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Part Three

Ice Dreams

Bechke and Petrov's daily 2 p.m. practice — they also practice at 9 a.m. — begins with about 15 minutes of limb-loosening solo spins and jumps. On this afternoon, the two share the ice with Baiul, who is training for the 2000 Goodwill Games. She is a perfect ice princess who skates with an intense, almost angry concentration. The three skaters circle and leap around each other without acknowledging the others' presence, yet at the same time, they are always precisely aware of where the other skaters are on the ice.

When Bechke and Petrov first started training in Richmond, fans would come out every day to catch a glimpse of the pair. The same thing happened with Baiul — the camera flashes got so bad that SkateNation had to limit access to the rink during elite skating practices because they were distracting the skaters.

But nobody is paying any attention to these former Olympians today — they're too busy practicing their own sit spins and split jumps on SkateNation's other rink.

Bechke and Petrov have been skating together since 1987, when they trained in their hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia. Immediately after winning the silver medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics, the pair became professional skaters.

Petrov says that although the Olympics were a definite career highlight, he actually enjoys his professional career more.

"When you're competing you are only worried about what the judges are going to think, he says. "But when you are a pro you think about pleasing the audience more instead of pleasing the judges," adds Bechke.

For the seventh year, the pair will perform with the 64-show Target Stars on Ice tour this winter with other top professional figure skaters such as Tara Lipinski, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Kurt Browning. The tour stops in Richmond March 23.

Although the pair is constantly on the edge of retirement — last year was to have been their final stint with "Stars on Ice," and it seems that every competition is said to be their "last" — Bechke, 33, and Petrov, 31, have had a busy, and successful, few months. In October, they took first place in the ESPN Pro Championships. And this past weekend, they competed in the prestigious 1999 World Pro Championships at the MCI Center in Washington, their first time in the competition since taking home top honors in 1996. "Last year we were not invited," Bechke says. "They said we were too boring to watch." But what the organizers really meant, she explains, is that they were looking for younger, hipper "big name" skaters.

When the Bechke and Petrov finally meet in the center of the ice to run through their "Hungarian Dance" program, they are anything but boring. They begin a set of perfectly synchronized movements to music that is playing only in their heads. Baiul moves to the side, and the rink is silent but for the clean, scraping sounds of perfectly sharpened skates cutting through the ice.

Petrov, a dark and handsome 6-footer with killer dimples, effortlessly lifts Bechke, who seems much smaller than her 5 feet, 2-inches. Perhaps it is her pale blonde wispy hair that blows off her face as she flies through the air, held high above Petrov's head, or maybe its her perfectly positioned arms that give the illusion of bird's wings and make her look so fragile.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasCoach Lisa Winn works with skater Jessica Smith. For some children, private coaching sessions are a daily ritual.The pair describe their style as "classical, inventive and romantic." They are best known for their "impossible" death spiral, a move developed with their coach, Tamara Moskvina, in 1990 and for their expressive performances. There is something intimate about their skating style — maybe it is the knowledge that the pair were married in 1990 and divorced in 1995. Yet they say they are still great friends. They would have to be to be able to spend so much time together — more than three hours of practice every day and months on the road.

The two attended a Russian school for Olympic athletes and say that skating in America has been a real revelation. "We spent a year in Lake Placid getting ready for pro competition in 1996," Bechke explains. "It was our first experience training in the United States. We had an apartment two minutes away, I wish we had the same conditions in Russia."

In Russia, in 1991 and '92, "everything was bad. The ice was bad. The Zamboni was broken. It was as cold outside as it was inside."

"Now for us, it is a miracle," Bechke says with genuine appreciation. "We have a good practice time, private ice, a ballet room. If we could have had this all 10 years ago ..."

These young Richmond skaters have it easy compared to the way things were in Russia.

"What they do here is 20 percent of what we used to do when we are growing up," says Bechke, who like Petrov began skating at age 5. "It is everything or nothing in Russia. ... But here the kids are finally starting to get more into the work routine because they can see results. They see advanced skaters getting better and they see that this works."

Another big difference between Russian and U.S. skating? "Here, the parents tell us what to do," Bechke says. "They want to choose the music, the costumes, they tell us what their kids need to work on. It is hard to deal with such parents because in Russia, it's the opposite. In Russia, it is the coach and student — parents are not even allowed in the rink. But there parents don't pay — here they pay."

In Russia, figure skating is something you do for your country. If you are really good, skating may enable you to leave your country and live a more prosperous life, as is the case with skaters like Bechke, Petrov and Baiul. In America, skating is something you do if you are prosperous and can afford the thousands it costs for daily practices, personal coaches and top-of-the-line equipment.

And another difference — in Russia, more boys are involved in figure skating. "It is hard to convince the parents here, Bechke says. "I have seen boys' parents be very worried their boys are skating because of the gay thing. They see the makeup, the outfits ... But sparkles on a guy's outfit don't mean anything."

The duo would love to coach pair skaters but have not only had trouble recruiting boys, but finding girls who are willing to share the limelight with another skater. "All the girls want to be Tara Lipinski," Bechke says, laughing.

"And I'm sure — I'm positive — that we can have a champion come out of this facility. We just have to keep working hard. I cannot promise every child they can be a world champion ... It's my job to discover talent and tell parents the truth when it gets to a certain point."

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