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Gliding Past Adversity

Despite rough start in life, Russian-born skater sets sights on Olympics

September 30, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arms spread like wings, 11-year-old Grisha Fournier zips across the ice, 70 pounds of intensity on skates. A gaggle of little girls in sparkly skating costumes, sort of Grisha groupies, cheers him on.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Grisha was in a Russian orphanage. Today, he is a schoolkid in Rancho Cucamonga talking about "when I get to the Olympics" in 2010. His heart is set on following in the skateprints of reigning men's Olympic gold medalist Alexi Yagudin of Russia--but doing it as an American.

Is he competitive? "Yeah," but "you don't want to get too cocky so your head blows up," says Grisha, a charismatic, auburn-haired fifth-grader who's been figure skating for only a year but has won three of the four competitions he's entered.

On a recent Saturday at Center Ice in Ontario, his parents, Gina, 40, and Mike, 45, watched as Grisha took to the ice in the Rim of the World Open Championships, catching their breath as he missed an axel jump and fell. But, as quickly as he went down, Grisha was up again, executing a flawless axel.

Off the ice, getting an encouraging hug from his mother, he was annoyed with himself--"That jump is one I do every day." His father observed, "A lot of kids would fall apart" after missing a jump. "He doesn't."

The kid has grit and determination, qualities associated with a survivor. Which he is. Abandoned by his mother when he was 2, Grisha lived with his alcoholic father and later with his older sister, Kseniya (called Susha), in their elderly grandmother's one-room apartment in Perm, a Ural regions city of 1 million. When the grandmother could no longer care for them, she placed them in an orphanage known as Children's Home No. 7.

There they stayed for about two years, two of hundreds of older children for whom adoption--especially as members of a sibling group--is a faint hope.

For Susha and Grisha, there had been one wrenching disappointment. In the summer of 1999, they'd been among abandoned and institutionalized children brought to America by Kidsave International for an eight-week stay--the first time they'd left Perm. But their host family in Memphis, Tenn., decided not to adopt them. "They wanted me," says 14-year-old Susha, but not Grisha. The two refused to be separated.

So, it was back to the orphanage. But that August, as Gina Fournier was browsing the Internet, she read about the siblings on an adoption Web site. She and Mike had been hoping for two years to adopt an infant.

"We'd already ruled out international adoption because of the cost," Gina says. Still, she was intrigued enough to contact Kidsave, which promptly sent a grainy video of Susha and Grisha being interviewed at the orphanage--a rather solemn girl of 11 and a gap-toothed boy of 8.

"We didn't know what we could handle," Gina adds. "We'd read all the horror stories about Romanian adoptions," of children with severe trauma and stress disorders. But, watching the video, they "fell in love immediately."

In February 2000, the Fourniers traveled to Perm to meet the kids they'd decided to adopt. "It was a leap of faith," Gina says. "But it's just been magic from Day 1. We're much luckier than they are. They would have been something no matter what. But our house was so empty before them." Although they learned right afterward that a birth mother had chosen them to adopt her infant, they have no regrets, Gina says. "Fifty million people were lined up for that infant. No one wanted these kids."

That first meeting in Perm, all parties agree, was "kind of scary." Susha was "frozen in fear," Gina says. "Now she's Miss Outgoing." The Fourniers had sent the children pictures of their home. Grisha says, "It was scary for the first 30 seconds, but then it was, like, yes! I'm, like--whoa!--a giant bedroom." Seeing the backyard spa, Grisha says, "We thought it was a giant bathtub."

A week after the Fourniers returned to their Alta Loma home, Susha and Grisha flew to L.A. They spoke almost no English. Grisha recalls, "Me and my sister would talk at the dinner table in Russian. My parents said, 'No more Russian at the table.' That's how we learned English." The Fourniers anglicized his given name--Grigori--to Gregory, but he chooses to keep his nickname, Grisha. Mike laughs and says, "On the [Little League] baseball team, he's Greg. On the ice, he's Grisha. Analyze that."

Soon after Grisha and Susha arrived, they learned that their father had died in an alcohol-related accident. They maintain some ties to Russia, telephoning their grandmother once a month. Grisha, who now speaks English better than Russian, can be overheard saying, "yeah, yeah--I mean, da."

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