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
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
"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
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."