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An Unbreakable Partnership

Source: International Figure Skating,
May - June, 1997
Author: Angela Court

"This is your crystal vase. It has been broken once. If you keep it, it will still be a crystal vase." Those were the words of renowned Russian coach Tamara Moskvina to Anton Sikharulidze when he began skating with Elena Bereznaia. Not ordinary words. But this is no ordinary partnership.

In January 1996 Bereznaia, 19, was in a horrific training accident with her former partner Oleg Shliakhov, which resulted in his toe pick hitting her head. Bereznaia came close to death, spent a month in the hospital, and consequently suffered speech difficulties. She split with Shliakhov and bravely returned to the ice in March 1996.

At first she took things tentatively. "I was a little worried, but it wasn't too scary," she recalls. "I don't think I fully realized how serious my accident was. All I'd thought about in the hospital was my skating."

Bereznaia and Sikharulidze already knew each other and told Moskvina they wanted to skate together.

"I was worried," admits Moskvina. "But I'd promised Elena I'd find her another partner and they seemed happy together." For two months Bereznaia just walked across the ice to build her confidence, and then the pair began to train seriously.

"I was a little afraid for Elena for the first two months," says Sikharulidze, 20. "I knew it was difficult for her after the accident. But then we stopped thinking about it and concentrated on our skating."

They worked hard in St. Petersburg under Moskvina, but she was cautious. "I didn't push them too hard," she says. "I'm a mother and I said, 'Health first, sport second.' I could see Elena was nervous, but I reminded her she'd been through the worst. I'd say, 'Compare your feelings now to when you were in the hospital. You're happy to be out of the hospital and now you are skating so you have happiness twice.'"

They pair progressed quickly. Already both experienced top-level competitors-- Bereznaia was 8th in the 1994 Olympics with Shliakhov, while Sikharulidze placed 5th in the 1996 Europeans with Maria Petrova--this new partnership began to flourish.

A third place finish in Lalique and a 5th in the Cup of Russia at the end of 1996 was just a taste of what lay ahead. They took a silver at the Russian nationals, two places ahead of the 1996 European Pairs Champions Oksana Kazakova & Artur Dmitriev and earned places on the 1997 European and World teams.

At Europeans, the pair knew a medal was within their grasp. The dream became a reality as they finished third. This was only their fourth competition together and came just one year after Bereznaia was released from the hospital.

Moskvina said she'd had to adjust certain moves and had kept their program fairly simple on purpose, but was clearly delighted.

"I'm amazed at how quickly they've come so far," she said. "I didn't expect this medal. Second at Nationals was my main aim, which they achieved."

"Europeans was just great," Bereznaia said afterward. "I was just so happy to be out there and never thought we'd win a medal."

"I thought we could do well," says Sikharulidze. "This has been a good experience for both of us."

Bereznaia and Sikharulidze train on a rotating basis when in Russia. It's either three days of training, one day off, or five dys training and one off. They admit it's hard work, but are enjoying themselves immensely.

"It's a really happy partnership," adds Bereznaia. "I'm much happier than I was in my previous partnership."

Moskvina even hints they are in love. All Bereznaia will say is "Maybe we are a couple," adding, "ask Anton." He has no such reservations. "Yes" is his response. So this pair is now looking towards Nagano and a possible Olympic medal. "I've been to the Olympics before," said Bereznaia. "But it would be great to go with Anton."

A European bronze after nine months together gives the distinct impression that this pair will go far together. And even if an Olympic medal doesn't come in 1998, there's still 2002.

Although they know success is derived from hard work, Bereznaia and Sikharulidze say they owe Moskvina a great deal.

"Tamara is the best," says Bereznaia, no doubt remembering how her coach spent time at her side during her critical hospitalization. "After my accident I could easily have stopped, but I decided to continue and my main goal now is just to do my best."

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