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A Team, an Accident, a Split...Intrigue Dogs European Pairs Team

This article was posted on the Chigago Tribune Website. It was deleted, but here is the same text version.

This should be a simple, heart-warming story about a Russian pairs skater who could win an Olympic gold medal barely two years after a training accident left her temporarily paralyzed and affected her speaking ability for months.

It is a lot more complicated than that because of the odd man out, the one who is training in Evanston and Addison while advertising on the Internet for a new partner, the one whose side of this story has not previously been told.

The plot will sound like it came from a Verdi opera, with its mix of love, jealousy, rage, tragedy and torment. Its ending remains unclear.

To the triumph over tragedy of Elena Bereznaia is linked the misfortune of Oleg Shliakov. It is a situation many think Shliakov brought upon himself, but it is sad nonetheless, for he lost not only a lover but the love of his sporting life, the chance to skate for an Olympic medal.

While Bereznaia and her partner of two seasons, Anton Sikharulidze, begin Olympic pairs competition with the short program Sunday night, Shliakov will be in Chicago. His coach, Maria Jezak-Athey, and her husband have given Shliakov a place to live in their home while he tries to revive his career.

``I thought we had lived in our perfect world, reaching for our dreams,'' Shliakov said, with the coach interpreting. ``I could not understand why it was her who had to pay for our move to the big city (St. Petersburg), why she was picked and why it was me who did it and why all this was happening.''

There seems little question about the sincerity of Shliakov's words. He may have prepared himself for this interview, arranged in part to give Shliakov a chance to answer charges here and in a CBS profile of Bereznaia and Sikharulidze that will air Sunday, but his sentiments about his former partner appeared neither theatrical nor rehearsed.

Shliakov has been accused of abusing Bereznaia, both physically and psychologically, in the four seasons they skated together for Latvia. They placed eighth in the 1994 Olympics.

"He (Shliakov) would yell at her, hit her and kick her," said Tamara Moskvina, who coached Bereznaia with both Shliakov and Sikharulidze. "This was an accident waiting to happen.''

Shliakov, 24, thinks it was the accident that led to such impressions of him being widely circulated.

"Our problems were not different from those of other skaters, but they began to be put in the spotlight after the accident," Shliakov said. "That is when people began blaming me for my not appropriate behavior in practice."

On one thing, both sides agree: what happened in a Riga, Latvia, rink Jan. 9, 1996, was an accident. Bereznaia's head trauma was so severe she has little memory of the incident. Shliakov, the only one with a vivid recall of the terrifying events, was pained to describe it two years later.

Oleg Shliakov's dream was ``that of every skater--an Olympic medal.'' At 19, after skating with a couple of other partners, he found in Bereznaia, then 14, the girl with whom he imagined reaching the dream.

They began training together in Moscow. He was a native Latvian, while she came from the distant city of Nevinnomyssk in the Russian Caucasus. After two years of skating together with unimpressive results, Shliakov said they had so little financial support there were times when they had to share a single meal.

When they left Moscow to train in Riga, she moved in with Shliakov and his mother. They also fell in love.

"In our relationship on and off the ice, there were many very happy moments and many, many unhappy moments," he said.

After finishing seventh at the 1995 world championships, Shliakov felt they needed only polish to challenge for medals. He decided the one person who could provide that was Moskvina, who had trained the 1-2 pairs finishers at the 1992 Olympics and the 1984 Olympic champions in St. Petersburg.

"Before we went there, people warned me there is the danger our team would be broken up," Shliakov said, hinting that Moskvina might have sought such a split. "I asked Elena, and she said this was not possible. I believed her, and I believed Tamara Moskvina."

Moskvina that even before the accident, Bereznaia wanted to stop skating with Shliakov because of a temper he did his best to keep under control.

"It was scary to be present at practice because I expected anything could happen at any time,'' Moskvina said. "(Bereznaia) had many injuries from his violence. I spent a lot of time telling him how to behave. I sent him to a psychologist. During our talks, he would not remember why his temper went crazy and regret it.''

Other skaters who saw the incidents thought Shliakov needed more than a talking-to. Some suggested they should beat him up. Moskvina defused that situation because she did not want ``an international problem'' with the Latvian Figure Skating Federation.

``I can say only there was a certain relationship between us and just between us,'' Shliakov said in response to allegations he hit Bereznaia. ``I cannot say I did anything terrible to her. The things many people were noticing were maybe not truly what was happening.''

Moskvina presumed some of Shliakov's anger came from romantic problems. Bereznaia was beginning to drift away from him and become involved with Sikharulidze, who then was skating in St. Petersburg with another partner.

``The only thing I could do was face the situation and hope our pair would continue,'' Shliakov said. ``Truly, however, I had very small hope for that.''

In December 1995, after they had won the Lalique Trophy event in Paris, Bereznaia and Shliakov returned to Riga to compete in the Latvian championships and train by themselves for the 1996 European championships and Champions Series Final. Moskvina remained in St. Petersburg with her other pair. Oksana Kazakova and Artur Dmitriev, who also are competing in the 1998 Olympics.

Three days after the national competition, Bereznaia and Shliakov were practicing side-by-side camel spins, a move in which each skater has one leg extended horizontally from the waist. When the spins are performed close together, the way Bereznaia and Shliakov did them, there is a risk of one skater hitting the other in the head with the blade or the toe pick.

``At first, I felt I had hit her (with the skate),'' Shliakov said. ``She fell down, and my first thought was, `Are her eyes OK?' There was no blood yet, so I could see her eyes were OK.

``After a moment, I heard the screaming, and the blood started pouring down. I put her in my arms and took her to the medical room at the rink. I tried to call the hospital but my hands were shaking, and I could not do it.

``On the way to the hospital, I asked her what her name was, and when she could not tell me that, I was very worried. It was very difficult for me to watch all this. It was terrible.''

The toe pick, used to dig into the ice for jump takeoffs, had penetrated Bereznaia's skull, damaging motor and speech areas in the brain. Part of her skull was removed temporarily to clean the area near the wound.

``It made me feel a lot better when I saw the quality of care she was getting,'' Shliakov said, ``but I was not sure at first whether she would live or be paralyzed the rest of her life.''

After three weeks in the hospital, doctors said Bereznaia could leave, even though her speech still was almost unintelligible. Shliakov said he and his mother offered to take care of Bereznaia but her mother, who had come from Nevinnomyssk, did not want that. It was decided he should bring her to a Riga hotel.

``When we arrived, all that was asked of me was, `How much was the train ticket?' '' Shliakov said. ``I know why--Anton was there.''

Sikharulidze had been sent by Moskvina to bring Bereznaia back to St. Petersburg. Within a few hours of the arrival at the hotel, they were on a train out of Latvia. It has been implied the quick departure was something of an escape, that Shliakov had been controlling Bereznaia's moves in the past and would try to do so again.

``There is no sense to ask that question,'' Shliakov said. ``I could see in Elena's eyes (at the hotel) that I was no longer her partner.'' Said Bereznaia: ``We had quarreled.''

Even so, Shliakov said he returned to the hotel later to see how Bereznaia was doing, only to be told she had left for the train station. He went there as well and missed her again.

At this year's Cup of Russia event in St. Petersburg, the red-haired Bereznaia was a striking 5-foot, 90-pound figure in a floor-length black mink coat. That is how much life has changed in barely a year for the 20-year-old daughter of an unemployed factory worker and a secretary. She sends money home to them.

``Everything changed--my partner, my country, my home,'' Bereznaia said. ``It is a new life. But with this life, it is very good, and I am very happy.''

Bereznaia and Sikharulidze were an immediate success as a pair. Last season, their first together, they were third at the European championships and third after the short program at worlds before a total collapse in the long program dropped them to ninth. This year, they won both the Lalique Trophy and Champions Series Final with lyrical skating marked by tremendous speed, by twists in which she seems to float heavenward and by consistency on the more difficult elements, pairs and throws.

``They fly over the ice,'' said Ekaterina Gordeeva, two-time Olympic pairs champion. ``It seems they don't touch the ice at all. They're so soft you can't hear their skates at all.

``They definitely look like the best team. Every single element they do has such a quality that no one else can do."

There is still a considerable scar on the left side of Bereznaia's head, above the ear. Her speech impairment was corrected by therapy.

"I feel normal," she said after winning the Champions Series Final six weeks ago in Munich.

When she returned to training, five months after the accident, it took her less time than it did Sikharulidze to forget the past. "Only at the beginning," Bereznaia said, was she afraid to skate.

"When we started, it was very hard for me," Sikharulidze said. "Every time I did a lift, I was thinking about if I fall, that this would be a big problem. I think Elena helped me with this. I could feel she wasn't thinking about it."

The off-ice relationship between Bereznaia and Sikharulidze has cooled to where they are, in his words, "very good friends." Shliakov said he has a new girlfriend in Russia "whom I love very much."

Last year, Shliakov went to the world championships with a new partner, Jelena Sirokhvatova. They finished 20th.

"I did not hope for a high result," he said. "I had to show to myself and others I am alive, and I am skating."

He will be training by himself, in anonymity, while hundreds of millions of people worldwide watch Bereznaia and Sikharulidze skate Sunday and Tuesday at the White Ring arena in Nagano. They are, in most eyes, the favorites for the gold medal, a gold medal that might have been Shliakov's.

"I never thought of it that way," Shliakov said. "I will be watching the Olympic Games on television, and I will be cheering for Elena. I hope she will be standing on the podium with the gold medal, and I will be very happy for her."

I know the road to that is very long and very difficult. She finished it without me--well, that's OK. The important thing is she got there."


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