Ekaterina Gordeeva, Ilia Kulik: A FAIRY TALE FOR TWO
|Photo © Alexander Wilf
Ilia Kulik and Ekaterina Gordeeva in Moscow
It was snowing at the Red Square in Moscow, while Ilia Kulik and Ekaterina (Katya) Gordeeva skated there. They came to Moscow together for the first time as the participants in the exhibition show. Katya came to Moscow in the past to work at other shows, but Ilja lived all of his professional life, about ten years, abroad since he left the big sport in 1998.
They went to practice on ice directly from the airport – wanted to check it out right away. They looked tired which was not surprising since they just came from a long flight and endured Moscow’s traffic jams. But even that would not interfere with an unusual aura and a feeling of mutual warmth, love and care for each other which could be seen in every move and every sight of Ilia and Katya when they looked at each other. Absolute happiness probably looks that way.
1997, SAN JOSE
Two years after the death of her partner and husband Sergey Grinkov, we met in the States where Katya performed as a single skater in professional competitions, which were organized by two time Olympic Champion Dick Button. At that time, she was raising her daughter, Dasha, wrote a book «My Sergey» and was the darling of the US. Practically everyone in the States knew her and was sincerely sorry for her. But she seemed to continue having her personal problems.
Figure skating became for her not just a hobby, but a means to survival, she did not have any other skills that would provide her with an income. Actually she never had any other life, but the one in figure skating: performances, interviews, travels, again performances, and more interviews where correspondents were opening old wounds.
Then, coming back to Moscow from San Jose, I wrote an article where I said: «Americans love beautiful fairy tales which they dream up themselves. According to the rules of this genre, in the near future a fair prince would appear, would take her by the hand and would lead her to a happy future. Unfortunately there are much fewer princes than single figure skaters»
A fair prince by the name of Ilia Kulik was practicing at that time in the small town of Malboro, coached by Tatiana Tarasova. He was getting ready for his first Olympic Games. The preceding season was one of the most unsuccessful seasons for the skater. In 1995, he became the European Champion. A year later he won silver at the World Championship in Edmonton. In 1997 he lost at every major competition. Then he got a severe trauma when he punctured his boot with a skate at the practice. Sometimes later he received a trauma to his back. For several months before the Olympics, he was practicing with the single goal of winning the Olympics in Nagano.
After winning, he abruptly severed all of his ties with the sport, left Tarasova and dropped out of the World Championship. After taking off, at 20 his amateur career was irrevocably over. These unexplained moves draw quite an unattractive picture of this young man. He was rude, egotistical, narcissistic, uncompromising with the people around him. It was hard to communicate with him. At the same time, the fans in Russia got another idol of amateur figure skating - Alexey Yagudin. The news about professional skating abroad did not travel well to Russia. But at exactly that time, Ilia met Katya at the show Stars on Ice. In this absolutely unfamiliar and difficult to understand world of professional figure skating, Katya became the friend that Ilia needed most of all.
Matured, but still as quick in his moves as he was the year he won the Olympics, Ilia Kulik was sitting in a cozy bar near Red Square with Katya and reminiscing.
He said: «I never had a feeling that I rushed my decision to leave amateur sports. I probably could have continued skating; after all I was only 20. My age was not an issues, it was my motivation. Physically I feel myself fine even now. At that time I asked myself a question - what was the reason for me to continue to do what I did not enjoyed doing anymore? There were many other factors added in 1998. I was exhausted morally – to win the Olympics I worked too hard and for too long. Also, I was traumatized. I loved to skate and I always loved to perform, but at that time I was just burned out. And I assumed at that time that professional figure skating was a world in which I could continue to grow»
– I remember how hard you worked in preparation for the Olympics. Was it worth it?
– Of course it was worth it. It is a life test for any sportsperson. It is an opportunity that one can have once in a lifetime, and which could not be exchanged for anything. I am very happy that I passed that test. Deep in my soul I am very proud of myself. The games at Nagano became for me more of a test of my life durability, rather than a sports event.
– What happened after that?
– I had a very tough year. I performed in 75 shows of Champions on Ice by Tom Collins. The tour was stretching into fall and in the winter I started performing in Stars on Ice and performed in another 65 shows. It was a pressure cooker, especially for me, not familiar with the specifics of professional sport. I used my techniques that I accumulated throughout my amateur career.
– What were those specifics?
– One has to perform every day. In different cities and on different ice. Constant travel. The tiredness, inability to recuperate, sleep deprivation and not enough time for practice accumulate and after a while life gets really difficult. The tour is usually going on without any practice – there is no place or no time for practice. That is the specifics – to perform not when you are ready, but when you must. It is hard to live in this regiment.
– You participated in three World competitions of professional skaters. Was it just a job not different from the ice shows, or was there a sport’s challenge?
– I did not quite understand it from the beginning. I skated against Kurt Browning and Brian Boitano who had in their programs just a couple of simple jumps, while I was performing complex technical jumps like triple axels and many other triple jumps and I was losing to them. I was shocked, but then I realized that it was not the technical stuff but rather the style, music and costumes that I needed to find for me. It was hard to get used to it, but it was interesting.
The specifics of Stars on Ice were strange and difficult to comprehend for Gordeeva as well. Similar to Kulik, she remembers a constant state of shock because after years in the amateur sports it was difficult to understand what was expected of her.
Just jumping and turning was not enough. One may have to get on ice up to six times in one show. One can not get ill while performing in the show. Even if one is ill he/she has to come out on the ice. One can only miss a solo number. Not to show up for a group number meant to let down the whole group. Of course anyone may get ill. During a 3-4 moth tour everyone gets 1 or 2 serious illnesses like high fever, sore throat, bronchitis and so on, while they usually continue to perform with the help of antibiotics. Usually when one person gets ill in a few days the whole cast is coughing and sneezing.
In Stars on Ice Ilia and Katya were performing a special pair number choreographed for them by Sandra Bezic. In time, their sympathy grew into a more deep feeling. Among the figure skaters there were rumors that the love of Katya complicated Ilia’s life among the skaters very much. It was told that the co-producer of the show, Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton, was openly fond of Gordeeva, even when she was skating with Grinkov and the feelings of Kulik to her he considered as a personal assault. Probably it was not that at all. The attitude toward Gordeeva after the death of Grinkov in America became very possessive. As soon as a man appeared next to her, the jealousy came out.
It was hard to talk to Kulik about this subject. In 2001, when Katja was pregnant with Ilia’s child and even moved with him to California where he had a house, they seriously quarreled. It was hardly a surprise. Seen by outsiders as a fragile and unprotected woman, in reality Katya had nerves of steel. Olympic Champions rarely could be any different. It was no wonder that the sparks flew in their relationship.
That year, for the first time, Ilia was able to win the professional World Championship. It was a paradox that regardless of the specifics of this event that he was talking about in the previous years, he won in Washington, the permanent venue for this event. He won by performing his «Rhapsody in Blue» which he performed almost as flawlessly as in Nagano. When, after the competition, I asked him to say hello to Katya, he refused to do it. A few months later they got married.
2003, St. PETERSBURG
Sometimes it is enough to hear how a woman pronounces the name of her husband as to realize if she is happy or not. The way Katya called her husband Iljusha, stayed in my ears for a long time after we met in St. Petersburg where Gordeeva performed in the show of Artur Dmitriev. She told me that in addition to his own shows, he is coaching Dasha and is teaching the younger one to stay on skates. Katya said that Ilja helps other people, helps around the house and she added sincerely that she was happy that her life went that way. A big family was happiness for her, although she would like that the age difference between her two daughters would not be so large. On the one hand it was good – Dasha was helping her with Lisa. On the other hand it would be nice if Lisa would have a brother or sister closer to her in age. «If one would know for sure that the third one would be a boy….» - said Katya.
It seems now that Kulik was always more mature than he was given credit for. For the first time I thought about it when I heard what he unexpectedly said in 1997. At that time he lived in Malboro, selflessly practiced, but off ice sometimes he was behaving as a naughty boy. Once when we were driving to the rink together, I tried to scald the cheeky youngster for his behavior towards Tarasova. And I was surprised to hear: «Don’t you understand that I can cook and wash my clothes by myself. But Tatiana Tarsova likes to be in charge and to control all of my life. She needs it, not me. I am just playing her game. It does not have any relation to my work»
Actually the decision to leave the big sport after Nagano was the decision of a grown man. It was not easy at the age of 20 to make a decision and not to feel sorry for it later.
During our meeting in Moscow, Ilia confessed:
–I can not say that I think about figure skating all the time. Life changed. If I have an opportunity I try to spend more time with my family. Lisa is practicing on ice. We drive her to the rink and we do not have time for our own serious practice on ice in preparation for serious performances as we used to in the past. We are selecting our own tour schedule these days. We reject all proposals for New Year Eve since we want to spend that time together as a family. I am not concerned about finding a job. Maybe there will be fewer proposals, or maybe I will earn less, but figure skating is still very popular and so far we are getting more proposals that we could fulfill. Our plans are unpredictable - something falls through in one place, but something else appears in another. Last year we were lucky with Katya – we were invited to perform at 20 shows in Stars on Ice. We could not do the whole tour – to take away 3 month from the family was too much. Naturally the producers were not happy when we could agree only to a few shows, but in our case they understood.
Performances in shows are unequivocally the main way for us of earning money. In the summers, I am usually involved in teaching the seminars for coaches in Switzerland and I always take my family with me. At home, when I have time, I coach everyone who would ask me. These are mostly temporary jobs, but these are the only ones that I can do at this time. It is impossible to practice by myself and to coach others in the same day. I really understood it last winter. Also, even though complex jumps are always well accepted at the shows, I stay away from performing quads – it is too risky to jump – there is not sufficient time for warming up or good illumination. Last winter I started feeling that it was more difficult for me to perform at the shows since I was more involved in coaching others, than in my own practices.
I learned the lesson and now I would not agree to participate in any show if I feel that I was not ready. To give a low quality performance is not recommended in our profession in principle, but for me it is most important to prepare my body as it would tolerate any workload. Otherwise the risk of getting a trauma increases. When I am on the ice, there is no safety net. In the excitement of the performance one could overdo the jumps and if the body is not ready, it is very possible that the show may end up bad, and then it will jeopardize all future jobs.
JAPAN AND MORE
The day after his performance in Moscow, Ilia was flying out to Japan. He likes to perform there since 1998.
– When could we expect you and Katya back in Moscow?
– We do not plan too far ahead. Dasha just started High School. The schools are so different between the States and Russia that our kids can not go to school in Moscow. On the other hand there is more work now in Russia, and it is good for us. We were coming to Russia every year with the children in the summer for vacations. I was offered some jobs at the TV shows, but they were for too long periods of time. Also, I am mostly a single skater and do not have sufficient experience in pairs as to expect to be successful in the TV projects. When in Stars on Ice we skated together with Katya, it took me 3 months to learn something. She is a professional. How one could skate with a person who never skated is beyond me.
– But nevertheless what will happen next? Wouldn’t you like to come back to the big sports in some way?
– I have enough of adrenalin rushes without sports. It is enough for me to see a full hall of spectators. I never come out on the ice without some excitement. For the first 3 years after the Nagano Olympics I could not watch the amateur’s competitions; it was not interesting for me. I like it more now. The new system gives the skater more opportunities than when I was competing. This system provokes people to make mistakes. One can do everything on ice, but if he would produce a wrong program, he would tactically loose. One could do the best in turns or runs, but may fail in jumps. I think that it is an interesting challenge for the coach as well.
– Katya thinks that you could become a very talented coach.
– The work of the coach is very interesting to me. Victor Petrenko, with whose family we are very close in the US, periodically comes to the competitions as a controller and he likes it very much. I like to be on the other side - on the side of coaches and sportspeople. I do not want to be on the side of the judges.
– So, may be it would make sense to take a pupil and to try bringing him to a substantial result?
– As of now our family budget would not allow that.