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For Berezhnaya, a Total Comeback From a Gruesome Mishap

by Jere Longman
Mon. Dec. 22, 1997
from The New York Times

MUNICH, Germany -- She called it "a little miracle." And it has seemed an inexplicable wonder that Yelena Berezhnaya could recover so completely from a severe head injury and become a potential Olympic figure skating champion.

Berezhnaya and her partner, Anton Sikharulidze, won their first major international pairs competition on Saturday at the Champions Series Final, a preview of the Winter Games in two months in Nagano, Japan. A future that once seemed frightening and grim perhaps will now be golden.

The Russian pair defeated the reigning world champions, Mandy Wotzel and Ingo Steuer of Germany, as well as their own training partners, Artur Dmitriev and Oksana Kazakova. Such an accomplishment could not have seemed possible shortly after Jan. 9, 1996, when Berezhnaya's former partner sliced a deep cut into her head with his skate blade while they practiced side-by-side camel spins. The injury left her hospitalized and temporarily unable to speak.

"No, no, no," said Tamara Moskvina, who coaches the 20-year-old Berezhnaya in St. Petersburg, Russia, and who rushed to see her in the hospital in Riga, Latvia, where she had been training in 1996. "I only thought about the person, not the skater. She was laying in the bed, motionless, speechless, thin like a chicken."

The skate blade penetrated Berezhnaya's skull, Moskvina said, requiring surgery to remove bone debris. After the skater had been hospitalized for a month, Sikharulidze came by train and furtively took Berezhnaya back to St. Petersburg.

The injury had been an accident, but Berezhnaya had quarreled often with her former partner, Oleg Sliakhov, and said she had become afraid of him. Sikharulidze was Berezhnaya's boyfriend at the time, and he decided to return her to Russia. Soon, he would also become her skating partner.

"We didn't know if he would let her leave and skate with another partner," Sikharulidze said. Sliakhov is a native of Latvia and he and Berezhnaya had been competing for the Baltic nation after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Five months after the accident, Berezhnaya began a cautious return to skating. "I was afraid for a couple of days," she said. "Not anymore. I have taken care of that. Now I just skate and I always feel fine."

Nearly two years later, however, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze still do not practice their camel spins in close proximity, Moskvina said. No sense in risking injury or perpetuating fear. Only in competition do they spin side by side.

"Mostly I had to be like a psychologist," the 21-year-old Sikharulidze said, explaining how he helped Berezhnaya regain her confidence. "Sometimes I think it was harder on me. I knew that if I went down with her, it would be a big problem. I can't say why or how exactly, but maybe she helped me, too."

Berezhnaya began taking speech therapy in the fall of 1996. By March 1997, she and Sikharulidze took third place in the short program at the world championships before sliding to ninth after the long program. While Dmitriev and Kazakova are powerful and dramatic, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze represent the classic Russian style with speed, lightness, and flow. She attains great height on a triple twist when he seems to throw her as if she were a discus.

"They are two different dishes, like meat and fish," said Moskvina, who coaches both pairs. "It depends on what the judges prefer."

Dmitriev won the 1992 Olympic gold medal and a silver in 1994 with his former partner Natalya Mishkutenok. Berezhnaya and her former partner competed for Latvia in 1994, and they finished eighth in Lillehammer, Norway. But she and Sikharulidze will be gold medal contenders in Nagano. The key to their success may be Sikharulidze's ability to control his volcanic temper.

"This is what I worked on mainly," Moskvina said. "Before he would get angry, frustrated and it would cause an avalanche. Now he has started to fight and do the jumps. Yelena is strong, tough. Like a stone wall."