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The Long Road Back

Steve Milton
Sat. Dec. 20, 1997
from CTV's Rink

You get the impression we might be looking at the next Olympic champions. And what a tale that would be.

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, showing by far the most flair of any of the five pairs in the field, easily won the Champions Series Final today, less than two years after people were wondering if Berezhnaya would ever speak, let alone skate, again.

The wispy native of Nevinnomissk, celebrating her 20th birthday with their victory, was horribly injured in one of skating's worst accidents in January 1996. She was practising a camel spin with her then-partner Oleg Shliahkov with whom she skated for Latvia and his skate blade penetrated her skull, leaving her immobilized and unable to speak.

She was in the hospital for over a month and when she was released, she no longer wanted to skate with Shliakhov. Sikharulidze drove her to St. Petersburg and they became a couple both on and off the ice. They have since disbanded their social relationship but remain very close, and it shows in their presentations.

"He treats her like porcelain," said their coach, the legendary Tamara Moskvina, who also handles Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev who were third today behind runners up and local favorites Mandy Wotzel and Ingo Steuer.

"And I told him like porcelain, if you drop it will be hurt and broken into pieces."

Moskvina noted that their is a huge disparity in the dispositions of the winning pair.

"He can get angry and frustrated, he gets nervous with his jumps," Moskvina said. "And Elena is a stone wall, mentally.

"They have got this far quickly because of teamwork. He takes care of her, he loves her. I teach them to take care of each other, how to do their jumps, how to talk to the media."

Moskvina, one of the great raconteurs of the figure skating world and an expert at political gamesmanship, is noted for her innovative pairs spins and lifts--witness the ultra-flexibility of her other pair--but Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze are a rarity for her: a classical pair.

"When you have a pair and in only one year you must get them near the top with all of their jumps and throws, then you don't have time to do innovative things," she said. "I am not a magician. Next year, I'll give them some new things."

Which isn't good news to the rest of the world's top pairs.

Among those are Wotzel and Steuer, who entered the final in first place. But their throw triple salchow turned into a double and they messed up their side-by-side jumps as did Kazakova and Dmitriev.

Still, it was a sterling result for the Germans, who thought only a week ago that theymight not compete again this year let alone this weekend. Steuer had been hit by a car and suffered excruciating headaches, resulting from a pinched nerve in his shoulder. The headaches have abated but there is still periodic pain in his shoulder, which was evident yesterday in their shortened lifts and death spirals.

As world champions, they will factor in Nagano, but right now today's winners are squarely in the drivers' seats.

"I'd say we're in a pretty good position," said Sikharulidze.