CALGARY, Canada — Ten years ago, Marina Tchenkasova of the Soviet Union emerged from elementary school to become one-half of the world's best figure skating pairs team. She was 12 years old, too young the International Skating Union subsequently decided when it changed its rules to prohibit anyone under 14 from competing in the senior world championships.
As far as the Soviets were concerned, the skating federation missed the point. They introduced Tchenkasova to pairs skating not because of her age but because of her petite size. Smaller was better.
Thus began the era of the "one and one-halfs," with hale and hearty men twirling their featherweight partners like batons.
The Soviets' current one-half is Ekaterina Gordeeva, who, at 16, is 5-feet, 1-inch and 90 pounds. Fresh-faced and pony-tailed, she has been described as the most adorable, most precocious Soviet Olympic athlete since gymnast Olga Korbut.
But you should have seen Gordeeva when she was a kid.
At 14, she was enchanting. Gordeeva and her partner, Sergei Grinkov, went to their first senior world championship that year, 1986, and won, beating their celebrated Soviet teammates, Elena Valova and Oleg Vasiliev, whose credentials included the gold medal in the 1984 Winter Games and two world championships.
Gordeeva was 4-10, 77 pounds then and skimmed over the ice. But the raves she drew were for her exploits above the ice. The Gordeeva-Grinkov signature jump was a quadruple twist. He threw her high into the air, where she made four revolutions and fell into his arms. Michael Jordan would have liked to have her hang time.
They repeated the quadruple twist at last year's world championships in Cincinnati, where they defended their title, but the jump disappeared from their program after that. They have not announced whether it will reappear in tonight's long program at the Saddledome, but speculation is that it will not.
At 6-feet, 170, Grinkov, 21, is not much larger than he was two years ago. Gordeeva's extra weight has become more of a burden for him. As a result, they have had to look for new twists. Their synchronization remains unparalleled, but, compensating for their decreased acrobatic skills, they are attempting to become more stylish in their presentation.
About their work with choreographer Marina Zueva at Moscow's Central Army Sports Club, Gordeeva told Maclean's magazine: "She encouraged us to act out bit parts in dance vignettes instead of just practicing different elements. We impersonated musketeers and musicians and imitated animals."
So far, the judges seem as enamored of G&G as ever. In Sunday night's short program, the Soviets received higher scores for their presentation than for their performance of the seven required elements. Four of the nine judges gave them 5.9s out of a possible 6.0 for presentation, while the other five judges gave them 5.8s.
But the crowd rapport that Gordeeva and Grinkov have enjoyed during the last two world championships was absent. If scores were determined by applause meters, they would be in third place instead of first.
"I thought they were a little off," said Ron Ludington, the University of Delaware's Skate Club coach who has had numerous national champions.
That is not likely to be the case tonight in the long program, which is their forte. The other pairs, including defending champions Valova and Vasiliev, who are in second place, and the leading U.S. team, Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard, in third place, have resigned themselves to competing for the silver medal.
Watson and Oppegard are the American version of a one and one-half.
Oppegard, the oldest man in the pairs competition at 28, is 6-feet and 175 pounds. Watson, 24, is 5-feet and 94 pounds.
Their signature move for the long program is The Swoop, guaranteed to produce a gasp from the audience. He lifts her into a prone position above his head, drops her head first and then saves her from the free fall just as she is about to crash into the ice. She has scraped her nose more than once but never been injured.
"We try to get her to look like she's falling out of an airplane," he said after they won their third national championship in four years last month in Denver.
"It's not really that dangerous," she said.
This is the second Winter Games for Watson, who is from Bloomington, Ind. She finished sixth in 1984 with Burt Lancon. When he retired from competitive skating in 1985 to turn professional, she teamed with Oppegard, who is from Knoxville, Tenn.
"In personality and physically, we just clicked," said Oppegard, who was ready to join an ice show before he met Watson. "When we first got together, we were able to do things we'd never done in years with other partners."
While both say good fortune brought them together, the pairing of Gordeeva and Grinkov was by design.
"When they're very young, they match them up," Barbara Underhill said of the Soviets. The Canadian was a 1984 world champion in pairs along with Paul Martini.