My Sergei: A Love Storyby Ekaterina Gordeeva, E. M. Swift
They were two mismatched kids teamed by the Soviets to perform for the state, but they grew up to win four World Championships, two Olympic gold medals -- and the adoration of millions. Along the way, they fell madly in love and married. By 1995 they were the most celebrated pairs skaters ever -- until Sergei died of a sudden heart attack that year. In this moving… See more details below
They were two mismatched kids teamed by the Soviets to perform for the state, but they grew up to win four World Championships, two Olympic gold medals -- and the adoration of millions. Along the way, they fell madly in love and married. By 1995 they were the most celebrated pairs skaters ever -- until Sergei died of a sudden heart attack that year. In this moving love letter, Katya recalls their storybook romance and their thrilling career as skating stars, even offering a candid glimpse behind the Olympic glitter. And she bares her heart as she tells of Sergei's tragedy, her struggle to build a new life for herself and her daughter, and the courage she needed to skate again...alone.
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By Ekaterina Gordeeva E.M. Swift
Warner BooksCopyright © 1997 Ekaterina Gordeeva and E.M. Swift
All right reserved.
As I look back, I see that everything went too smoothly for me. I had no experience with the sadness of life. Even before I met Sergei, I was a happy child, innocent and naive, blessed with good health and much love.
My father, Alexander Alexeyevich Gordeev, was a dancer for the famous Moiseev Dance Company, a folk dancing troupe that performed throughout the world. He had strong legs and a long neck like a ballet dancer, and a stomach that was absolutely flat. Everything he did, he did fast, and he always moved quickly around the house. I can remember my father jumping over swords when he danced, bringing his legs up to his chin as the knifelike blades flashed beneath him, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen times in a row. Or he'd kneel down and kick, left and right, left and right, in the athletic manner of the folk dancers of Russia.
My father wanted me to be a ballet dancer. That was his big dream. He was disappointed that I became a skater. He had gray-blue eyes, the same color as mine, and a kind face. But he was also strict and serious, as if his kind face didn't quite match the words that came out of his mouth.
He met my mother, Elena Levovna, at a dance class when she was fourteen. They married when she was nineteen, and I was born when she was twenty. My mother was the sweet one, always perfect with children, the person I most admire on this earth. Selfless, generous, she was also quite beautiful as a young woman, five feet six inches tall, with a tiny waist and a very feminine figure. She walked like a ballerina, one foot just in front of the other. Her hair was brown, like mine, and wavy. Her fingernails were strong, and she polished them red and wore makeup every day. I used to watch in fascination as she applied it. She was always tender with my younger sister, Maria, and me, smiling much more often than my father.
She worked as a teletype operator for the Soviet news agency Tass. She was proud of her job, which paid her 250 roubles a month-more than my father made-and she liked to look nice when she went to work. She always wore high heels and beautiful clothes that my father had brought back from overseas, attire that set her apart from most Soviet women. She, too, traveled for her work. When I was eleven, my mother spent six months in Yugoslavia, and the next year she worked twelve months in Bonn, West Germany. Even when she was based in Moscow, my mom worked long and irregular hours, from eight in the morning till eight in the evening one day; then from eight in the evening till eight in the morning the next.
So my maternal grandmother, Lydia Fedoseeva, took care of me and my sister. We didn't have to worry about day care or baby-sitters. We called her Babushka, and she was an important person in my life. She was short and a little heavy, but walked very nimbly and was full of energy.
One time, when I was twelve, we were training at a place on the Black Sea, and one of the other skaters left my suitcase in the Moscow airport. The boys were in charge of the bags, the girls were in charge of the tennis racquets, and when I got off the plane, I had this boy's tennis racquet but he'd forgotten my bag. I could have killed him. So I called home to ask them to send my suitcase to me.
My grandmother went to the airport and picked up my bag, but she didn't trust putting it on an airplane by itself. So she took it on an overnight train to Krasnodar, five hundred miles, then took a bus to the resort where we trained. I got a call from the guard at the gate saying my bag had arrived. I went to pick it up, and there was my grandmother. I wanted to cry when I saw her. "Babushka, what are you doing here?" I asked.
She told me she had brought me my suitcase. She only stayed a few hours, then she walked to the bus and took the overnight train back home to Moscow.
Her hair was always short and neatly styled. When my grandmother was nineteen years old, her hair turned completely white, like paper, and ever since, she went regularly to the hairdresser. Her face was darling; her voice soft and soothing. I loved to listen to her read to my sister and me at night. My favorites were Grimm's fairy tales. Very, very scary. My grandmother did most of the cooking, and I liked to help her in the kitchen. She taught me how to knit and sew, and made my skating costumes for me until I was eleven. She taught me how to suck the yolks out of eggs and decorate the shells for Easter. That was one of my family's favorite holidays. A few weeks before Easter came, Babushka used to take a plate, fill it with earth, then plant grass in the earth. She watered it and tended it until the grass grew up. Then on Easter morning we'd hide painted eggs in the grass for my sister, Maria, to find.
My grandfather-my mother's father-also lived with us. His name was Lev Fedoseev, and I called him Diaka, which is short for diadushka: grandfather. He had been a colonel in the tank division during World War II, a prestigious position that enabled us to live in a lifestyle that was, while not extravagant, quite comfortable by Soviet Union standards. He taught about tank warfare at the Red Army academy in Moscow. He always wore a uniform to work, covered by a warm gray coat in winter and a big fur hat and strong leather boots. His uniform always smelled very weird to me, pungent and musty, so he took it off as soon as he came home. Then he would have a nice long dinner, followed by a glass or two of cognac.
He called me Katrine-nobody else called me this-and he liked both me and my sister very much. He was a calm man, a quiet man, who used to let Maria and me play with his medals from the war. We also liked to look at his books. I remember thumbing through his history books and geography books, which were very old and filled with maps of famous battles, much more interesting than our fairy tales.
We lived in a five-room apartment on the eleventh floor of a twelve-story building on Prospekt Kalenena, near the Russian White House, where the parliament meets. It was a fantastic location, with a good view of the Moscow River. From the balcony we used to be able to watch the soldiers on parade march past our building on their way to Red Square. It was also a beautiful spot to watch holiday fireworks, which were aimed so they'd come down in the river. The Olympic torch in 1980 was also exchanged on our street. I remember watching the ceremony from our balcony when I was nine years old.
From what I could tell, I was the luckiest girl on earth, wanting for nothing. Like most children, I never thought much about the rest of the world. I never heard bad things about the United States, either on television or in school, was never frightened that someone would drop bombs on us, and never worried that the United States and the Soviet Union would go to war. It was more like: We're the happiest country; we're the greatest nation. I was fourteen before I began to learn anything about politics, and by then I understood, or started to, that when the government tells you something, it doesn't necessarily mean it's true.
My parents used to vacation for a month every summer at the Black Sea. I hated to swim. I've always hated to swim, I don't know why. I'm not very good at it, and my mother tells me that the only time I ever got angry as a child was when I couldn't do something well. But in a roundabout way, a Black Sea vacation was how I got started skating.
On one trip my parents met a skater who trained at the Central Red Army Club. The club was known by its initials: CSKA, an acronym that we pronounced cesska. The army, like many trade unions in the former Soviet Union-automobile manufacturers, farm equipment makers, coal miners, steel workers-sponsored sports clubs throughout the country, and the biggest and most prestigious of these was CSKA. These sports clubs-and there were hundreds and hundreds of them nationwide-were quite professionally run, with the best coaches and facilities. They turned out the elite athletes that made the Soviet Union an international powerhouse in sports.
One key to the success of the clubs was identifying talented children at a young age and teaching them sound fundamentals so they could reach their full potential. Tryouts were held by age group, and they were open to anyone. Your parents didn't have to have any army affiliation to join CSKA. If your child was selected, the club was free of charge. It was affiliated with a sports school in Moscow that also provided the young athletes an education. It was a great honor to be admitted to any sports club, but particularly CSKA, because sports was one of the few means by which a Soviet citizen could travel and see the world; and top athletes also got many privileges unavailable to the ordinary citizen, like hard-to-find Moscow apartments, cars, and relatively generous monthly stipends.
This skater knew of my father's dance company, and he suggested that my parents bring me to the rink at the army club in September to try out. I was only four years old, too young to start ballet and too young even to try out for skating. But this friend lied to CSKA officials and told them I was five, which was the age at which you were allowed to join. I was very tiny, which is an advantage for a girl in skating, and they took me right away.
It was impossible to find skates small enough to fit me in Moscow at that time, so I wore several pair of socks beneath the smallest skates my mother could find. The first year I skated twice a week, a regimen that increased to four times a week when I was five. It was just an activity to me, something to give me exercise. I didn't have any goals in mind. If it hadn't been skating, it would have been gymnastics or dance. My mom never really believed I'd be anything special as a skater until Sergei and I won the Junior World Championships when I was thirteen. She just wanted me to be a normal kid and thought whatever I was doing was great. I never dreamed about Olympic medals or traveling the world like my parents. On the ice, I was not a good jumper. I just liked to skate.
But the Central Red Army Club had a long history of producing skating champions, and the coaches knew how to train a young child for future success. We did physical conditioning off the ice three times a week-abdominals, jumping, leg exercises-and ballet training three days a week, which I loved. We learned how to stand, how to hold our heads, how to hold our hands and arms. Everything. There was a mirror the entire length of the army club rink where we skated, so we could keep an eye on our posture. And I was always the smallest one, boy or girl.
My mother tells me that as a child I was obedient. I was not a troublemaker at all. And disciplined. In order to be at the rink by 7:00 a.m., which was when we had ice, I had to be up at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. Sometimes my parents wouldn't want to drive me to the early practice. I'd toddle in and wake them, insisting, "I can't miss it. It's my job."
This side of me came from my father. He was very hard on me, very demanding. He got mad at me if my hair wasn't braided, or if my shirt wasn't tucked in, or if my room wasn't neat; if my posture wasn't right, or if my face wasn't clean, or if my food wasn't eaten.
As a child I was always tense around my father. He expected me to be able to tell time when I was four years old. My mom always said, "It's all right, she'll learn it soon enough." She always had sympathy for me, probably because I was so tiny. But my father just kept on pushing me. I was scared of him. If he came to help me with my homework, my head didn't absorb anything because I was so afraid that I'd make a mistake. Always fast in mind and movement, he wanted the answers immediately. I got so stiff, so panicky, I couldn't do it. He expected the homework perfect, with no mistakes. If I didn't do it right, he made me repeat it again and again, until it was not just correct, but also neat. I used to make my sixes backward, and if I erased one of these mistakes, I had to do the whole homework sheet over again.
Looking back now, I can see that he was teaching me to strive for perfection. Sometimes I think he overdid it. But whenever I made a remark like "I want to finish first" or "I want to be the best," my father liked it.
Deep down, though, my father always had a kind heart. It's said that the eyes are a window to the soul, and I know it's true, because my father's eyes were kind. He sometimes came to my room before I went to bed and said, "Katia, I'm sorry I was so hard on you." He used to get angry with me if I got sick, saying it was my fault because I wasn't wearing warm enough clothes. I was even afraid to cough in front of him. But in the evening he'd come up to my room and give me my medicine, or would rub cream on my chest, and he'd apologize for getting mad.
He explained that he was the way he was because he'd always been hard on himself. He was already a dancer when he began serving two years in the army, and every night, after doing his army duties all day, he'd go to the ballet and work out so he wouldn't lose his conditioning. He told me, you always have to do extra. If your coach tells you to do five jumps, you must do eight. If everyone else does something once, you must do it twice.
Now I see my father with my daughter, Daria, and I can't believe he's the same man. He's so patient, and will take hours to explain something to her. If he asks her to clean up her toys, he will also help. I don't remember my father ever helping me clean up. When Daria was little, he would feed her the bottle and hold her as long as he could. He is completely different now that he's a grandfather. His body shape is different, too. Perhaps there's a connection.
I went to a sports school as a child. It wasn't just for CSKA athletes. There were also kids there from other sports clubs around Moscow. But everyone in the school trained in a sport in addition to taking regular classes. One of my classmates, in fact, was the hockey player Pavel Bure, who's now with the Vancouver Canucks.
Elementary schools in Russia have ten grades, and you start when you're seven and graduate at sixteen. We all wore uniforms. From grades one through eight, the girls' uniform was a brown dress with a black apron in the front. On holidays, the black apron was replaced by a white apron. At the top of the dress we wore a little white lace collar that was removeable and could be washed separately, because the collar was we wore a little white lace collar always supposed to be clean. Then in Grades nine and ten the uniform changed to a navy blue skirt and jacket, under which you could wear any color blouse. The boys, throughout, wore navy blue pants and jackets.
Then there were the pins.
Excerpted from My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva E.M. Swift Copyright © 1997 by Ekaterina Gordeeva and E.M. Swift . Excerpted by permission.
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