On the ice Slutskaya stood out because of the power and height of her jumps. "I was always jumping, jumping. I didn't like to spin when I was small," she says. "But I practiced my Biellmann every day by stretching on the kitchen floor."
The Biellmann, which requires the flexibility of a licorice string, is the visually dramatic move in which a skater grabs the blade of her skate behind her back, pulls it over her head and spins. Slutskaya, innovative by nature, taught herself to do it with either leg, thus becoming the first skater to, with a change of feet, do a double Biellmann. In 1996 she won the European championship at age 16, the first Russian woman to do so, and later that year went on to finish third at worlds.
She had unlimited potential, but her training habits and willful nature made the next few years difficult ones. An overweight Slutskaya finished a disappointing fifth at the 1998 Olympics. "It was like I was sleeping in Nagano," she says. "I didn't train as hard as I should have. I can't explain why."
In 1999 Slutskaya was out of shape for the Russian Nationals and finished fourth, a placement that kept her out of that season's major international competitions. She walked out of the arena in a daze, brushing right past Mikheev, who'd been her boyfriend for three years and was waiting for her with a stuffed toy. "I was thinking about quitting," she recalls. "Sergei told me, 'Come on, get in. Don't worry. Everything's O.K.' I'm crying and he's driving in circles, but I don't even notice. He's so quiet and calm, he calms me. The third time around I say, 'Why are we going in circles?' That's when he knew I would be O.K."
She asked Mikheev to take her to Red Square. While it snowed, the two walked for an hour, talking about her future. "I realized then I can't live without skating. It's my life," she says.
That summer, in August 1999, they married. The strong, unassuming Mikheev, a physical education teacher who's nearly seven years her senior, was a perfect complement to Slutskaya's high-energy, mercurial nature. "I love being married," she says. "I know he'll be waiting for me at home, and will say a sweet word for me no matter how I have done. I'm not alone."
Happy and focused, she lost weight and began training as never before. "I changed everything. Before, two or three jumps was enough," she says. "Now it's five, 10, 20 jumps at a time."
It didn't take long for the skating world to recognize the change. Written off after 1999, Slutskaya won the Russian and European championships in 2000, then upset Kwan in the prestigious Grand Prix finals, landing the extraordinarily difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination—another first for women. She was faster than Kwan, performed more interesting spins and attempted far more difficult jumps.
Technically, she was—and is—the best female skater in the world. Nevertheless Kwan, carried to victory by superior presentation marks, beat Slutskaya in the 2000 and 2001 world championships. In the opinion of the judges, Slutskaya's skating lacked an element of grace and sophistication. "It was especially hard at last year's worlds," Slutskaya says. After winning the short program, she landed her triple Salchow-triple loop-double toe loop combination in the free skate, a series of jumps no other woman had performed. Still, Kwan scored higher presentation marks from eight of the nine judges and won the event, which left Slutskaya in tears. "My expectations were very high, and I thought I skated well enough in the long program to win," she says. "But I knew if my artistic marks were small, I needed to work harder at it."
Over the summer Slutskaya concentrated on her artistry, working with a ballet instructor and a new choreographer. "When I move my arms now, I do this from my soul and right to the tips of my fingers," she says.