With three seconds to go, Marat Akbarov is hurtling across the ice, his 13-year-old partner nestled in perfect balance under his massive left arm. They zip past the judges' stand. The girl turns inward and Akbarov grips her tightly just under the armpits. Ready, crouch and:
Whoosh. Akbarov heaves the girl into the air, She spins once in front of his outstretched hands, a second time as she rises to a point that has her shoulders 10 feet above the ice, and a third time on the way down, landing finally on one razor-sharp blade, gracefully curving away from her catapult of a partner.
Veronica Pershina, the girl Akbarov tosses with such abandon, is not at the world figure skating championships this week to share in any medals. She is there to show that the Soviet string of three Olympic gold medals in the pairs category is not likely to end with the retirement of the Olympic champions Aleksandr Zaitsev and Irina Rodnina.
Zaitsev and Rodnina decided to retire before this year's world championships after it became clear that the American pair of Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, who had been their only dangerous competitors, would not be able to compete because of lingering problems with the injury to Gardner's leg that kept him and Babilonia from competing at Lake Placid.
Rodnina claimed to have injured her left shoulder in a fall during a training session in Moscow on Feb. 29. But observers who have seen her strolling around in black plastic pants and a black mink coat this week, repeatedly using her left arm to open doors, believe that what really happened in Moscow last month was that the Soviet authorities decided that the old champions should no longer clutter the advance of the younger hopefuls. t
All the Soviet pairs in competition here have been coached in Moscow by Stanislaw Schuk. His imprint is very noticeable and comes out primarily in the use of female partners much smaller than the men.
This prompted one American team official to say that all Schuk's proteges could have been cloned from each other for all the individuality they have.
Cynics say this procedure produces not pairs but "1 1/2s" on the grounds that Schuk's matching of a fully grown young man with a short, barely pubescent girl does not make an honest twosome. Skaters of such different size do provide spectacular lifts, true, but they also lack the harmony and beauty that a more balanced couple can provide.
In the face of such critisisms, Schuk has been keeping his "1 1/2s" together until the girl grows to her full height. This is the case for the pair favored to win the gold medal here this week, the Olympic runners-up Marina Shersekova and Sergei Skakrai. Five years ago they were the archtypical unbalanced couple -- with Shakrai a good foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than his partner.
At that time Shakrai could toss Shersekova into a quadruple twist, the first, and only, pair to ever achieve that. But now Shersekova, has grown to a somewhat more balanced size. "Call them 1 3/4," suggested one West German team official.
The expected second-place winners, Marina Pestowa and Stanislaw Leonowitsch, also are Schuk students, and also less balanced in size than their Western competitors. Manuela Mager and Uwe Bewersdorf of East Germany are favored for the bronze here, which would be the same as they placed at Lake Placid.
The two American pairs in competition are unlikely to receive any medals. The best placing probably will go to Caitlin and Peter Carruthers, who took second place at the U.S. National championships in Atlanta this year. Both adopted as infants from different parents, they form one of the most affectionate pairs at the championships. The two spend much of their free time together, including a grueling hour most evenings practicing their lifts on the not-at-all-slippery red carpeted floors of their hotel rooms.
The other American pair, Sheryl Franks and Michael Botticelli, would be pleased if they could do better than their seventh-place finish at the Lake Placid Olympics.