A few weeks before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Tamara Moskvina, the world’s most renowned pairs figure skating coach, met American journalists at a competition in Albertville, France, where soon the 1992 Winter Olympics.
At least the Inquisitors pretended to be reporters. Moskvina noticed that all of their references were to the same news agency, USA Today. The passes had been produced by mistake, but such uniform and bland identification raised joking suspicion that Moskvina was talking to spies, not sports journalists.
“CIA? ” she asked.
Now 80, Moskvina is looking to coach her fifth pair of Olympic gold medalists, in five decades, at the Beijing Games with her playful humor and sense of innovation.
Decades ago, she became one of the earliest proponents of sports psychology. She also brought in choreographers from the Mariinsky Ballet to help refine the style of lyrical skating developed in her hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, and enrolled her pairs in acrobatic lessons.
If the latest training equipment was not available in Soviet times, Moskvina, who holds a doctorate. in educational sciences, improvised his own. His skaters mimicked altitude training by running while wearing snorkels to limit their breathing, seeking to increase their oxygen-carrying capacity for grueling four-minute routines, far longer than the 45-second hockey average. .
Perhaps Moskvina’s greatest strength has been her ability to adapt to desperate and traumatic change. She survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during World War II. And it withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many ice rinks turned into shopping malls and car dealerships amid economic chaos.
She also maintained her professional reputation nearly two decades after an alleged Russian gangster attempt at pair skating and ice dancing at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. Moskvina’s pair, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, have narrowly defeated Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier in a disputed result. Eventually, gold medals were awarded to both pairs. Moskvina was not involved in the scandal and has long denied any involvement.
In a documentary currently airing on Peacock, the NBC streaming service, a former Canadian skater and a Canadian journalist insinuated, without evidence, that Moskvina must have known about any fixes because she is such an operator in the sport. But Sally-Anne Stapleford, who was a powerful international skating official at the time, called Moskvina a person of the “highest integrity” in the documentary, saying: “I’ve never seen her involved in dealings. or bribery”.
In a video interview from St. Petersburg, Moskvina said she was unfazed by the incident.
“Our skaters have become very famous, Tamara has become very famous,” she said.
Moskvina arrived in Beijing with two pairs capable of winning medals, including Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, third after Friday’s short program. A win would mark the 14th time a Soviet or Russian pair have won gold at the 16 Winter Olympics held since 1964.
“No matter how old Tamara is, she’s always full of energy and crazy new ideas,” said Oleg Vasiliev, whom Moskvina coached to her first Olympic gold in pairs in 1984.
Even as an octogenarian, Moskvina is still skating. Until the coronavirus pandemic, she regularly performed a pairs maneuver with Bruno Marcotte, one of Canada’s top coaches, when they met at competitions. Taking the mirror, he would lift it above his head.
“I think it was his way of staying young and hip,” Marcotte said, “and showing his kids, ‘Don’t be fooled by my age, I’m still stronger than you. “”
It is a strength beyond muscle, forged by desperate survival.
Four days before Moskvina was born, on June 26, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Quickly, the Nazis blockaded Leningrad during a siege that lasted nearly 900 days. According to some estimates, more than a million people died. Frozen bodies lay on the sidewalks. The hungry ate cats, dogs, sawdust and wood glue. The most desperate resorted to cannibalism, cutting off the buttocks of the dead.
Moskvina was evacuated to a village in the Urals where her mother’s family lived. Rationed food was limited to 100 grams of bread a day, Moskvina said, the equivalent of 265 calories. The nutritional deficiency is evident today in his height, 4ft 10in. Once, she says, she discovered her cousin’s bread stash and, so hungry, “I stole it.”
Her family returned to Leningrad in 1948, and several years later Moskvina started skating at the age of 10. Wearing hockey-style skates but without skate guards, she walked on her toes or slid on compressed snow for about half a mile to the rink. , where she remained an hour or two or three, warming herself in a hut with wood thrown into a stove.
She became a five-time Soviet singles champion and then, on the advice of her coach, Igor Moskvin, whom she married, Moskvina became a pair skater. She teamed with Alexei Mishin to finish fifth at the 1968 Olympics and second at the 1969 world championships. They became, Mishin said, perhaps the first pair in which the man lifted his partner from a hand. These were remarkable achievements, considering that they sometimes practiced on a makeshift ice rink inside a church. Like many churches after the Russian Revolution, it had been closed and turned into a warehouse.
The ice cap was only 15 meters by 15 meters, or about 49 feet by 49 feet. It was so small, said Mishin, who has since coached three Russian men to individual Olympic gold medals, that he and Moskvina would sometimes start a maneuver on skates in a wooden lane “and run to the ice to make the ‘elevator”.
While Moskvina began her coaching career in Soviet times, some of her former skaters said she used innovative but sometimes harsh coaching tactics. She helped build confidence and consistency by asking the skaters to sometimes perform their routines without warming up, and sharpened their focus by training them to ignore the insults she threw at them like, “You can’t do that. You are going to fall.”
Sometimes, according to skaters, she would pin them down on the ice if their legs weren’t high enough, if their backs weren’t arched, a tactic that would be considered abusive today.
“Here you would be in jail,” laughed Irina Vorobieva, whom Moskvina coached to a gold medal in the pairs at the 1981 world championships and who is a longtime coach in Colorado Springs. “But she wasn’t trying to hurt us, just pinch us to let us know we need to work better.”
Moskvina also had a playful side, Vorobieva said, like having her train with cotton balls under her arms so her sweat could be analyzed by doctors, only to later admit it was a joke.
His coaching style was a marriage of ballet elements with his own inventive lifts and spins, all aimed at eliciting emotion from the audience. His skaters performed on Rachmaninoff and on the music of a film “Rambo”. Their routines were romantic and elegant, but were also filigree with power and drama, embroidered with passion and trellised with the whimsy of a Charlie Chaplin impersonation.
“Tamara always wanted to be given a standing ovation,” said Natalia Mishkutenok, who won Olympic gold in pairs in 1992 and silver in 1994, when the Winter Olympics were first split. summer games.
Mishkutenok skated with Moskvina’s greatest champion, Artur Dmitriev, who had the build of a linebacker and the grace of a ballet dancer and who, in 1998, became the first man to win a gold medal with different partners. (Her partner in 1998, Oksana Kazakova, sometimes got excitable. So, at the Olympic ice rink in Nagano, Japan, Moskvina placed a small framed photo of Kazakova’s husband along the boards to calm her down.)
Prior to the 2002 Olympics, Moskvina moved her training group for four years to Hackensack, NJ. Up to 100 top coaches and skaters left Russia in the 1990s amid unstable financial times following the fall of the Soviet Union. The situation has become so tumultuous, Mishkutenok said, that Zamboni drivers have sometimes swapped fuel for vodka and do not resurface on the rink.
But Moskvina has long returned to St. Petersburg, where a skating school is named in her honor. And, using a proverb, she has long accepted that political and cultural factors have a subjective influence on judging, saying: “Some prefer the priest, some prefer the priest’s wife and some prefer the priest’s daughter. “.
Gold medal or not, some believe this will be Moskvina’s last Olympics, an idea she considers premature. She’s not 80, she laughs, but rather “20 years before the first 100”.