would just make your heart sing."

G and G actually won the world's heart before they won each other's. When the two Russians earned the gold medal at the 1988 Calgary Games, she was just a 16-year-old sprite and he a mature man of 21 who embodied both power and elegance. They projected themselves not as lovers but as older brother and little sister--siblings who could skate in perfect unison and perform a quadruple twist. It was after Calgary that they fell in love, and in 1991 they married in Moscow. Katia gave birth to their daughter Daria in 1992, but they continued to skate together professionally. For Lillehammer in '94, G and G returned to the amateur rank, and they were so transcendent that they won the gold despite a couple of slips. According to John Nicks, a U.S. Olympic coach, "the change in their relationship into a loving, caring, mature union changed their skating for the better."

They had settled in Simsbury, Connecticut, the site of the International Skating Center, enjoying an idyllic life and training with American and other expatriate Russian skaters--many of whom accompanied Katia and Daria to Moscow for Sergei's funeral on Saturday. One of those was Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton, who offered this sentiment last week: "Kurt Browning once said the only flaw in G and G's program was that it wasn't long enough. The same can be said for Sergei's life."

Their friends expect that Katia will return to Simsbury after the traditional Russian Orthodox 40-day mourning period and resume her skating, probably as a solo performer--she could never find Sergei's equal. "The perfect pair," says commentator and two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button. "They had everything. He was the perfect husband; they had the perfect career, the perfect marriage."

The word perfect often came up in descriptions of G and G. But at a private wake in Lake Placid the night after her husband's death, the Washington Post reported, Gordeeva told her fellow skaters, "Maybe it was too perfect."

By Steve Wulf. Reported by Lawrence Mondi and Susanna Schrobsdorff/New York and Elaine Rivera/Lake Placid.
Copyright © 1995 Time Inc. December 4, 1995