From triumph to tragedy and back, Ekaterina Gordeeva (born 1971) is not only a champion ice skater, but also a symbol of grace, strength, and courage.
At age 11, Ekaterina Gordeeva (called Katia by her friends) became one of a pair-a pair of "G's"-Gordeeva and Grinkov. In their 13 years of skating together, Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov were first co-workers, became friends, then fell in love, married, became parents, and won four World championships and two Olympic gold medals. However, in 1995, the magic tragically ended when Grinkov died of a heart attack. At only 24, Gordeeva became a widow, a single mother, and solo skater. As she told Time writer Steve Wulf, "Skating was the only thing that could bring back my confidence because it's the only thing I can do. I'm so happy to have a place to express my feelings." Fans worldwide, including former Olympic champion and commentator Dick Button were also happy again. Button, in Time, described Gordeeva as "a very elegant snowflake, but one that is made of steel."
Gordeeva was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1971. Her father, Alexander Alexeyevich Gordeev, a folk dancer for the Moiseev Dance Company, wanted Gordeeva to become a ballet dancer. Her mother, Elena Levovna, was a teletype operator for the Soviet news agent Tass. Gordeeva's parents both worked hard and traveled so much that Gordeeva and her sister, Maria, often stayed with their grandparents. Gordeeva's grandmother read Grimm's fairytales to Gordeeva, not knowing that's how Gordeeva would later describe her life-like a fairytale. Gordeeva, in My Sergei, also commented that "I was the luckiest girl on earth, wanting for nothing." At four, too young to try out for ballet as her father had wanted, Gordeeva was invited by a trainer at the Central Red Army Skating Club in Moscow for a skating tryout. By the time she turned five years old, Gordeeva was practicing four times a week. In My Sergei, Gordeeva remembered, "I can't miss it. It's my job." However, pushed by her father, Gordeeva did try out for ballet school at age ten, but failed. She continued skating and one year later was paired with Grinkov.
Gordeeva and Grinkov-"G & G:" The Fairytale Begins
In December 1983, after a coaching change and just one year of training, Gordeeva & Grinkov finished sixth in the Junior World Championships. The next year, they won. Gordeeva was 13 and began to see Grinkov as more than just her skating partner. In My Sergei, Gordeeva recalled, "I remember becoming aware that I found him attractive, and that it was nice to be with him." However, they never spent much off-ice time together. In 1985, Gordeeva & Grinkov had to endure another coaching change. However, this new coach was a tyrant. Stanislav Zhuk, head coach at the Central Red Army Skating Club, pushed Gordeeva & Grinkov too hard, overtraining them while he drank every day. In spite of this, in their first senior level skating competition, Gordeeva & Grinkov finished second. A few months later, at the European Championships, they won. They then also won the World Championships. Yet, Gordeeva was not happy. In My Sergei she reviewed their performance, "we just proceeded from element to element without feeling, intent only on not making mistakes." In 1986, after petitioning the Central Red Army Skating Club to remove Zhuk as their coach, Gordeeva & Grinkov found joy once again in their skating with their new coach, Stanislav Leonovich.
In 1987, Gordeeva & Grinkov continued their winning streak by placing first at the Russian Nationals. However, they were disqualified at the European Championships because they refused to reskate their long program after a problem with their music. They quickly rebounded however, successfully defended their world title and then began their first American tour with skating promoter Tom Collins. Finally, much to the happiness of Gordeeva, Gordeeva & Grinkov spent off-ice time together. In My Sergei Gordeeva remembered a trip to Disneyland, "Sergei bought me some ice cream. A couple of times he he hugged me after a ride, or put his arm around me when we were standing in line. He had never done this before, and it made me excited. This was a wonderful day for me."
Gordeeva & Grinkov's first Olympics in 1988 was filled with nerves, homesickness, and sickness-Sergei had the flu. However, the nerves did wear off, Grinkov recovered, and they skated both their short and long programs successfully and won the gold medal. However, Gordeeva being just 16, was left behind when Grinkov, 21, celebrated with his older friends. In My Sergei, Gordeeva stated, "I don't remember Sergei … probably because I was so wrapped up in the competition."
In the fall of 1988, Gordeeva was diagnosed as having a stress fracture in her right foot. Gordeeva was sad that she could not skate. Yet Grinkov came up with an idea. As Gordeeva remembered in My Sergei, "Sergei asked, "So you like to skate? Come on. I'll give you a little ride." Grinkov picked up Gordeeva and carried her in his arms as he skated their program. By now they were both falling in love and on New Year's Eve, they finally kissed. Because of Gordeeva's stress fracture, they did not skate in the European Championships that year. However, they did skate at the World Championships in Paris-they won and everyone, friends, fans, and judges alike, saw how much they were in love.
Husband and Wife
In 1990, Gordeeva turned 18 and while she had to adjust to a new grown-up body, Grinkov had to live with pain in his shoulder. At the European Championships, skating to "Romeo and Juliet, " Gordeeva & Grinkov won another title. They next won the World Championships, but skated weakly, feeling burnt out. Hoping for more off-ice time together, they rejoined the Tom Collins skating tour. However, tragedy struck-Grinkov's father died of a heart attack. A few months later, Grinkov suggested to Gordeeva that they turn professional. They did and by 1991 they had won their first of three World Professional Championships. However, winning skating competitions was not the only joy in their lives. The couple married on April 28, 1991.
After Grinkov's shoulder surgery, they returned to the skating tour and began their new life together on the road. However, that life was about to change. In January of 1992, Gordeeva discovered she was pregnant. The couple continued to skate for four months, then awaited the birth of their daughter. Five months later, on September 11, 1992, Daria was born. In My Sergei, Gordeeva recollected, "Daria weighed five pounds, four ounces, and was in perfect health. The fact that she had no hair drove me crazy. I was such a sad, funny little mom."
Just 19 days after Daria's birth, Gordeeva was back on the ice. By October, after deciding to leave their daughter with Gordeeva's mother in Moscow, Gordeeva & Grinkov began rehearsals for the Stars on Ice skating tour in Lake Placid, New York. Two months later, Gordeeva & Grinkov successfully defended their World Professional Championship title, but they missed Daria's first Christmas.
Gordeeva & Grinkov returned home to Moscow in May 1993. After petitioning the International Skating Union to reinstate their amateur status, they began training for their second Olympics. With their new long program, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, they won the Russian Nationals and the European championships. Gordeeva & Grinkov were ready for the 1994 Olympics. However, at the Olympics, they did not skate perfectly-Grinkov had done a single instead of a double jump-still they won their second gold medal. Yet even with their performance not being perfect, Gordeeva stated in My Sergei that she was happy because, "the first gold medal we had won for the Soviet Union. This one we won for each other."
Life After The Olympics
After the Olympics, Gordeeva & Grinkov returned to the professional ice skating world and toured in the United States. However, this tour was different because they had finally found a home in Simsbury, Connecticut. In December of 1994, Gordeeva & Grinkov won their third and last World Professional Championship. The couple took the spring off when Grinkov hurt his back. As they trained later that summer, Grinkov's back continued to hurt, yet Gordeeva & Grinkov completed a tour with Stars on Ice. They then returned to Lake Placid, New York, to practice a new program-a program Gordeeva would never skate with Grinkov.
On November 20, 1995, Gordeeva & Grinkov began a run-through of their new program, but Grinkov had not put his arms around Gordeeva for their lift. In My Sergei, Gordeeva said she thought it was his back again, but Grinkov shook his head then "bent his knees and lay down on the ice very carefully." At 28, Grinkov died of a heart attack. In My Sergei, a few days later at Grinkov's wake, Gordeeva remembered telling 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton, "It was too perfect, maybe. It's only fairytales that have happy endings. Everything was too good with me and Sergei for it to end happily."
A New Life: Skating Solo
On February 27, 1996, Gordeeva began her new life as a solo skater in a televised tribute to Grinkov, A Celebration of a Life. Author E.M. Swift in Sports Illustrated described her performance: "Gordeeva exposed her soul with such gentleness and pathos and strength that no one watching could remain unmoved. This was a rarity: sport, art, and tragedy fused into one." In My Sergei, after her performance, Gordeeva remembered speaking to the audience: "I'm so happy I was able to show you my skating. But I also want you to know that I skated today not alone. I skated with Sergei. It's why I was so good. It wasn't me."
The Gordeeva & Grinkov fairytale has ended. However, Gordeeva continued to not only skate in professional competitions and TV specials like Beauty and the Beast and Snowden on Ice, as well as in the Stars on Ice tour, but she also wrote My Sergei, a memoir of her and Grinkov's life together. In February of 1998, CBS televised an adaptation of this memoir with Gordeeva as narrator. This TV movie showed both the on-and off-ice magic of "G & G" and offered one last look at their fairytale. In May, her second book, A Letter for Daria, was published and the Target department store launched its "Katia" fragrance line.
Gordeeva has become a symbol of grace, strength, and courage not only for ice skating fans, but also for her daughter, Daria. In My Sergei, Gordeeva promised Grinkov, "I will always take good care of her. She'll be the happiest girl ever." Gordeeva also believes, as she told Joanna Powell in Good Housekeeping, that Daria "is a gift from God. When Sergei died she was such a help because she needed attention and I had to take care of her. I think she drove me back to a normal life." As Gordeeva continues to live this normal life, she offered this advice in My Sergei to everyone, "Try to find happiness in everyday. At least once, smile to each other everyday. And say just one extra time that you love the person who lives with you. Just say, 'I love you."'
Further Reading on Ekaterina Gordeeva
Gordeeva, Ekaterina, with E.M. Swift. My Sergei: A Love Story, Warner Books, Inc., 1996.
Good Housekeeping, November 1997, pp. 104-107.
Newsweek, December 23, 1996, pp. 56-59.
Sports Illustrated, February 28, 1994, p. 48-49; Dec. 30, 1996-Jan. 6, 1997, p. 74.
Time, December 4, 1995, p. 89.