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An Accidental Pairing, a Perfect Couple

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page D3




NAGANO, Feb. 9—Elena Berezhnaya remembers that Anton Sikharulidze arrived at her hospital bedside and she knew, immediately, that she was in the hands of someone she could trust. She was bald then, her head slashed open first by the skate of her figure skating partner, Oleg Sliakov, then by the surgeons who removed skull fragments from her brain. She was away from her home in Russia, training with Sliakov in his native Latvia. She could not speak as a result of the surgery. She was only 18.

Under cover of night, and with the aide of Berezhnaya’s coach, Tamara Moskvina, Sikharulidze spirited the tiny skater out of Latvia and back to St. Petersburg, Russia, the moment she was well enough to travel. He was there when she slowly recovered her ability to talk. He was there when she started to beg for permission to return to skating. And the first time Berezhnaya returned to the ice, it was Sikharulidze who laced up her skates.

Now, two years after nearly losing her life in a small practice rink in Riga, Berezhnaya will perform on the grand Olympic stage here at White Ring Tuesday evening (6 a.m. EST Tuesday). And, as is fitting, her delicate form—and her heart—will be held safely in the hands of Sikharulidze, her dear friend and now her partner.

"The trust was there from when he was first at the hospital," Berezhnaya explained, in halting English, at the rink this week. "I always knew I had trust in Anton. Some people were saying, ‘No, no, don’t go back and skate.’ I knew I could come back and skate with him. I was not afraid."

The current European pairs champions and once the favorites to win the gold medal, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze are in third place after Sikharulidze’s fall in the short program on Sunday. Still, they are considered a lock for a medal, and are hopeful that a flawless long program can catapult them ahead of the German team of Ingo Steuer and Mandy Woetzel, as well as fellow Russians Artur Dmitriev and Oksana Kazakova.

"We have to skate perfect," Berezhnaya said. "Then we shall just have to see."

On Sunday night, it was Berezhnaya who rubbed Sikharulidze’s knee in the kiss-and-cry zone after their disappointing short program, reassuring her partner that his fall on their side-by-side triple toe loops did not mean that all was lost. Sikharulidze, miserable, barely spoke in the aftermath of the performance.

"I just told him it was okay," said Berezhnaya, who clearly was disappointed but tried fiercely not to show it. "I told him we must go on."

Berezhnaya was playing a role that Sikharulidze had long played for her—that of protector. Close to Berezhnaya even before she left Russia to train with Sliakov in Latvia, he kept a close eye on what most people in figure skating knew to be a tempestuous working relationship between the two skaters, one that, at times, left Berezhnaya feeling both intimidated and almost fearful. After the accident, which occurred when Sliakov skated too close during a side-by-side camel spin, Sikharulidze decided that it was time for something to be done.

"Everybody knew it," Sikharulidze said, referring to Berezhnaya’s poor relationship with Sliakov, in an interview he gave in Munich this winter. "Everybody wanted to help her."

Sikharulidze was the one who finally did. Concerned for Berezhnaya’s physical—and emotional—health, he and Moskvina obtained visas to enter Latvia and traveled by train to fetch Berezhnaya from the hospital. Sikharulidze was shocked when he saw Berezhnaya, a wisp of a young woman who looked even more frail than he had expected. Her head had been shaved for the surgery, and in addition to the scar over her left ear—where the skate sliced her open—she had a large, uneven scar around the top of her skull where the doctors had opened her up to remove bone fragments.

The doctors told Berezhnaya she could not skate for six months and, she said this week, some even suggested that she never return to the sport. Both Sikharulidze and Moskvina were extremely cautious about the idea of Berezhnaya returning to skating. And when Moskvina finally agreed to coach the couple, she took Sikharulidze aside and gave him gentle instructions on how to handle the delicate situation.

Calling Berezhnaya a "crystal vase," Moskvina cautioned Sikharulidze to be very careful with his new partner. She had been broken once, Moskvina said, and once-broken things often shatter much more easily the second time around.

Berezhnaya soon showed them their concern was not necessary. Far stronger than she appears—she is 5 feet 1 and 92 pounds—Berezhnaya was fearless in her return and encouraged Moskvina to incorporate more and difficult lifts into their program. Only the camel spins were left out of their practice routine.

Part psychologist, part training partner and part friend (the two were a romantic couple for a while but now refer to each other simply as "friends"), Sikharulidze found that he and Berezhnaya meshed perfectly. He made her feel safe, she helped tame his legendary temper. And, on the ice, that connection is apparent in the beauty of their performance. They skate in the classic Russian style, their music classical, their program seamless and graceful, their skating so quick and smooth that they almost seem to float.

"I think that their style is very appealing to people," Moskvina said. "They are very beautiful skaters."

The couple’s first world championships, in March 1997, were a disaster: Nervous, Sikharulidze tensed up and fell twice; Berezhnaya fell twice, as well, on throws. In the aftermath of their ninth-place finish, though, they realized that it was triumph simply for Berezhnaya to be back in competition barely more than a year after her injury. And when they defeated Steuer and Woetzel—then the reigning world champions—at the Champion Series final in Munich last December, they immediately became the favorites to win the gold here.

"Yes, yes, it is some[what] amazing to be here," Berezhnaya said of the journey she has made since that fateful day in Riga. "That was a long time ago now. I do not like to talk about it too much anymore. I just want to be able to skate."

Berezhnaya’s scars now are covered by her pixie-ish cap of blond hair, and she is reportedly loath to show them to strangers. There is one person, though, who has gotten away with ruffling that hair and teasingly looking for the scars. And, Tuesday night, that person will be holding Berezhnaya high off the ice, in his arms, in what they hope will be an evening that turns to gold.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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