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Memories: 1995

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Shocked by Suddenness, Skaters Mourn Passing

By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1995

LAKE PLACID, N.Y., NOV. 21 -- The figure skaters gathered slowly in the mahogany-paneled lobby of their majestic lakeside inn this evening, flashing no smiles, barely saying a word. The collection of gregarious entertainers had been reduced to silent, wide-eyed stares. The crackling wood in the fireplace made more noise than they did.

They had met in hotel lobbies in fancy street clothes hundreds of times in the past, but never for an event as devastating as this. They were about to travel through snow-swept mountain roads to a nearby funeral home for a private wake for pairs skater Sergei Grinkov, their colleague and friend who died of a massive heart attack during a skating practice Monday.

Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men's gold medalist who for a decade has been the leader of the popular "Stars on Ice" tour, came down from his room first. He had not yet heard the news of the day, that an autopsy performed on Grinkov revealed that his left anterior artery, which feeds a major portion of the heart muscle, was virtually closed. The autopsy also found that the 28-year-old Grinkov's heart was enlarged from high blood pressure and that the two-time Olympic pairs skating gold medalist also had suffered an earlier heart attack within 24 hours of his death.

"I talked to him that morning," said Hamilton, the only one of the skaters who wanted to say anything at all before leaving the hotel. "I couldn't tell that anything was wrong. He was talking about Dasha (Daria, the 3-year-old daughter of Grinkov and his wife and skating partner, Ekaterina Gordeeva) coming to be with them, and he was great and very excited. If anything was wrong with him, I never knew."

Francis Varga, who performed the autopsy today at Adirondack Medical Center in nearby Saranac Lake, also announced that he found no evidence of steroids, drug or alcohol abuse, the Associated Press reported.

Varga confirmed reports that Grinkov's father had died four years ago in Moscow at a relatively early age. "A familial history of coronary artery disease is a factor, and apparently his father did die early of heart disease," he said. "We do see young people who are physically fit die and have this disease. It's probably related to a genetic predisposition."

Although Grinkov had a history of high blood pressure as well as the other heart trouble revealed by the autopsy, Varga told reporters that Grinkov apparently had not complained of any pain.

"He was clearly in very good health except for this one problem," Varga said. "This problem would not have been picked up by a routine examination. It could only have been picked up by a stress test.

"If he continued at all on any schedule, it was only a question of time," Varga added. "Unless his condition was discovered and he had a bypass, the probability of survival for him was remote. Many times in young people the first sign of coronary artery disease is sudden death."

Grinkov collapsed while he and Gordeeva were practicing for Saturday night's opening performance of the 1995-96 "Stars on Ice" tour. That performance has been postponed, said tour producer Byron Allen.

Some of the skaters said they could not imagine skating in a performance so soon after the death of their friend, while others were planning to travel to Moscow, where Grinkov was born and raised, for his funeral.

The funeral has been scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Moscow time, Allen said. Gordeeva was to accompany her husband's body home to Russia either Wednesday or Thursday. She was to travel with her little daughter and her mother, who often looked after Daria at the skaters' home in Simsbury, Conn., while they were on tour.

"She's amazingly strong," Allen said of Gordeeva, who greeted each of the couple of dozen members of the "Stars on Ice" cast and crew at the wake. Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning, Rosalynn Sumners and Hamilton were among those who attended.

Gordeeva and Grinkov were running through a program on the USA rink, one of four ice surfaces in the Olympic Center, when he was stricken. Several observers, including two of the "Stars on Ice" skaters, said that after lifting Gordeeva, Grinkov set her back down and then stopped skating.

"Are you okay?" Gordeeva asked her husband, according to observers.

"I just feel a little dizzy," he apparently told her.

She helped him sit on the ice. He then started to lie back and lost consciousness. Rescue workers arrived within three or four minutes, Allen said, but they couldn't revive him. By then, word of Grinkov's collapse had reached the other skaters working at an adjacent rink. They all frantically raced to the USA rink and were standing or kneeling beside Grinkov when he was carried off by paramedics and taken to Adirondack Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 12:28 p.m. Monday.

"They're devastated, obviously," Hamilton said. "They can't make sense out of any of it, and neither can I. He was the biggest, strongest, most capable of all of us, and he's gone."

Gordeeva and Grinkov, who was 5 foot 11 and weighed 180 pounds, won the 1988 and 1994 Olympic gold medals in pairs skating, as well as four world championships. They had settled into a lucrative professional career that allowed them to perform their graceful and romantic programs before more than half a million spectators a year. In addition, they regularly appeared in televised professional events, and were scheduled to compete at the World Professional Figure Skating Championships Dec. 9 at USAir Arena.

For those tour members who were not traveling to Moscow on Wednesday, a day of practice was scheduled. No one was certain who would show up. The skaters postponed a planned news conference and/or press statement for another day, and generally kept to themselves. They were finding Grinkov's sudden death almost impossible to comprehend.

"This is the first time I've ever experienced death so closely," said one of the skaters, who asked not to be named. "It's really, really hard. How do you deal with something like this?"

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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