Oksana and Artur spent part of the summer of 1996 on the Tour of Champions. Following the tour, they returned to St. Petersburg to have brief vacations with their families. Artur relished spending time with his wife Tatiana and their three year old son Artur Jr. Oksana married her boyfriend Alexei Novitsky that summer in a beautiful ceremony at an Orthodox church.
The couple and their coach Tamara then had to settle down to the task of preparing for the season ahead. They created both a new short program and a new long. Most of their time was spent on the long program. The music would be Handel's Passacalia. The choreographer David Avdish had given the striking piece of music to Tamara on an old, worn tape. Tamara searched frantically to find a version of the music with the same gorgeous instrumentation on a CD. She searched for weeks to no avail untill at last a St. Petersburg radio station located the CD.
The short program was to be a switch for the couple. They were to skate a humorous program to the music of "La Cucaracha". Tamara wanted to see the couple branch out and explore a different theme.
Tamara Moskvina had a second couple to prepare for the upcoming season. In a story well known to the skating world, Elena Berezhnaya had suffered a serious head injury in early 1996 at the hands of her former partner Oleg Schliakhov. After Elena recovered, she began skating for Russia with Anton Sikharulidze. Tamara worked with this young couple in addition to Oksana and Artur, helping them prepare both a short and a long program.
Summer was over quickly and their attention turned to their first competition of the season: Skate America, in November. When they showed up at the event, critics commented that they did not look ready for the competition. Oksana and Artur did struggle through Skate America, as they had last season in Detroit. The short program was skated with numerous mistakes, leaving the couple unable to really "sell" the unusual (for them) choreography. A weak field left them in second place.
The free skate was much more of a success. This was the first public performance of "Passacalia", the innovative, exciting and beautiful free program. Although Oksana and Artur continued to experience jump troubles, both throws were clean and the program had enough technical and artistic content to win the event. Americans Shelby Lyons and Brian Wells finished second. In between competition and practice, Oksana, Artur, and Tamara made the time to again meet with their fan club as they had at the previous year's Skate America.
The skating world was surprised when only three weeks later, the couple appeared in much better shape at Trophy Lalique in Paris. At this event, they looked ready to contend for the top spot and to perform all the difficult elements in their programs. The competition at Lalique was much more strong than at Skate America. In addition to reigning World bronze medalists Meno and Sand , Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were making this their debut competition together. In the short program, Oksana and Artur placed only third due to jump errors on both partners' sides. But the free skate performed by Oksana and Artur was stunning. All the elements were clean, allowing the audience to enjoy the beauty of the unique choreography. Unlike at Skate America, this was a clear cut win; the gold was definately earned here by Oksana and Artur.
But the 1996-97 season was an up and down one for the pair. Another few weeks passed, and their next competition was Cup of Russia. Artur did not look in shape for this competition, and the skating was heavy. Oksana and Artur eked out a third place finish here, despite jump problems, throw difficulties, and unison glitches. Once again word that the couple just was not ready for the season circulated. Their hot and cold performances confused fans and critics alike.
The low point of the season for Oksana and Artur was their 4th competition: the Russian National Championships. To make matters worse, this year four very strong couples would compete. Last season, Elena Berezhnaya had skated for Latvia with Oleg Schliakhov. This year, Elena and Anton represented Russia. They were a much stronger pair than Anton and his previous partner Maria Petrova had been. In addition, Shishkova and Naumov and the current World Champions Eltsova and Bushkov all would contend for the three spots on the world team.
The competition did not start out well for Oksana and Artur. Oksana was suffering from the flu and skated with a temperature. But the idea of asking for a "bye" never occured to them. Oksana and Artur placed 4th in the short program due to the jump inconsistencies that plagued them. They were unable to pull up in the free skate. The performance was better, but they lacked stamina. Shishkova and Naumov finished third; they beat Oksana and Artur by only one judge in the free skate. The Federation did not decide at that point which couple would attend Worlds; they would make their decision based on the results of the upcoming European Championship and the Champions Series Final. (Eltsova and Bushkov won Nationals; Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze were second.)
Oksana and Artur could not defend the European title that they had won so gloriously just a year ago. Artur struggled with his motivation to skate, and Oksana tried to regain her confidence. At this point, the prospect of an Olympic gold medal just over a year later looked like a remote possibility.
One bright spot was that because of their early season success, the pair had qualified to skate at the Champions Series Final (CSF) which would be held three months later in Canada. They knew that if they did well there, they would still have a shot at being named to the World team. One thing they and their coach Tamara agreed to do to prepare for it was to scrap their short program. The reception to "La Cucaracha" had been lukewarm at best. They developed a new short program to bring to Canada. In the meantime, they watched their rivals for that third spot on the team, Shishkova and Naumov, finish a disappointing fifth at Europeans.
Oksana and Artur worked hard to prepare for the CSF and rebuild their shattered confidence. At last the event drew near, and audiences saw a different pair emerge in the practice sessions. The music for the new short program was the same that the pair had successfully used for their exhibition program: Strass' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (commonly called "2001").
The Champions Series Final could not have gone much better for Oksana and Artur. Performing to the rousing music, they skated a clean short program---something they had not achieved all season. The audience responded enthusiastically with a partial standing ovation and several flower bouquets being tossed onto the ice. At last they had skated up to their potential! Changing the short program proved to be the right thing to do.
The free program was skated smoothly as a dream. One element just flowed into the next as the program built in intensity. The spellbound audience gave another partial standing ovation. Although the judges prefered Woetzl and Steuer for the gold medal, Oksana and Artur won the silver...and a ticket to Worlds. They had beaten the reigning World Champions (Eltsova and Bushkov placed only third here) and proven that they could skate brilliantly with the pressure on.
Worlds would be the last competition of the season. The pair was lucky that they had suffered no major injuries during the season (although Artur's back pain was a nagging reminder of the difficulty of their moves) and Oksana was over the flu by then. They went to Lausanne, Switzerland knowing they had a real chance at the gold medal.
The short program competition for pairs in Lausanne was overall a much cleaner competition than it had been a year ago in Edmonton. Many pairs skated cleanly. Unfortunately, Artur doubled the triple toe loop. Nevertheless, the audience went wild for the couple, giving a full standing ovation and booing the low marks. The judges were forced to take heavy deductions for the miscue, and Oksana and Artur wound up in only sixth place. A medal would be a distant possibility. Tamara told reporters, "We will fight for a medal."
And fight they did. The pair was able to pull all the way up to third place and the bronze medal in the free skate. The program was clean, fast, and mesmerizing. The audience responded with a full standing ovation. The USFSA's magazine "Skating" commented that Oksana and Artur "had the audience eating out of the palms of their hands." They were the crowd favorites by far. Many in the skating world thought that they deserved even better than third place in the free skate.
After the competition, a press conference was held for the medalist, per tradition. Artur told reporters that he never missed the triple toe when he was with Natalia. Then he stopped and looked chagrined as he realized he seemed to be blaming Oksana for the error. He quickly said, "But the fault is all mine, not Oksana's!" Oksana just smiled and said "Thank you, Artur."
Later in interviews, Artur said that overall he was satisfied with the 1996-97 season. Tom Collins was too, as he again invited the pair to skate on the Tour of Champions. This time they performed on most of the stops for the tour, garnering a great response.
At some point during the summer, the couple and Tamara had a chance to create a new exhibition program. The music was called "Sad Waltz", and the composer named Ferencz. Tamara had picked this music out in Lausanne. After the pairs short programs, she was depressed by Artur's jump error and the couple's low placement. To cheer herself up, she had gone into a music shop that allowed customers to listen to CDs. She stumbled across "Sad Waltz", listened to it, and her mood instantly elevated. She bought the music, took it to her pair, and Oksana and Artur agreed that they wanted to perform to this music. The moves they came up with were extremely innovative and exciting, and the response they received to the program was fantastic.
1996-97 was definately an up and down season. It contained what were probably some of the lowest moments of the couple's career. Yet they persevered, and ended it on a high note with a medal at Worlds, tremenduous reaction from the audience, and more success on the Tour of Champions. And Oksana told International Figure Skating magazine, "We'll do well next season."
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