Washington Post Magazine
Alexander Ovechkin, the luminous young Russian-born hockey player, sat in a folding seat at RFK Stadium enjoying a great American ritual: ballpark hot dogs. Really enjoying it. He removed a hot dog from a bun with his fingers and fed it directly into the glossy mouth of his voluptuous blond girlfriend. In between bites, the couple giggled and smooched.
She wore a black knit dress cut so low that a tiny bright pink bow on the front of her black bra peeked out of her decollete. He wore ripped, $500 Dolce & Gabbana bluejeans and sported a green bruise under one eye. The bruise was a souvenir from a preseason hockey game the night before. The game was Alex's second without scoring a goal since reporting for training camp. It was an annoying little lull for the National Hockey League's reigning rookie of the year -- a rocket-wristed 21-year-old touted as the greatest offensive lineman in the game today, and, potentially, the greatest ever. But, at that moment, Alex didn't look as though he was suffering. "I just kiss him on his eye," reported his girlfriend, Veronika Dyvanskaya, who was visiting from Russia. "And I say, 'You are a great man, a strong man.'"
It was a mild evening in late September. Sitting high in an unpopulated corner of the mezzanine, Alex was waiting to go down to the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in the Nationals game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Until this VIP trip to the ballpark, Alex had never thrown a baseball or swung a bat. His only experience of the game was playing electronic baseball on his PlayStation as a boy growing up in Moscow. He had no idea whether he'd throw the ball over the plate. "I'm not nervous," he said in accented English. "There aren't lots of people here. If it falls no good, for me it is okay."
Some of his teammates were nervous for him. For hardy men who make their living in the only professional team sport where fighting is considered part of the game, looking like a geek is not an option. At game time, seven fellow Capitals accompanied Alex down through the stands and onto the field. They showed moral support for their team's only megawatt star the best way they knew how. They made fun of him. "A hundred bucks it bounces," Jamie Heward, the Capitals' 215-pound defenseman, said. "Hey, Ovie, you should have worn your Dolce & Gabbana sweat pants!"
Alex assumed the pitching stance. He looked oddly handsome with his broad face, unibrow and nose, broken four times, that lists left. He wound up and threw. A neat strike over the heart of the plate.
"Wow," Alex said as he came off the field, grinning like an excited kid. "Wow."
The instant the ball sailed over the plate, the crowd began to cheer. The ovation persisted as Alex made his way off the field and through the crowded lower stands. As he passed, fans lept up from their seats to offer high-fives. They lifted up cellphones to record his image. They screamed his name. One woman was so overcome by the sight of Alex that she forgot to swallow, and greeted him with a wide, gaping mouth full of popcorn.
Five days later, Alex stood on the fourth tee of the Springfield Golf and Country Club, hitting shots with borrowed clubs. Alex, the Capitals' most marketable player, was co-host of a charity tournament. He had never played a round of golf in his 21 years. So he didn't enter the tournament. He stood on the tee, greeting golfers, signing autographs and taking practice shots. On about his 100th shot, something happened that most golfers wait a lifetime to achieve: The ball soared 160 yards, bounced three times and dropped into the cup -- a hole-in-one.
Gleeful, the young hockey star hooted, stomped, pumped his fists. He picked up his borrowed 4-iron sideways and strummed it as if it were a guitar. He hollered to his hockey teammates nearby to come see what he had done. "I swear to God!" he called to them breathlessly. "I swear on my mom!"
Forty-nine years earlier -- long before Alex was destined to make the most improbable athletic feats look preordained -- his mother was walking home from school and was struck by a car. She was 7 years old. Her right leg was so mangled that doctors initially wanted to amputate. Instead, Tatiana Kabayeya spent a year in a Moscow hospital, her leg suspended in traction. When her shinbone failed to mend properly, doctors re-broke it three times.
Somehow, amid all that suffering, young Tatiana forged a determination to never again be weak -- to grow strong, to become, in fact, the strongest. That became the central organizing principle of her life. It drove her to become a professional basketball star in the Cold War-era Soviet Union who, at only 5 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall, twice led her teams to Olympic gold medals. When Alex was born, she passed on that determination .
"Da," she said recently. Yes: the key to everything. The Russian sports legend lifted the hem of her blue dirndl skirt to expose a right leg that even now, at age 56, is thinner than the left and gnarled with shiny scar tissue.