Trying to come up with my top 10 pairs of all-time and then ranking them has given me a headache! There are so many more teams that could be included on this list than my buddies in CBC webland have given me slots. In any event, here are is my list.
Agree with my rankings? Disagree? Feel free to set me straight with your own top 10. I want to hear from you! Leave your comments at the bottom of this page or give me a shout on Twitter. (click on the names of the skaters to watch video of them in action)
1. Ludmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov , USSR (Two-time Olympic champions in 1964 and '68, four- time world champions)
The husband and wife team, known as the Protopopovs, are the grandparents in my mind of modern pairs skating. Elegant and athletic, they were the first team from the Soviet Union to win gold at the Olympics in 1964. The Soviets', and subsequent Russian, Olympic gold-medal streak would last an additional 42 years until 2006, the longest in Olympic history.
2. Irina Rodnina and Akexander Zaitsev, USSR (Olympic champions 1976 and 1980, six-time world champions)
The genius of Irina Rodnina as a pairs skater is legendary. She competed first with Alexei Ulanov until 1972; winning one Olympic title in 1972 and four world titles. She then went on to compete with Alexander Zaitsev and win the next two Olympic titles in 1976 and 1980, along with six more world titles.
Here's an interesting story: in 1973 at the worlds in Bratislava, the music for Rodnina and Zaitsev's free program mysteriously stopped part of the way through. The pair continued skating in perfect unison to silence. My mother, who was in the building as a spectator, said the referee was trying wildly to get the skaters' attention to get them to stop. They kept skating and earned a standing ovation at the end of their program and subsequently won the title. The image of Rodnina and Zaitsev flying around the rink in Munich in 1974 at the world championships at breakneck speed was beyond impressive and was permanently etched on my teenaged spectator brain.
3. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Russia (Two-time Olympic champions in 1988 and 1994, four time world champions)
The first time I saw this remarkable team was from the stands in 1990 in Halifax at the worlds, where they took the title. The time that resonates most for me was in their comeback season on their way to their second Olympic title in 1994. The stage was set in Ottawa at Skate Canada in 1993 and from my announcer's rinkside seat I can tell you that they were magical. Their connection was so strong that I almost felt like I was intruding on a private moment.
There isn't a skating person out there who doesn't know where they were when they heard the news on Nov. 20, 1995 that Grinkov had collapsed and died while practising on the ice. He died of a massive heart attack caused by a congenital and undetected defect at the age of 28, leaving his 24-year-old wife and partner, and their three-year-old daughter, Daria.
4. Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, China (2010 Olympic champions, three time world champions)
Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are the first Chinese pair to have won Olympic gold. I remember seeing them for the first time at worlds in 1996 in Edmonton where I was the PA announcer for the pairs event. They were rough and raw but were equally dynamic. Unfortunately, their best performance was left in practice that year. I passed Lloyd Eisler backstage and told him I had been watching future world champions. He said "It'll never happen." It didn't - until 2002 that is in Nagano, Japan.
5. Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev, Russia (1992 Olympic champions)
Artur Dmitriev is the only other skater aside from Irina Rodnina to win Olympic gold with two different partners. He competed with Natalia Mishkutenok from 1987 to 1994, winning the Olympics in 1992 and Olympic silver in 1994, plus two world titles. Skating with Oksana Kazakova from 1994 until 1998, they took the Olympic title in 1998.
With both partners, Dmitriev's charm and passion reached way up into the audience. All skating aside his old world way of kissing his partner's hand as a thank you gesture was positively disarming!
6. Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, Russia (2002 Olympic champions, 1998 Olympic silver medallists, two-time world champions)
Before skating with Sikharulidze, Berezhnaya skated for Latvia with Oleg Shliakov. In a spin mishap in early 1996, Shliakov's blade cracked open Berezhnaya's skull, leaving her initially unable to speak and temporarily paralyzed while she recovered. By late 1996, she started skating with Sikharulidze and by 1998 they won their first of two consecutive world titles. In person their speed, unison and technical wizardry made me stop what I was doing to watch them.
7. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, Canada (2002 Olympic champions, 2001 world champions)
I am a sucker for a love story. Watching Sale and Pelletier's choreography to the soundtrack of the same name was one of those rare times when time stood still. It is an iconic Lori Nichol program. Whenever I hear this music used in skating by someone else, I want to whisper gently in their ear: 'This music has been retired. Do yourself a favour and find something else to skate to."
8. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler, Canada (Two-time Olympic bronze medallists in 1992 and '94, 1993 world champions)
There is something about Brasseur and Eisler's athleticism that was always so exciting. I remember seeing them as competitors and marvelling at elements like their lateral twist, which was huge. Their relationship reflected their commitment to a common goal and they respected what each offered to the partnership. They connected on the ice without being 'connected,' which was the magic of this team.
9. Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Germany (2010 Olympic bronze medallists, three-time world champions)
Savchenko and Szolkowy represent a new breed of pairs skater revered for their technical prowess. I have been critical in the past of their lack of connection on the ice with the exception of their Out of Africa free program, which marries their technical side with an emotion worthy of any Hollywood masterpiece. I can watch it again and again. It leaves me wanting more from this team.
10. Barb Underhill and Paul Martini, Canada (1984 world champions)
I will likely be accused of bias by including Underhill and Martini in this list. I can live with that. They are included because they represent to me the best lesson that sport can teach an athlete. It isn't always about the results. It's about the journey. Hard work does count for something and perseverance is key. Hats off to Underhill and Martini for not throwing in the towel when faced with numerous disastrous skating results. Their victory in Ottawa in 1984 was that much sweeter.
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