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The smell of diesel fuel hangs over the ice at Moscow's Young Pioneers training center, a gray, windowless building that calls to mind the bleakness of the Stalin-era Soviet Union. At the door an old man with jaundiced skin sits at his desk watching as mothers deliver their children to this mid-November morning practice. The lighting is poor, the ice uneven, the air bitter cold. One of the coaches is smoking at rinkside, a few feet from a NO SMOKING sign. At the center of this cheerless scene seven young skaters, hoping to be future champions, wordlessly circle the ice.
An eighth skater, Irina Slutskaya, joins them, and suddenly a ripple of energy dispels the gloom. Gregarious and chatty, she shares a word with the first two girls she passes, making them laugh. Her manner is gleeful, puckish. Her distinctively red cheeks are so brightly flushed they look painted. Her eyes shine as she turns backward to begin her crossovers, and she quickly gains startling speed.
The 22-year-old Slutskaya has the ability to light up a room. Judges take note of it when she competes, you'd have to be blind not to, and audiences come to their feet in appreciation. She makes the arena feel fun and alive. Slutskaya may not be as graceful as her 21-year-old American rival, four-time world champion Michelle Kwan, but she's more athletic, more expressive and a lot more entertaining. Though she has never won a world championship—three times she's finished second to Kwan, and in 1996 she took bronze while Kwan won gold—Slutskaya has beaten Kwan six times in the last two years and, having improved her artistic presentation over the summer, is 3-0 against Kwan since September. That's why a lot of skating experts believe the dynamic Russian, not the elegant Yank, will explode to gold in Salt Lake City.
Win or lose, explode is the right word. Slutskaya is a firecracker. This becomes clear midway through the practice when she starts to struggle with her triple Salchow-triple loop-double toe combination, a breathtaking trio of jumps that she unveiled during the 2000-01 season. No other woman has landed one in competition, and no one will land it today. Because the temperature in the rink is so cold, the ice in the Young Pioneer Training Center is too hard to effectively plant a toe pick. Still, Slutskaya tries. Two times in a row she builds up speed only to have to stop to avoid a 10-year-old who's practicing her program. It's an unwritten rule of skaters that whoever's music is playing, as the young girl's is at the time of the near collisions, has the right-of-way. Still, on Slutskaya's home rink she sets the rules. "Stop the music!" she yells at the child's coach.
Almost instantly it stops. The 10-year-old, pale as death, tries to disappear into her own silent horror, while the other skaters drift nervously toward the boards to give Slutskaya a wide berth. Slutskaya's coach, Zhanna Gromova, says nothing. She's coached Slutskaya for 16 years and is used to her willful ways. Screaming at each other is normal. Slutskaya circles the ice, recomposing herself en route, and tries the jump. When she falls, the assemblage braces for another eruption, but instead Slutskaya slaps the ice once in frustration, rolls onto her back and lets out a belly laugh. The tension is broken.
She isn't done exploding, though. There's the matter of the granite-hard ice, and after practice Slutskaya makes a point of removing her skates near the old man at the desk, who doubles as the rink manager. He gets an earful. Too hard. Too cold. How can she land doubles, never mind triples, on such a surface? Her voice rises as she warms to the scolding, and the man, his yellow face pinched, finally rises and walks away.
Asked about these incidents while she drives home through the jammed streets of Moscow with the panache of a New York City taxi driver, Slutskaya is unapologetic and slightly bemused. "This is nothing," she says in her self-taught English. Grinning mischievously, she tells the story of her battle with a 15-year-old boy who skates in her group. A promising youngster who moved to Moscow to train with Slutskaya's coach, the boy recently had the cheek to practice a jump at the very spot on the ice that Slutskaya had selected for her takeoff point. His violent picks were ruining the ice. "What do you think you are doing?" the 5'3" Slutskaya recalls saying to the larger boy while punching him in the chest. "I'm the star here, not you. You're nothing, a piece of s—-," she continued, punching him twice more. The boy skated off in tears. "Oh well," she shrugs. "I'm a fighter. I fight for things my whole life."
Her mettle has served her well. With her skating earnings Slutskaya has been able to buy a three-bedroom, l6th-floor apartment in one of Moscow's better neighborhoods where she lives with her husband, Sergei Mikheev, an Akita named Bars, an iguana and about 500 stuffed animals that make the place feel cramped. They have a view of the city and a park across the street where the dog can play. Grocery shopping is in easy walking distance, and there's a parking place for Slutskaya's new Land Rover. Her mother, Natalya Vladimirovna, who frequently comes over to help with cleaning and washing, lives five minutes away. "If you have money, you can live normally in Moscow," Slutskaya says of her comfortable, if unostentatious, digs. "I have apartment, car and family. That's all I need."
And skating. Two years ago Slutskaya discovered how much she needed the sport, which she picked up as a young girl after doctors suggested she exercise more to cure her persistent bronchitis. She liked skating but hated the ballet training that went with it. "The first few times she tried to run away," Vladimirovna says. "We had to hold the door to keep her in."
The training schedule was taxing. Up at 5:30 to make the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. session and then back to the rink for the late session from 10 to 11 p.m. Mother and daughter seldom got to bed before 12:30. Once Vladimirovna, believing Slutskaya was chatting too much at practice instead of working, hid her daughter's skates in the washing machine. "Irina screamed, squealed and poured over with tears," Vladimirovna says, "but that night she went to practice and worked."