Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Eternal Ice Skaters


The Protopopovs in 1987, age 50 and 53.

Whoa. In their 70s and still doing lifts and splits:

The words echo in the ears of Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov: “Your train is gone, you’re too old.”

That was a half-century ago. They were in their early 20s and had recently begun their partnership on and off the ice, but Soviet Union sports officials tried to stop perhaps the greatest pair in figure skating history before their career even began.

(...)

It has been more than four decades since the Protopopovs brought unparalleled artistry to pairs figure skating, winning the first of two Olympic gold medals. He is 74 now, she is 71. But time has barely infringed on their artistry, if it has at all.

“I learn something every time I see them skate, even now,” said Dick Button, the gold medalist in men’s singles in 1948 and 1952 and a longtime television commentator on the sport. “The basic movements and basic positions are all there. They take and break down every single element that they do, and follow through on the classical style that they’ve been so good at, to their ultimate destination.”

Four hours a day nearly every day, Oleg effortlessly lifts Ludmila off her feet and sets her down gracefully as they practice and practice and practice.

“We dedicate our life for skating,” said Ludmila, who weighs about 100 pounds and can still do the splits. “Everything revolves around skating.”

Oleg, whose mother was a ballerina, said: “There is no limit to how old you can be. Figure skating is a long-lasting sport, it prolongs life. Now, I feel young. I don’t feel old. We are like seagulls. While we can move our wings, we will fly.”

And fly they do. For five months a year, the Protopopovs train on the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., that Coach Herb Brooks and the United States Olympic hockey team made famous in 1980. They also spend five weeks windsurfing and in-line skating in Hawaii, and live the rest of the time in their adopted home, Switzerland.

(...)

“They are in the most wonderful physical condition I’ve seen,” said Barbara Kelly, who has provided the Protopopovs with an apartment in Lake Placid for five years. “People who come to watch them skate are amazed. They don’t believe it. They have a style that’s never been matched.”

(...)

After settling in Switzerland, the Protopopovs joined the Ice Capades and competed in the world professional figure skating championships. They won their final gold medal in 1985, tying the Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, a couple half their age.

In 2003, at the invitation of Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian minister of sport and a former N.H.L. star, the Protopopovs returned to their homeland for the first time since they defected. They received a tumultuous ovation from a crowd of 15,000 in St. Petersburg.

“We try to bring the gladness to people if they watch us,” Oleg said. “There is no limit to how old you can be. They get pleasure from this, so why do we have to stop?”

Hell, I'll be happy just to be walking in my 70s...

3 comments:

four legs good said...

Wow. That's amazing, I had no idea they were still skating.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! Gives me hope.

Jane

op99 said...

Wow. My goal was to be breathing in my 70's. Maybe I should rethink that.