For the first time, Ekaterina Gordeeva stood by herself in the tunnel leading to the ice. It was at such moments, before they would perform, that her husband and skating partner, Sergei Grinkov, would kiss her, hug her, hold her hand—provide some small assurance. But not tonight. Not ever again. Gordeeva thought of that as she stood in the dark at the Hartford Civic Center the night of Feb. 27, and a pang of loneliness shot through her. If I cry now, she thought, feeling the lump rising in her throat, I'll never be able to skate.
In the stands we had no inkling of what to expect from Gordeeva. If she had taken the ice and collapsed to her knees in tears, no one would have blamed her. The 24-year-old Russian-born skater hadn't performed solo since she was 11. But now, as the centerpiece of an all-star cast of professionals, she was attempting to perform a solo tribute to Grinkov, who had died three months earlier, at 28, of a heart attack. A fragile and heartbroken beauty, she took the ice.
The crowd rose and clapped, then stopped and was transported. For the next five minutes, to the haunting strains of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5, Gordeeva exposed her soul with such gentleness and pathos and strength that no one watching could remain unmoved. This was a rarity: sport, art and tragedy fused into one. Tears streamed down all our faces. It wasn't until Gordeeva had finished her performance that she, too, gave in to her emotions. Waving and trying to smile as the applause rained down on her, she shook her head, her cheeks wet with tears, as if to tell us, It wasn't me. Sergei helped me. Sergei was out there with me.
I believed it. It was the greatest skating performance I'd ever seen.