Through all adversity, Slutskaya simply wants gold

Updated: February 23, 2006, 4:50 PM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

While much of the focus in the United States has been on the withdrawal of Michelle Kwan from the Olympic figure skating competition, the buzz surrounding the gold medal favorite in Torino has been relatively quiet.

So quiet, in fact, that Irina Slutskaya arrived in Torino with hardly any fanfare. The reigning world champion had been training without the media glare at home in Moscow.

"I can practice how I want and when I want," Slutskaya recently told ESPN.com. "I just want to prepare."

A plane flight from Moscow to Torino is only about three hours long and there's no time change, either. Slutskaya was so determined to maintain her usual training habits that she even turned down an opportunity to carry the flag for the Russian team at the Opening Ceremonies.

Although Kwan stands alone as a skating icon, Slutskaya is her Russian equivalent. Slutskaya, who turned 27 on Feb. 9, is preparing for her third Olympic Games. And like Kwan, Slutskaya has never won an Olympic gold medal. Slutskaya placed fifth in Nagano in 1998 and settled for silver in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Also like Kwan, Slutskaya has won virtually everything else. She has two world championships and an unprecedented seven European titles. But Russia, which has been so dominant in the men's, pairs and ice dancing events, has never won an Olympic gold medal in the women's competition.

This time, Slutskaya hopes to rewrite history.

She just won't be the one who will tell you that.

"I don't know, maybe someone thinks I'm the favorite," she said. "I don't care. Don't talk to Irina, 'Oh you will be first.'"

Again, like Kwan, she knows that crazy things can happen in the Olympics. Even if you're considered the favorite, you might not come home with the gold medal. Who knew Tara Lipinski would triple jump her way to gold? Or Sarah Hughes?

But if ever there was an opportunity for Slutskaya to rise to the top of the Olympic podium, it would seem that this would be the right year. Kwan is headed back to Los Angeles. Mao Asada, Japan's 15-year-old jumping sensation who beat Slutskaya at the Grand Prix Final, is too young to compete in Torino. American gold medal hopeful Sasha Cohen is beautiful and talented, but had been inconsistent before Tuesday's short program.

Other medal contenders are Russian Elena Sokolova, Italy's Carolina Kostner and Japan's tough trio of 2004 world champion Shizuka Arakawa, Fumie Suguri and Miki Ando, the first woman to land a quad in competition.

"There are like 10 people who can win," Slutskaya said.

As strong as all of those women are, Slutskaya, the winner of two Grand Prix events this season, remains the front-runner.

And she scoffs when she's reminded that she is one of the elder stateswomen in the field.

"We're not old," Slutskaya said. "We're professional."

She seems to have mastered the new judging system, even if some of her scores later in the season were lower than they were earlier. Unlike Kwan, who thrived under the 6.0 system and almost always achieved high artistic marks, Slutskaya is practically perfect for the new rules. She has plenty of Biellmann positions -- in which she grabs her skate blade and pulls her leg over her head -- which earn high marks, and she has proven she can keep up jump-wise with difficult combinations.

Slutskaya said she likes the new system because she said all of the spins and footwork she has been doing for years now counts for so much more than it did in years past.

"For me," she said. "It's not new."

And there's a good chance we might even see more difficulty from her in Torino. Slutskaya has been one of the sport's tigresses, always testing the limit of tricky triple-triple jump combinations.

When asked about any changes or upgrades she might make to her programs for the Olympics, Slutskaya was coy.

"I don't want to open my secrets," she said.

Slutskaya, one of the oldest competitors in Torino, knows what a tough road she has had to take just to make it to these Games. She has learned not to take anything for granted.

Slutskaya was considered to be one of the sport's up-and-comers back in 1995, when, at the age of 16, she captured the world junior title. Her ability to pull off athletic feats and her constant smile made her a formidable, and likeable, Russian threat. She qualified for the Olympics in 1998, but shortly afterward found herself in the midst of a tailspin.

She placed fourth at Russian nationals in 1999 and failed to earn a spot on the world team. Making things even more difficult was that her rival, Maria Butyrskaya, not only was on the world team, but also wound up becoming the first Russian woman to win a world title, an achievement Slutskaya had always hoped would have been hers.

It was that stunning setback that actually turned out to be one of the best things to happen to her. Even though at first she considered quitting the sport, she ultimately decided she wanted to rededicate herself to it.

The following year, Slutskaya rallied with a silver medal at the World Championships in Nice, France. She again finished second to Kwan at the World Championships in 2001 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although she lost the gold by one vote in Salt Lake City to Hughes, Slutskaya stood on top of the podium shortly afterward at the 2002 World Championships in Nagano.

Everything was going in Slutskaya's direction. She was back to her winning ways in skating. She was married. She was able make good money and tour in the United States.

That all changed in 2003, when Slutskaya's mother, Natalia, was diagnosed with kidney disease. She requires dialysis three times a week. Slutskaya, an only child who is very close to her mother, has been charged with much of her care. Natalia continues to wait for a kidney transplant. Because of Natalia's illness, Slutskaya did not try to defend her world title, instead withdrawing from the 2003 World Championships in Washington, D.C. Natalia was not able to travel to Italy to watch her daughter compete for Olympic gold.

As if that was not enough, Slutskaya had to cope with some of her own health problems. In November 2003, she was diagnosed with a rare heart ailment known as vasculitis. She was swollen and couldn't train much. She decided to skate anyway in the 2004 World Championships. Even though she was not at full strength, she placed ninth.

The following year in Moscow, she was back on top of the podium with her second world championship.

People kept asking her the same question: Why was she still skating?

"You know, I just love it," she said. "When you don't do it, you don't feel full. You feel empty."

Through it all, she has remained with her coach, Zhanna Gromova. They have been together for more than 20 years.

"She's a really, really smart woman," Slutskaya said. "She understands skating, and she understands me. She knows which way to push, which way to rest."

Slutskaya was forced to rest at the Russian national championships this year. She skipped the event while battling the flu. She did, however, go on to compete in the European Championships in January, and won.

As for her heart condition, she said she doesn't need to take any specific medications, but sometimes she gets easily winded.

"Sometimes, after 30 minutes of practice, I am like dying," she said.

Slutskaya needs only a few minutes in the short program and about four more in the free skate in Torino.

"When you're sick, you think about what you want," Slutskaya said.

And even though she's not saying it publicly, what she wants is a golden ending to her story.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.