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Love of Skating Led to Slutskaya's Return

Undaunted by illness, the 26-year-old Russian skater keeps coming back

January 01, 2006|From the Associated Press

Being a slacker seemed mighty tempting to Irina Slutskaya back in 2002.

The Russian skater had won the silver medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, then followed a month later with her first title at the world championships. She'd been training and competing for most of her 23 years and, quite frankly, was getting a little weary of it.

"After I was second in the Olympics and won the worlds, I used to think, 'Do I need to skate more? Do I need to work hard? Because I'm just tired,' " she said. "When I got sick, oh my God I wanted to skate. Because I feel I can skate. It was a good lesson for me. A life lesson."

Slutskaya has made the most of that lesson. Two months shy of her 27th birthday -- ancient in a sport filled with teenage jumping beans -- and on medication that often saps her strength, she's never been better.

She won her second world title last March, and her loss to Mao Asada at the Grand Prix finals two weeks ago was her first in a major competition since the 2004 worlds, when she was still recuperating from a heart ailment that had sidelined her all season.

With Asada too young to compete at the Turin Olympics and Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan playing catch-up after missing most of the fall, Slutskaya is the clear favorite to upgrade that silver medal she won four years ago.

"I just love to skate," Slutskaya said, laughing. "I like to be on the ice. I like when people look at me. That's why I'm skating. And I think I like the atmosphere in competition, when you have the stress."

If there's anything Slutskaya knows, it's stress.

For years she's tended to her mother, Natalia, who has kidney disease. Natalia must have dialysis three times a week until she gets a transplant, and it's often her daughter who drives her back and forth.

In 2003, Natalia was so ill that Slutskaya skipped the world championships.

"It's my life. I can't change anything," the skater said. "I'm just trying to do my best."

Later that summer, Slutskaya returned to Russia from the Champions on Ice tour with a persistent cough and fever that came and went without any regularity or rhythm. She had blood tests and X-rays, which showed the sac around her heart was inflamed.

Slutskaya was off the ice for about two months while she was treated. Medication got the illness under control, but she was so wiped out she couldn't get back on her normal training schedule.

"It wasn't really good, believe me," she said. "But I always believed that I could come back and keep up."

Nowhere close to full strength, she was ninth at the 2004 worlds.

By that fall, though, she was back to her old self. She swept the Grand Prix finals, Russian and European championships, then capped the year with her second world crown. So far this year, she's won two Grand Prix events and finished second in the finals to Asada, the best jumper in the sport.

Slutskaya sat out the Russian nationals earlier this week with flu, but she's expected to be ready for the European championships next month. Russia will select its Olympic team after Europeans. She's a lock.

"I'm very impressed with Slutskaya. As I'm impressed with Michelle. Not because of what they do in any competition, but the length of time that they've been on the podium at the world level," said John Nicks, Cohen's on-again, off-again coach who is working with her in preparation for Turin.

"The mark of a great athlete is not necessarily of one performance, but the performances over a number of years."

And the determination it takes to keep doing them.

Slutskaya remains under a doctor's care, and must take medication that often leaves her tired and with swollen, aching legs. She's been told she can probably quit taking the medicine when she stops skating, but that's not an option right now.

"I still have some problems, I still have some pain. But I like figure skating more than my illness," she said. "Sometimes when you like something and you can do it, you just do it. That's it.

"And when you don't do it, you just don't feel full. You feel like you're empty."

Great things have been expected of Slutskaya since she won the world junior title at 16 in 1995. She didn't disappoint at first, becoming the first Russian woman to win Europeans in 1996 and finishing third at worlds.

She had a charming personality and was dazzling technically, able to pull off the toughest jumps and spins. Her trademark was a double Biellmann, where she reaches back with both hands, grabs the blade of one skate and pulls it straight over her head, then does the same thing with the other skate.

But while her friend and rival Kwan made herself at home at the top of the podium, Slutskaya struggled to find the same consistency. She was a disappointing fifth at the Nagano Olympics, then rebounded to win the silver at worlds. After a second straight fourth-place finish at the Russian national championships, she was left off the 1999 world team -- a stunning snub. Imagine Kwan or Cohen being left home.

Though Slutskaya briefly considered quitting, she decided instead to focus on her training like never before. She even skipped a honeymoon after she and her husband, Sergei, married in August 1999.

The rededication paid off. Slutskaya won back-to-back European championships and world silver medals in 2000 and 2001, then the Olympic silver and world title in 2002.

So impressive at the time, that comeback pales in comparison to what she's doing now.

"It's bad when you lose something and you start again," she said. "But when you're sick like me and you start from the beginning, you understand and you recognize what you want."

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