SOMETIMES, OUT OF THE BLUE, THE 4-YEAR-old will say to her mother, “I miss Father. Why cannot I see him?” Ekaterina Gordeeva—who, at 25 and a wispy 5’2″, looks like a child herself—knows just how to answer. “I tell her, ‘He is our angel, and you can see him in your dreams,’ ” Gordeeva says. “I know that I will have to explain this to her in years to come. Daria is still too young to know the word ‘death.’ ”
Gordeeva, too, is only beginning to understand. Nearly a year after the terrible day when 28-year-old Russian skater Sergei Grinkov collapsed on the ice with a fatal heart attack while practicing alongside her, she is adjusting to life on her own, learning to cope without her skating partner of 13 years and her husband of five. She has eased her unfathomable grief by writing My Sergei: A Love Story, coauthored with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer E.M. Swift and excerpted in the following pages. “It was a huge healing process,” says Gordeeva of the book. “It was almost like I was walking through my whole life, the nicest days and the happiest memories. It would have taken a long time to bring out all the feelings if I did not write it.”
My Sergei tells the story of Gordeeva’s comfortable childhood in Moscow, her discovery of skating at age 4, her pairing with the cocky, much taller Grinkov and the blossoming of their partnership into love. She writes of their two Olympic gold medals, and she describes the day her “Seriozha” died.
But she also writes of healing. Last February, at an emotional tribute to Grinkov, she skated publicly for the first time since his death and has gone on to perform—always solo—in events with Stars on Ice and in other exhibitions. “Just being with my friends on the ice is great,” she says. “There have been so many people not letting me be lonely.”
First among those is Daria, the child with her father’s kind eyes and crooked grin. “I need her around me,” says Gordeeva, who lives with her in Simsbury, Conn. “She brings me back to reality.” Often, still, that is not an easy place. “It’s up and down,” she says. “When I’m busy, it helps. When night comes, everything is much scarier.” She keeps Sergei’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck, but she no longer cries every time she sees his picture. “He knows everything I am doing,” says Gordeeva, smiling. “I ask him things and talk to him all the time. Even though he has his place in the cemetery in Moscow, I always feel he is here.”
Together, Grinkov and Gordeeva made magic
“As I look back, I see that everything went too smoothly for me,” writes Ekaterina Gordeeva in her memoir of life with her husband and skating partner, Sergei Grinkov, to be published next month by Warner Books. “I had no experience with the sadness of life. “In the following excerpt from My Sergei, Gordeeva tells the apparently charmed story of the Moscow policeman’s son and the professional folk dancer’s daughter who found fame—and romance—on the ice.
THE YEAR I TURNED 11, THE PAIRS COACH AT THE Central Red Army Club in Moscow, where I had skated since I was 4, told me to come early to practice one day. He had chosen a partner for me. I was very excited because I knew it was going to be Sergei.
I had never spoken to him. I remembered seeing him on the ice with the older boys, and he was slender and narrow and handsome. But Sergei was so much older than me—four years, which at that age seems like a lifetime—that I’d never thought it possible that we’d someday be paired. At school, Sergei had caught my eye because he sometimes didn’t wear the mandatory blue uniform like the other boys. He might wear a nice pair of slacks, a jacket and a skinny black leather tie. It was stylish and made him stand out.
He was a good singles skater—but, like me, he wasn’t a very strong jumper, which is why they asked him to try pairs. Sergei’s arms were tiny when we first started, so it helped that I was small. But once he began lifting weights, he quickly matured. I have pictures of him in the place where we trained in the summer, and he was so beautiful. But I was blind in those days and didn’t notice. I only thought of him as a coworker.
As a pairs skater, you have to learn everything you learned as a singles skater over again, because you have to align your body with your partner’s. Sergei and I practiced the jumps endlessly. I was never scared of the lifts because I always felt very safe in Sergei’s arms. But the throws were terrifying. I’d keep crashing. Sergei would keep making the sad faces at me, hiding his eyes like he could no longer watch because it was too painful. But he never got mad at me. Some partners got angry and screamed when the girl didn’t land the throws. Pairs skating can be very, very dangerous for girls. I’ve seen boys, exasperated to the point of cruelty, throw their partner in a different direction than she expects or throw her too high on purpose. This can be deadly. But Sergei was never like this.
I’m not sure why, but once we were paired I always believed Sergei was the only one who could skate with me. It had nothing to do with having romantic feelings toward him. I thought he was a very attractive man, of course, but since he was so much older, I never thought he’d have special feelings for me. But I’d always imagined it would be fun to be around him.
Sergei and I finished sixth in our first Junior World Championships, in 1983. The next year, when the Championships were held in Colorado Springs, we won them. Sergei was 17 and I was 13. We weren’t expected to win, and after we did I remember going with Sergei to a toy store to celebrate. There was a banquet that night, and what I remember best was Sergei staying around the girl ice dancers, who wore beautiful dresses. He didn’t pay much attention to me off the ice.
That spring we competed in a Friendship Cup at a beautiful resort in Bulgaria. After the competition our team went outside together, and we were throwing snowballs. Sergei loved that kind of horseplay. It was then that, for the first time, I remember becoming aware that I found him attractive. I never told anyone these feelings. To my great regret, I never had any close girlfriends to confide in. Maybe if I had been spending more time at home, I’d have talked with my mom. But we were so often at training camps or competitions, and I was so disciplined, that I never went to a friend’s house to gossip and do stupid teenage things. It’s a void in my life I’ll never be able to fill. That’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to Sergei. He always had friends around him.
Over the next several years, Gordeeva and Grinkov took the skating world by storm. They won their first World Championships in 1986, the Soviet Nationals the same year and the Worlds again in 1987. By the time they began training for their first Olympics, the 1988 Games in Calgary, they were serious contenders for the gold.
As the Games approached, everything became a little more stressful, a little more intense. In mid-November we won an event called the Moscow News. Afterward there was an exhibition, and while practicing for this exhibition, Sergei caught his blade in a soft rut in the ice. While holding me aloft in a star lift, with my hands and legs fully extended outward, Sergei dropped me. The first part of my body to hit the ice was my forehead.
I didn’t feel any pain at first, then my head felt like it was splitting apart. Someone picked me up, and then I blacked out. I came to in the first-aid room, and I was driven to the hospital.
I ended up staying for six days. I’d suffered quite a serious concussion. I lay there worrying about missing practice and the Olympics, and I was mad at Sergei because I thought this fall was his mistake. Then there was a knock on the door, and it was Sergei.
He was carrying a dozen roses, and he was very upset. It was the first time he’d given me flowers. I was surprised, even happy to see how distressed he was. Spending so much time together can lead to intense personality conflicts, and successful pairs are not necessarily friendly. But Sergei was so sad that I began to feel sorry for him.
It was another week before I was allowed on the ice, and Sergei continued to visit me at home every day. When, at last, I could skate again, I immediately noticed a change in the way he was holding me. He was holding me tighter, as if he didn’t want to give me a chance to touch the ice. Something had happened in those two weeks, and even I—so focused on skating, so serious about training and life—realized that his thoughts for me had changed. Before we had been like two skaters. After that, we were a pair.
G & G, as they were known among their fellow skaters and fans, captured the pairs title in Calgary that winter with ease. Yet their partnership remained an on-ice affair. After their Olympic win, Sergei went out with friends his own age. Ekaterina, too shy to protest, celebrated solo—with three bowls of ice cream from the athletes’ cafeteria.
The Olympic year is a trying period, and most athletes have problems afterward. It knocks you off track. When the time came to skate at the World Championships, I fell during the free program. In order to ease the disappointment of losing, I decided to buy myself something to wear for the banquet. I don’t know what got into me, but I bought a miniskirt, one with a flared hem, and a blouse to match.
I was very, very shy about wearing this outfit to the banquet. But I did it, and I was proud of myself. Sergei saw me and just said, “Wow.” That helped. I began to understand that in order to get attention, I had to wear something nice, maybe even something a little sexy. Andrei Bukin, the ice dancer, hung around me at the banquet, and so did the American skater Christopher Bowman. Lots of boys did, in fact. Sergei didn’t say anything, but it was clear to me that he didn’t appreciate it when other boys gave me attention.
In the fall of 1988, I suffered a stress fracture in my right foot. The cast would stay on for a month. I went down to the rink to watch Sergei one day in late December. It made my heart ache to have to stand on the side while Sergei skated through our program without me, and silly as it sounds, I worried that he might decide he was not going to wait for me and would choose a new partner.
“You look so sad, Katuuh,” he said to me, skating over. (Katuuh was the name he called me in casual conversation. Katia he only used when he was serious. Later, when he wanted to call me his lovely, romantic wife, he called me Katoosha, very soft.) “So, you’d like to skate?” He smiled his wonderful, warming smile. “Come on. I’ll give you a little ride.” With that he lifted me in his arms and skated me all through our program. It was like flying, and my heart was beating so loudly I was sure he could hear it. It was better than being well.
My family invited Sergei to join us for New Year’s, which we were spending this year up at the Volga River home of our friend Yegor Guba. In the middle of the afternoon on the 31st, Sergei asked if I would come with him to see our friend Sasha Fadeev. Fadeev had bought some land nearby, and he’d built a sauna on it.
Only Sasha took a sauna that day. Sergei and I sat at a table and talked, and he gave me a small glass of vodka. He said, “I want to tell you something.” But whatever it was, he was having trouble saying it. Even the vodka didn’t help. I knew there was something special on his mind.
Then he said, “Why don’t we kiss?” Something like that. It wasn’t really a question. He could probably see I wanted it, too. He gave me a gentle kiss on the mouth, and when he saw that I liked it, he gave me one that was longer. This one was interrupted by Sasha coming out of the sauna to get something to eat. I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t even look at him.
I remember walking back to Yegor’s and listening to the cold crunching of the snow beneath our footsteps. The fields were all blanketed in white, and the moon gave us shadows. It was so beautiful, and I was so happy. I wondered, why me? Why am I so lucky? I was so young and small and shy, and Sergei could have had any nice long-legged girl. Why should he choose me? I felt, much older all of a sudden.
I didn’t say anything to anyone about being kissed by Sergei. Maybe because I was worried that he was just in a good mood that day and that’s why he wanted to kiss me. Maybe because, deep down, I believed he would love me just for a little while, and then it would be over.
The next day I asked, “Seriozha, why did you pick me? I’m not old enough. I’m not beautiful enough. My body’s not perfect.” But Sergei put his fingers to my lips and said,” You’re already 17. You have a beautiful body. I love you just the way you are.”
It was very important to Sergei that he not scare me. I had no experience with men. My mother had never really had the chance to tell me about the facts of life. But I didn’t feel awkward or inadequate, even though I know I was at first. Sergei just couldn’t hurt people. He had no meanness in him. None. Every girl, I think, would have loved to have this kind of lover for their first experience with sex.
At the 1989 World Championships in Paris in March, Sergei and I tried to skate the same as we always did; and truthfully it felt no different to skate with him now than before we were in love. The big change had been after he dropped me a year earlier. Since then, Sergei had always held me like I was something he was afraid to lose.
When I think about this time in Paris, I just want to smile and smile. It was the only time in my career that the competition meant nothing to me. It was sunny outside, I was in love, and I remember warming up on the fresh green grass, wondering why in such a gorgeous city with such beautiful weather did we have to go into an ice rink and compete? It didn’t seem to hurt our performance. We won, and to celebrate, Sergei took me to lunch. We had tried not to tell people that we were now boyfriend and girlfriend, but the other skaters realized that I had grown up, that I now had more of a woman’s body. And after this lunch we were laughing and kissing on the street. I didn’t care if anyone saw us. I was just drunk all the time with love.
Sergei started to suggest books for me to read. Gone with the Wind was one, and I liked it very much. But I had no memory for books. If I read a book, I’d forget what it was about tomorrow. But Sergei remembered everything. He’d rather read a book than almost anything, and if you tried to interrupt him, it was as if he were suddenly deaf and you were invisible.
Sergei was also crazy about dogs. So that spring, after the European tour, he got a bullterrier puppy that he named Moshka. It was white, with a black ring around its left eye. In mid-May, Sergei, Moshka and I went to my family’s dacha in the village of Ligooshina for 10 days, just the three of us. It was the first time Sergei and I had ever spent so much time alone together. He was calm and happy, never moody. He loved to play with his dog. I cooked for Sergei, big breakfasts and creative dinners.
My favorite thing, then and always, was to drive with Sergei in the car. I’d put my head on his shoulder as he drove, and Sergei would listen to music—Bon Jovi, Annie Lennox. He’d drive until he found a nice place to stop, then we’d talk or kiss. He gave me cognac sometimes so I’d relax. He told me the first time, “Try it, Katoosha. It’s very nice.” And he was right. It remains burned in my memory that it was always exciting to be in a car with Sergei, when it was dark outside and he was driving.
That fall, Moshka died. We had been at an exhibition in Germany, and Sergei’s mother, Anna, was taking care of the dog. It stopped eating one day. When Sergei came home, he took Moshka to the vet right away. Sergei had not given Moshka her puppy shots, and she was suffering from distemper. Sergei took Moshka home, and that night the puppy pushed open his bedroom door, which she had never done before, and Sergei lifted her into his bed. Two hours later she died.
Sergei called me in the morning and told me. It was very, very sad for him. He buried her in the forest, and didn’t skate that day. He later said to me, “Why do things happen to the ones I love?” That was the first time he told me that his best friend had died a few years earlier in a car crash.
For New Year’s 1990, we again returned to celebrate with Yegor. So much had happened in the last twelve months, so much within me had changed, I could hardly believe it was just a year ago that Sergei had kissed me for the first time. Now, of course, as I write this, I’d give anything to go back and relive 1989. Every moment of it, good and bad, starting with the trip to Sasha Fadeev’s sauna. I’d go back there in a heartbeat, and remain.
Sergei and Katia married in 1991, had their daughter, Daria, the next year and won their second Olympic gold medal at Lillehammer in 1994. Not long after their move later that year to Simsbury, Sergei began experiencing back pain and loss of sensation in the toes of his left foot. His father had died after his fourth heart attack, at 56, but Sergei had had a clean EKG in late 1993, and none of the doctors he consulted now suspected coronary trouble.
On Nov. 20,1995, while he and Katia were training at a rink in Lake Placid, N. Y., Sergei suddenly failed to put his arms around her as they practiced a lift. He glided slowly to the rink’s edge and lay down, carefully, on the ice, unable to answer when Katia begged to know what was wrong. He died an hour later at a nearby hospital.