Room To Live, Freedom To Dance

February 03, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Russian ice skaters Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin have become Americanized. They have credit cards. They eat pizza and french fries. They repeat phrases like "sounds good" and "cool."

Zhulin even hired someone to drive his new BMW from San Diego to Lake Placid.

"Isn't that the American way?" he said. "Freedom of choice. Free country. Good opportunity. All is cool. If I had that car in Russia, thieves would have stolen it in five minutes. Crime is very, very bad there."

Usova and Zhulin, who are married, came to Lake Placid with coach Natalia Dubova last September as Dubova became the instructor of the new International School of Ice Dancing.

Dubova had a great reputation in the former Soviet Union where she coached for 23 years, including teaching Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who won the ice dance gold medal at the 1992 Olympics.

Usova, 28, and Zhulin, 29, also have a great reputation. They burst onto the world scene 12 years ago, bringing passion and magnetism to ice dancing by winning a silver medal in the 1989 World Championships. They recently won the European crown in Helsinki, Finland.

They also have won an Olympic bronze, but no gold. They get another chance at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

"They aren't just my skaters, but my good friends," Dubova said of the reigning World Cup champions, who finished third at the European Championships earlier this month. "This is one of the finest facilities in the world, and now they can focus without all the other things going on in our country. They know this is their time to win the gold medal."

That's because the Duchesnays of France and countrymen Klimova and Ponomarenko have retired, putting Zhulin and Usova in the No. 1 position.

"It is our dream to win the Olympics," Zhulin said. "We skate a long time, and there is stress around this. We are tired. But it is easy to work hard because we have a good possibility to win this."

Dubova, 55, won't let them relax. The reason is two-fold. Among the others training with Dubova are the four top ice dance pairs from the former Soviet Union and couples from the United States, Canada and Britain.

"We know nothing else but figure skating," Dubova said. "We must prove ourselves to Americans, and we must work very hard. This country loves and is generous to winners. We cannot lose. I must make this program, uh, cool."

In her camp, Dubova has experimented with the various styles of each country, teaming three Russian boys with American girls.

But Dubova won't tamper with Usova and Zhulin's style.

Americans are more emotional. They can skate to jazz, or the blues, or even to rap's "Funky Cold Medina." They love to smile and show expression, even though they can be robotic at times.

The Russians are masters of the skating basics with long, classical lines, deep edges and firm strokes, which are part of their heritage.

They are intimidating, strong compulsory skaters with wonderful unison and fluidness. But Usova and Zhulin take it a step further, mixing dramatics with romance.

Usova has the appearance of a ballerina; the high cheek bones, the light-brown hair, the trim physique and the warm, but quiet personality. The blond, blue-eyed Zhulin is enthusiastic, competitive, feisty and leaves little doubt he is in command of the relationship.

"We want to be dramatic, but not too dramatic, because there is enough drama around Russia now," Zhulin said. "We are with each other all the time. A brother and sister could not show this affection on the ice. Maybe not two partners. But we can show love in the life and use it on the ice."

The couple met in 1980 when Usova moved to Zhulin's native Moscow from Gorki in central Russia to train under Dubova. Usova was just 16. Zhulin was 17. They were married six years later.

"I fell in love immediately," said Zhulin, slightly embarrassing Usova. "She was my first love."

Usova's first love was skating. She was attracted to the ice at age 8 because "of the rapport with the audience." Zhulin was brought to the rink by his grandmother when he was 6 because she thought the outdoor air would protect him against colds and influenza.

They would have stayed in Russia to train and spend their lives together, but last summer thieves twice broke into the couple's Moscow apartment and stole many of their possessions. And social unrest made it nearly impossible to train. "It is a very terrible time in our country now," Zhulin said. "It is very dangerous. Crime is very high. There are not enough jobs. There are not enough funds for bread and milk. People are not happy."

But Usova and Zhulin are happy, for now. They eat lobster and steak. They get mail on time. They watch a lot of cable TV and go to malls. "Most Americans are happy," Usova said. "This is great place. If you want to be president, you can be president."

The Americans are just as glad to have Usova and Zhulin here. "It is no longer a mystery on what makes them great," said Susan Wynne, who will team with Russ Witherby for the Americans. "They are helping the sport to grow in this country while we learn from this. We're the underdogs in the 1994 Games, but I think we're closing the gap."

Enough to challenge Zhulin and Usova for the gold in Lillehammer?

"We are very tired from all these years in sports," Zhulin said. "It is time for us to move on to something else. It is time for us to win the gold, no matter who competes."

COUNTDOWN TO LILLEHAMMER

Tomorrow: Nancy Kerrigan has become the most famous assault victim in America. She is considered a gold-medal contender, but the figure skater's ability to with stand pressure often has been fragile. Despite her titles and medals, one terrible performance haunted her for nearly a year.

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