LANDOVER -- For four days afterward, Alexander Zhulin and Maia Usova went back to the rink in Lake Placid, N.Y., where their friend and countryman, Sergei Grinkov, had died.
For four days, they tried to skate, tried to prepare for an ice show that was ultimately postponed, tried to continue with their lives.
"We would skate for about 15 minutes, then we would stop and cry," Zhulin recalled yesterday.
A week after Grinkov's death from a massive heart attack at age 28, these former world champion and 1994 Olympic silver medalist ice dancers went to perform at a show in New York's Central Park.
"On the ride down, we started talking about Sergei and she [his wife, Maia] was crying all the time," said Zhulin, who had known Grinkov since 1980, when they were both promising juniors in the former Soviet Union. "It was so difficult. It was the most difficult show in my life."
Zhulin doesn't know what will happen tomorrow night at USAir Arena, when he and Usova compete in the NutraSweet World Professional Figure Skating Championships. But he knows this: Something, and somebody, will be missing.
There is the emotional void that comes with losing a close friend. But there is also a professional void. Grinkov and his wife, Ekaterina Gordeeva, were considered to be the world's best pairs team.
"G and G", as they were called, were scheduled to defend their championship here. Out of respect for what they meant to the sport, their place in the program will be filled by a moment of silence. A formal tribute is being planned. Former Olympic champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were in Colorado Springs training when they received the news of Grinkov's death.
"I think we felt it could have happened to any one of us," said Dean, the old man of the skating world at 37.
Said Torvill, 38: "We do that every day. We're on the ice every day. As soon as we heard, I felt different about it [skating]. It was very hard to skate for a couple of days."
It remains difficult for many in a close-knit world that viewed Grinkov and Gordeeva as almost superhuman, the perfect couple leading the perfect life. Barbara Underwood and Paul Martini hope that it will be easier than it was at the Canadian Pro Championships last weekend in Hamilton, Ontario.
"We'll be back to business [tomorrow]," said Underwood, who has teamed with Martini to win this event seven times. "We've had a chance to grieve."
So has Paul Wylie, but he's not sure it has been enough. The 1992 Olympic silver medalist in the men's singles competition at Albertville, France, Wylie was the first skater to come to Gordeeva's aid after her husband had collapsed during a practice session.
"I think everybody has gone through a lot of changes," said Wylie, who attended Grinkov's state funeral in Moscow. "That happens when you lose somebody close. It takes time to get over. There's no replacing him. It's like the Hope Diamond."
Zhulin said that his friend's death has changed him, at least temporarily, in terms of his approach to skating. He remembers coming here last year, for his first world championship as a pro, and being nervous.
"I can think only about my program, my marks," he said. "My focus was to compete. For my mind, it's very easy here now. Life is more difficult than competition. I'm thinking about my family, my private life."
NOTES: Nancy Kerrigan, who'll be competing in her first world championship as a professional, bruised an Achilles' heel after dropping a gym bag on her foot. Kerrigan practiced yesterday and is expected to compete tomorrow night. . . . Tickets for the event are sold out.