NAGANO, Japan -- "It is a Hollywood story, a fairy tale," said figure skating coach Tamara Moskvina.
She was talking of the Russian pair that moves on the ice in perfect unison, that shows no fear or favor while performing daring spins and jumps. She was marveling over the skills and courage of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.
Two years ago, Berezhnaya lay near death with a brain injury.
Now she is at the Winter Olympics, preparing for the start of tomorrow's pairs short program. And she and Sikharulidze are gold-medal favorites.
It is a tale that is slipping into figure skating legend.
"I have a new life, I have a new everything," Berezhnaya said. "It's a really good life. And now I am very happy."
On Jan. 9, 1996, at a practice rink in Riga, Latvia, the tiny skater with the big blue eyes was hurt. She was slashed on the left side of the head, clipped with a skate while performing side-by-side camel spins with her ex-partner, Oleg Sliakhov.
Doctors cleaned the wound and worried that she might not survive. She lay in bed, motionless and speechless.
"She was so skinny, like a chicken," said Moskvina, who rushed to the hospital from St. Petersburg. "I did not think of her skating. I just thought of her as a person."
Berezhnaya recovered, though her speech was slowed. And she vowed to skate again. But not with Sliakhov, her partner at the 1994 Winter Olympics. They quarreled constantly. And she grew to fear him.
It was Sikharulidze who came to her rescue, who took her out of Latvia on a night-time train to St. Petersburg. They began skating in March 1996. For a time, they fell in love and then out of love. But they remained friends. And partners.
They also received strict orders from Moskvina.
"I told Anton that Elena was like a vase," she recalled. "If you drop it, it will be hurt and broken into pieces. You can try to glue the pieces together, but they may break again."
"I told him to be a man," Moskvina said.
Sikharulidze took the challenge.
"It was very hard," he said. "I thought about it all the time. If we did the lifts and I fell, it would be a big, big problem. But I think Elena helped me."
She showed courage. She demanded that the couple perfect the daring maneuvers that make pairs skating a danger.
"It was easier for me," Berezhnaya said.
By last year's world championships they soared, taking the lead in the short program. But they faltered badly in the long, dropping to ninth.
Still, they were not discouraged.
"We understand what we're doing," Sikharulidze said. "Our styles are the same. It looks easy, but it's hard. We smile. It's like we tell funny stories on the ice."
"And we like the huge elements," he added. "I like it when people in the stadium love what they're watching."
With their beautiful lines and their growing confidence, they have dominated the world skating stage this year, winning the Champions Series Final in Munich in December.
But to win here they will have to beat a field that has grown in depth and ability.
The field includes 1996 world champions Marina Eltsova and Andrei Buskhov, and former Olympic champion Artur Dmitriev, who is with a new partner, Oksana Kazakova. This foursome shows the usual brilliance of Russian skating.
Defending world champions Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer of Germany are also battling against time and injury. He is still bothered by a strained right shoulder that was injured when he was grazed in a hit-and-run auto accident in December.
Americans Kyoko Ina and Jason Dungjen, and Jenni Meno and Todd Sand could join the battle for bronze.
But the focus will be on the Russian pair that has overcome so much, that yearns to write a perfect final of a Hollywood tale.
Can Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze win?
"If we think about the gold medal, I don't think we could win," Sikharulidze said, "Some judges like classical styles. Others like the new style. How do I like skating? I like skating with speed."
Pub Date: 2/07/98