Before the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada, the Soviet Union had won six consecutive gold medals in pairs skating. Ekaterina Gordeyeva and Sergei Grinkov looked to add to that legacy.
Gordeyeva and Grinkov were paired together by their skating federation when she was 10 and he was 14. They regarded their partnership as a brother-sister relationship and Grinkov considered Gordeyeva nothing more than a talented little girl.
Gordeyeva was 16 years old, barely five feet tall, and reported to be 90 pounds, while Grinkov was 21 and almost six feet tall. (Some called the popular practice of pairing a short, younger woman with a tall and strong male skater the “flea and gorilla” method.) The Soviet pair arrived in Calgary as heavy favorites, despite a six-day hospital stay by Gordeyeva after being dropped by Grinkov in a training session three months before the Games. After all, they were the 1986 and 1987 world champions.
They easily captured first place in the short program (to music from the opera “Carmen”) in front of a packed house. Two days later, the 20 pairs representing 14 nations in the competition skated in front of a sold out Olympic Saddledome crowd.
Gordeyeva and Grinkov executed a quadruple twist and were the only pair to complete their free skate without a major error. The pair “astonished the crowd and impressed the judges during a flawless long program of near-impossible jumps and spectacular lifts,” according to the International Olympic Committee’s Official Report of the Games. In matching powder blue outfits, Gordeyeva and Grinkov became the seventh consecutive Soviet pair to take home Olympic gold.
Once home, the Soviet Skating Federation awarded them each about $4,000 in cash. Gordeyeva’s father dunked her gold medal in a goblet of champagne and everyone drank from it. The pair turned professional and were no longer eligible for the Olympics, an amateur-only competition.
The 1984 Olympic gold medalists, Yelena Valova and Oleg Vasilev, also from the Soviet Union, took the silver medals behind Gordeyeva and Grinkov in Calgary.
Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard of the United States took home the bronze medal after a potentially derailing free skate. Once they started their program, a photographer dropped a camera onto the ice. A volunteer was dispatched to pick it up while the couple was still performing. Watson’s fall on a side-by-side double Axel was the only major flaw, however, and the pair was able to grab the bronze medal.
Four world titles later, Gordeyeva and Grinkov’s off-ice relationship began to change in 1989. Gordeyeva and Grinkov started to date and were married in 1991. After 18 months, their daughter Daria was born. They did not compete at the 1992 Olympics.
Soon, the announcement came that professional skaters would be eligible for the 1994 Olympics. Gordeyeva and Grinkov returned to the ice; so did many skaters, such as Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, and Kurt Browning.
None of the skaters that returned to the Olympics after joining the professional ranks – except Gordeyeva and Grinkov – won gold medals at the 1994 Olympics.
In 1994, Gordeyeva and Grinkov would become the only professional skaters to return to the Olympics and win gold medals. The pair was determined to see if the unattached feelings they experienced in their early partnership could be overridden by their romance off the ice. Skating their long program to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Gordeyeva and Grinkov weren’t perfect. They still were better than the rest, and it was enough to win their second pairs Olympic gold medal.
Grinkov thought that the pair should compete at the 1998 Games, too, as they made a few mistakes in their 1994 free skate. That didn’t happen.
The following year, the pair joined the Stars on Ice tour in the United States. While practicing in Lake Placid, New York in November, Grinkov collapsed on the ice. He died almost immediately of a heart attack caused by a closed artery. An autopsy later revealed he had suffered a heart attack in the 24 hours prior to his death. He rarely acknowledged it, but heart disease ran in his family. Any discomfort he may have felt – a telltale sign of a heart attack – may have been attributed to general soreness he typically felt as an elite athlete. He was just 28 years old.
Three months later, at a show in Connecticut, Gordeyeva skated alone in a tribute performance to her late husband. Her book, My Sergei: A Love Story, went on to become a number one bestseller.