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OLYMPICS HELENE ELLIOTT

Yagudin Is a Dream Come True

January 10, 2003|HELENE ELLIOTT

When Alexei Yagudin read about 11-year-old Grisha Fournier, an aspiring figure skater, in The Times in September, he recognized similarities to his own life. Given the chance to make the boy's most cherished wish come true, the Salt Lake City men's figure skating gold medalist didn't hesitate.

Yagudin was flattered to learn that Fournier, who was abandoned by his mother and spent two years in a Russian orphanage before being adopted by an Alta Loma couple, admired him and dreamed of duplicating Yagudin's Olympic feats in 2010. That's all the four-time world champion had to know before agreeing to give up a day off from the Stars on Ice tour to meet Fournier this week at Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank.

"Whatever you do in this life is not for yourself," said Yagudin, who supports his family and his maternal uncle's family. "It's not always about yourself. It's for other people. I can understand what he went through. I wasn't homeless in my life, but we shared an apartment with another family and my parents were divorced and we were pretty much poor. So I know what he went through.

"I'm really happy to do this for him. I've kind of achieved a lot in this life and if I can make this a bright day for him, why can't I do that?"

Fournier, an energetic youngster with shiny braces, usually trains at Center Ice in Ontario. His parents, Mike and Gina Fournier, told him they were going to Pickwick to meet former NBC chairman Grant Tinker, who had read about him and stepped in with financial support for his skating. Tinker was, indeed, at Pickwick to cheer as Fournier spun and jumped and got up smiling after each fall.

"It just got to me," Tinker said of Fournier's story. The boy's attitude, he said, "was winning. If it was some kid from Beverly Hills I wouldn't have been so touched."

Hidden in a side room while Fournier warmed up, Yagudin stepped onto the ice through a side door as Fournier took off for an axel jump.

"I thought I'd better do it good," Fournier said of the instant he saw Yagudin. "My mom said a long time ago that I wouldn't have a chance to meet him, but I really did. It was a big shock, but I love it.... I watched him at the Olympics. He was awesome."

Yagudin told Fournier to keep his back straight, work hard and never give up. He also invited the family -- which includes Grisha's 14-year-old sister Susha -- to be his guests at the Stars on Ice performance next Saturday at Staples Center. The troupe will perform the next day at Anaheim.

Meeting Yagudin could be the boost Fournier needs to help him nail the double toe loop that has stymied him, said one of his coaches, Joan Heasley.

"After 14 months, he's quite amazing, really," said Heasley, who collaborates with Brian Tuck to coach Fournier. "His attitude is fabulous. He never complains.

"Meeting Alexei is worth its weight in gold.''

Yagudin said the hip problem he feared might end his career was responding well to treatment and was 85% healed. He's happy to put it behind him and focus on his three solos and three ensemble routines in Stars on Ice.

"It's not easier or harder than competition," he said. "It's just completely different work. I'm responsible not only for my skating but for the group numbers, and I don't want to mess up the group numbers.... There's no competition going on between us and we learn from each other how to live this life."

Ice Wars

Figure skater Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel has had an impressive season since moving to Connecticut in September to train with Yagudin's coach, Tatiana Tarasova. After winning the Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique Grand Prix events and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, she hopes she's primed for more success at the U.S. championships next week in Dallas.

"I'm a stronger competitor," said Cohen, who was second to Michelle Kwan at last year's competition at Staples Center, then finished fourth at the Olympics. "I was always determined, but I wasn't always able to pull out the performances I needed. I'm more of a fighter now."

The deep women's field also includes Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and six-time U.S. champion Kwan.

"It would be easier if everyone retired, ... but in a way, I'm glad they stayed because they're going to push me," Cohen said. "Because of that, I'm going to be a better skater."

Cohen acknowledged disappointment that Miki Ando of Japan beat her to the honor of becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. Cohen attempted a quad salchow several times last season but dropped it before the Olympics.

"It's still a goal of mine to land one in competition but I had other priorities ahead of that, like doing better competitively," she said. "It's a trade-off, but I'm happy with what I've done. I'd definitely like to put it in for worlds and the Grand Prix Final."

Remember the Titan Games

Cael Sanderson had a remarkable 159-0 record wrestling at 185 pounds for Iowa State, but circumstances robbed him of his moment on the world stage.

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