Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov skate on and on

Updated: December 23, 2006, 10:00 AM ET
Associated Press

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- The words still echo in Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov's ears:

"Your train is gone, you're too old."

That was a half-century ago. They were in their early 20s and had just begun their partnership on and off the ice, but Soviet sports officials tried to stop perhaps the greatest pair in figure skating history before their career even began.

Too old?

They were merely getting started.

It's been more than four decades since the Protopopovs brought unparalleled artistry to pairs figure skating, winning the first of two Olympic gold medals. He's 74 now, she's 71, but time barely has infringed on their artistry, if at all.

"I learn something every time I see them skate, even now," said Dick Button, gold medalist in men's singles in 1948 and 1952 and a longtime television commentator on the sport. "The basic movements and basic positions are all there. They take and break down every single element that they do and follow through on the classical style that they've been so good at, to their ultimate destination."

Four hours a day nearly every day, Oleg effortlessly lifts Ludmila off her feet and sets her down gracefully as they practice and practice and practice.

"We dedicate our life for skating," said Ludmila, who weighs about 100 pounds and can still do the splits. "Everything revolves around skating."

"There is no limit to how old you can be. Figure skating is a long-lasting sport, it prolongs life," said Oleg, whose mother was a ballerina and helped him survive the brutal siege of Leningrad, which claimed more than 1 million lives during World War II. "Now, I feel young. I don't feel old. We are like seagulls. While we can move our wings, we will fly."

And fly they do. For five months a year, the Protopopovs train here on the ice sheet that coach Herb Brooks and the U.S. Olympic hockey team made famous in 1980. They also spend five weeks windsurfing and rollerblading in Hawaii, and live the rest of the time in their adopted home of Switzerland.

The Protopopovs first came to Lake Placid nine years ago at the recommendation of a Russian friend. They skated in an exhibition and were so well received that they've returned every year.

"They are in the most wonderful physical condition I've seen. People who come to watch them skate are amazed. They don't believe it," said 79-year-old Barbara Kelly, who has provided the Protopopovs with an apartment in Lake Placid for five years. "They have a style that's never been matched."

The Protopopovs' journey began in 1954, when they met by chance at a coaches' seminar on a small rink in Moscow.

"They needed demonstrators," said Oleg, who was in the navy at the time. "We had no intention to skate in pairs. It was just an accident."

They continued to skate with different partners in different cities until she moved from Moscow to his hometown of Leningrad. They began skating as a pair in 1957, soon married, and an inseparable pair was born.

And if Soviet sports officials weren't going to support them, that was fine: They loved the sport almost as much as one another.

Ludmila, who didn't discover figure skating until she was 15 after seeing the great Sonja Henie in the movie "Sun Valley Serenade," studied engineering in college and after classes joined Oleg to train outdoors, often in temperatures below zero.

Completely self-taught -- Oleg choreographs their routines and Ludmila makes the costumes -- the Protopopovs were the first skaters to perform side-by-side jumps and invented three spiral moves: the life spiral on the forward inside edge of their skate blades; the love spiral on the forward outside edge, and the cosmic spiral on the backward inside edge.

Success came quickly. After finishing ninth at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, they won silver medals at the Europeans and world championships from 1962-64 and became Olympic champions at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964. They were European and world champions four straight times (1965-68) and won Olympic gold again in 1968 at Grenoble, France, when Oleg overcame bleeding from kidney stones that he passed just before the competition.

"I competed just by the will," he said. "If I had surgery, I wouldn't have skated at all."

A year later, the Protopopovs begrudgingly turned pro.

"We wanted to compete at Sapporo in 1972. We were very, very good. Prepared," Oleg said. "But the authorities said if we won the Olympic Games a third time, we would defect. They didn't like that the Protopopovs were so popular, and our sports opponents said, 'We don't need you because you're too theatrical. We need now more athletic pairs.'

"We grew up in the Soviet political system, and nobody really knew what freedom was," Oleg said. "But we knew freedom from the other side, freedom to continue our skating. We wanted to continue to do this."

They did defect in 1979 -- after Soviet officials tried to force them to retire. They left an amazing legacy: Russians have won every gold medal in Olympic pairs competition since the Protopopovs' first, a span of 12 Olympiads.

After settling in Switzerland, the Protopopovs joined the Ice Capades and competed in the World Professional Figure Skating Championships. They won their final gold medal in 1985, tying Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, a couple half their age.

In 2003, at the invitation of Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian minister of sport and a former NHL star, the Protopopovs returned to their homeland for the first time since they defected. They received a tumultuous ovation from a St. Petersburg crowd of 15,000 fans.

"We try to bring the gladness to people if they watch us," Oleg said. "There is no limit to how old you can be. They get pleasure from this, so why do we have to stop?"

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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