#Unearthed: The Irina Rodnina And Alexei Ulanov Edition

When you dig through skating history, you never know what you will unearth. In the spirit of cataloguing fascinating tales from skating history, #Unearthed is a once a month 'special occasion' on Skate Guard where fascinating writings by others that are of interest to skating history buffs are excavated, dusted off and shared for your reading pleasure. From forgotten fiction to long lost interviews to tales that have never been shared publicly, each #Unearthed is a fascinating journey through time. Today's 'buried treasure' is an article "Wizards - But Not In The Classical Style!" by Novosti sportswriter Andrei Batashov. It appeared in a 1970 issue of "Soviet Sport" magazine and detailed the rise to prominence of Soviet pairs skaters Irina Rodnina and Alexei Ulanov, who would two years later win Olympic gold in Sapporo, Japan.


In 1969 Irina Rodnina, 18, and Alexei Ulanov, 21, both students at the Central Physical Culture Institute and pupils of the celebrated coach Stanislav Zhuk won the European and world figure skating crowns. They took the European title on their second try, a feat the experts found hard to explain. And shortly afterward, in their world debut at Colorado Springs, they picked up the gold again. Besides a bewitching spectacle of motion, their performances offered an insight into the magic kingdom of youth, where speeds fall into different categories, emotions are ten times as intense and every movement sparkles and crackles with fun and ebullience.

I first saw the two several years ago at the Army Sports Palace in Moscow and was staggered by their complex synchronized leaps. I asked Zhuk then what he had to say about their prospects. "It's premature to enter them for big events," he told me. "Creation is a thing that can't be rushed. Composition has to come of its own accord. "It's senseless to try to speed up the process. You can pull up the stem as much as you like, but it won't make the flower blossom any sooner."

However, Zhuk was able to make this flower blossom with a loveliness that was not in the classical catalogue. The two have a beauty all their own, the product of great effort and inspiration transformed into movement.

It took Irina and Alexei a bit over three years to give tangible body to Zhuk's concept. As he says: "I want both life and sports to have pep and novelty, in short, to be live wires. It's new movements of incredible difficulty that make figure skating come alive."

Today their duet is called beautiful and modern. No wonder; they display a cascading series of movements that no others dare. Not long ago they were said to be under par, classically speaking, with no real understanding of the musical accompaniment. But they and their coach have clearly disproved this.

"I never wanted them to do a 'fashionable' program no matter what." Says Zhuk. "I've always wanted their composition to be sports-inspired, to bubble over with vim and vigor. Against this background the lyrical note should be all the more evocative. "I once happened to notice," he recalls, “that they make unusual, I would even say comical, steps. So I decided to base the composition precisely on that. When she thinks she is not being observed, Irina does wonders. And that's the atmosphere I try to create."

Irina Rodnina and friend Tatyana Zelentsova, a European Champion at hurdling

Talking with Irina recently, I asked her what she liked most about figure skating. "Speed," she said. "The chance to do what you can't do anywhere else, even in ballet. But I also admire ice hockey, boxing and, of course, the ballet."

"What does Zhuk frown at most?"

"There are some things I like that I do without thinking. That's when he says: 'You're a grownup now!'"

"Any changes for next year's program?"

"You can't revamp it completely in one year. We'll simply add a couple of novelties. After all, they've got to be thought up -  which doesn’t happen every day - and assimilated."

"Do you think grace should be the big element in figure skating?"

"Sports are competition, and grace is the result. It doesn't matter what, figure skating or anything else. In sports one simply can't decide to be graceful at any cost."

"Your program is fast. Doesn't this get in the way of the lyrical note?"

"That can be expressed in various ways including leaps, which I think are much more fascinating than the usual ballet pas full of ‘inspired lyricism."

"Planning to use jazz?"

"We're often advised to try Spanish or Mexican rhythms or jazz. But I like the vivacious free-flowing Russian music most. Take our finale. I think my heart is going to jump out, but when this music comes up, it's like a new charge of strength. The music must suit you. Sometimes you see a little nine-year-old skating to Tchaikovsky's 'Piano Concerto No. 1' What for? There are things for kids, aren't there? The audience would like it better, and the little girl would find it easier to skate to music for her age."

"Ever wanted to copy anyone?"

"What for? There are many people I like and respect, but I've never thought of copying them, at any rate deliberately. Tragic emotions are not my nature. It's possible they won't be even when I turn thirty. So why force myself, why try to express what I don't know any thing about? One authority said to me: 'Look at the way you skate!'  After all, figure skating is classical and I don't want to be classical.

Viewers call the duet wizards. But wizards are not this young and fun-loving. Nor are they accordion players, like Alexei, or boxing fans, like Irina. After their victory at the European tournament, the pair was presented with copies of the 1972 Olympic gold and silver medals.

Said Alexei at the time: “If that's a forecast, we have no objection. But we're not going to risk any guesses ourselves."

"They leave that to me," Zhuk grins. "What can you do? You've got to risk together. In figure skating, you can't clutch the idea that a bird in the hand is better than set yourself a goal and try to get there."

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.