Ekaterina Gordeeva pulls her station wagon into the nursery school driveway like any other Simsbury, Conn., mom. She has always had a doll-like quality about her—small-boned and porcelain-complexioned—but now an air of brittleness and unshakable sorrow have been added to the mix. She is 24 years old and a widow, a treasured ornament dropped upon a hard-wood floor.
Katya, as she is known to her friends, has always been stronger than her 5'1", 90-pound frame suggests. When she reaches the front of the waiting line of cars, a small blonde girl stands holding a teachers hand. The girl is Daria, Gordeeva's three-year-old daughter. She is tow headed, round-faced, with a wide, crooked smile you recognize. It is her fathers smile, and the sight of her mom has brought it to light. Gordeeva smiles back, a spot of color radiating from her translucent cheek.
Mother and daughter greet each other in Russian as Daria, who is called Dasha, scrambles into her seat in the back. She has had a bang-up day in school, that much is clear. "You have to smile for her, however you are feeling," Gordeeva says, glancing back to catch Dasha's eyes, "because she's always smiling for you."
It has been 11 weeks since that terrible day in Lake Placid, N.Y., when, in the midst of an ordinary practice, her husband and skating partner, 28-year-old Sergei Grinkov, collapsed on the ice from a heart attack. Gordeeva and Grinkov—two-time Olympic gold medalists, four-time world champions, the most universally adored pairs skaters of all time—were working on their new Stars on Ice program, preparing for a 50-city tour. Their choreographer, Marina Zoueva, who had worked with them their entire career, had flown down from Ottawa, and just the three of them were on the ice.
They were polishing a section in which Grinkov would throw Gordeeva, then speed up to lift her after she landed. She felt his hands slip around her waist, but Grinkov didn't perform the lift. She thought it must have been his back, which had been troubling him of late. He stopped skating. "Then he was feeling dizzy, and he held on to the boards," Gordeeva says. "He lay down very quietly. Marina stopped the music. I kept asking what's happening, and he didn't tell me."
Grinkov never spoke again. The emergency medical team arrived within minutes and tried to revive his heart right there on the ice, but he had stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
An autopsy later determined that two of the arteries to his heart had been blocked. The 5'11", 175-pound Grinkov, who had always been in superb shape, suffered from an undiagnosed coronary artery disease, a condition he had probably inherited from his father, who had died at age 56, after his fourth heart attack. When Katya was told that Sergei had died, Marina, who had never left her side, suggested she go in and say goodbye. "He can still hear you," Katya remembers her saying. Sergei was wearing his skates, and as she spoke to him she unlaced them and slipped them off.
They had skated together for nearly 14 years, since she was 11 and he was 15—a couple of great-looking kids thrown together by the old Soviet sports system. They were hardly ever apart. Even before their marriage, in April 1991, G&G, as they were affectionately known in the skating community, spent more time together than either did with his or her parents. In ballet classes. Traveling. Training. Competing. Eating. "He always, always took care of me," Gordeeva says. "I don't even know the feeling of what it's like to see your husband go to a different town or a different country for business. It only happened one time. Sergei had a shoulder operation before our wedding. He went to Princeton, in New Jersey, and I was very, very worried. This is the only time I met him at the airport, and I brought with me one rose. After this, we never leave from each other again."
Until death do us part. And how to tell little Dasha, who looked so much like Sergei and had been her father's joy? The day Grinkov died, Gordeeva's parents, who were visiting from Moscow, were taking care of Dasha in Simsbury, where Gordeeva and Grinkov had lived since October 1994. They flew to Lake Placid with G&G's agent, Debbie Nast of IMG. Katya's mother, Elena, suggested maybe they should tell Dasha that her dad was away training. But a teacher from Dasha's school told Katya it was important that she explain to her daughter what happened before someone else tried. Katya was told not to be afraid to use words like "dead" or "not coming back." And not to expect Dasha to cry or even, necessarily, be upset. "After I told her, Dasha asks, 'But how can we see him again?' " Katya recalls. "So I said, 'He'll come to you when he wants to see you. He's like a little angel now. Also, you can see him in your dreams. But he'll never come back.' "
There was never any question where the funeral would be. "Sergei had a Russian soul," Gordeeva says. "He only felt comfortable there." Before the body was flown to Moscow, Nast arranged for a wake in Saranac Lake on Nov. 21, the day after Grinkov's death, so other skaters—and a more close-knit group of athletes than the fraternity of professional skaters is hard to imagine—could pay their last respects. Gordeeva went in first. Grinkov looked as if he were sleeping, as if he were almost ready to smile. She left a photograph of Dasha with him. "That was a time when I felt very peaceful," she says now. "It was a chance to show our good friends that Sergei was still beautiful. In my mind that will always be the last day I had with Sergei."