Winning isn't first for Berezhnaya After near-fatal injury, comeback draws ovations


LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- They call Elena Berezhnaya figure skating's fragile vase, a woman who lay near death with a brain injury just 15 months ago, yet who is back on the ice, skating and reaching for medals.

Last night, Berezhnaya and her new Russian pairs partner, Anton Sikharulidze, brought drama to the World Figure Skating Championships. They soared into third place in the short program and the crowd stood and roared, admiring a soulful performance and acknowledging Berezhnaya's grit and grace.

On Jan. 9, 1996, at a practice rink in Riga, Latvia, the tiny skater with the big blue eyes sustained a harrowing injury. She was slashed on the head when her ex-partner, Oleg Sliakhov, clipped her with a skate blade as they performed side-by-side camel spins.

Doctors cleaned out the wound and hoped for the best. The brain injury impaired Berezhnaya's speech and, after months of therapy, she continues to speak slowly. Yet amazingly, she wanted to skate again. But not with Sliakhov, her partner at the 1994 Winter Olympics. The two quarreled constantly. And she feared him, even though she lived with his family.

Enter legendary Russian coach Tamara Moskvina. When she first arrived at the hospital in Latvia, she saw a skater who was motionless and speechless.

"The doctors said, 'Let's not speak of her future as a skater. Let's speak of her health,' " Moskvina said.

She nursed the skater back to health. And then, she arranged for Berezhnaya to be spirited out of Latvia. It was Sikharulidze who took his new partner on a night-time train to St. Petersburg.

The couple stood on the ice for the first time last March. Two months later, the hard practices began.

"I wasn't afraid," Berezhnaya said.

But Moskvina was.

"When I started to teach them, every minute I was afraid to look," she said.

The couple meshed, finishing second in the Russian championships and third at the European championships.

And now, at the worlds, a medal is within reach entering tonight's long program. Germany's Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer are first. Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov are second. Jenni Meno and Todd Sand of the United States are fourth, ahead of teammates Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen.

Yet win or lose, this is really Berezhnaya's night. And Sikharulidze's.

Even Moskvina isn't sure how the new couple will perform. The lyrical show they provided in the short program was a revelation, even to the wise coach.

"I'm rather emotional," Moskvina said. "I won't cry. But if I was her mother, I would cry."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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