As for Oksana, it would be her first Olympics. She was still only 22 years old at this point, and approached the season with attack. Many in the skating world had commented on the transformation that took place for the young woman. The confident, strong competitor who had appeared at CSF and Worlds was a far cry from the shaky new partner who had debuted with Artur back at Skate America 1995. It was clear that Oksana, in a very brief period of time, had brought herself up to Artur's level. She said she owed the change not only to herself, but to her partner and coach, as well as to her parents and husband for supporting her.
During the off season, Oksana noted during an interview that she and her husband enjoyed going to the ballet along with Artur and his family. But any vacation time was brief; the pair continued to work hard in preparation for the following season.
The pair and their coach made the decision to change the music for neither the short nor the long program. Although they took some flack for not creating new programs, Tamara knew that they had to skate the two programs most likely to bring them an Olympic gold medal. "2001" and "Passacalia" were those programs. The couple did change parts of their free skate, adding a second set of double axels. By doing so, they would have one of the most technically difficult and dangerous free skates of all the contenders for Olympic Gold.
Oksana and Artur began their season with a win at Skate Canada. Although it was not a strong field, they competed in Halifax to a standing ovation and straight first place ordinals in the free. Only a minor error had marred the program.
They moved on, confident and strong, to their second event, NHK in Japan. Here they would contend with Meno and Sand and the up and coming pair from China, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. Artur wasn't aware that he and his partner were so popular in Japan. A group of fans wanted to take his picture. He didn't understand what they wanted, and Ilya Kulik called them to his attention. Artur offered to take a picture of Ilya with the fans, thinking that's what they wanted! The competition started out well for Oksana and Artur, with a second placing in the short program due to a small step out on the triple toe. Still, they had received some first place ordinals and the rest of the program was great, so they had every reason to be confident heading into the free.
Unfortunately, a terrifying accident occurred during practice. Oksana was thrown into the boards during a throw triple jump. She took some medicine, but the pain did not subside. A doctor found no broken bones, but Oksana had trouble even lifting her legs to walk. They were forced to withdraw. Skating injuries are always scary; in an Olympic year, they can be devastating.
The couple returned to St. Petersburg to prepare for Russian Nationals. There could be no disaster as there had been last year, especially considering that now they would not be able to compete in the Champions Series Final, due to the withdrawal from NHK. They would have to hope and pray that Oksana would recover from her injury and that they could hold it together during the competition. The contenders were the same as last year's: Eltsova and Bushkov, Shishkova and Naumov, and Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, who had scored some stunning victories early on in the season, even beating World Champions Woetzl and Steuer. This event would determine which three of the four renowned pairs could represent Russia at the Olympic Games. Berezhnaya and Sikharulize had the advantages of momentum and youth. Eltsova and Bushkov promised to skate all out. They were both nearly 28 years old and had never competed at an Olympic Games before. Four years ago, they finished fourth at their Nationals, losing the chance at an Olympic berth. This was probably their last opportunity, and they were not about to lose it. Shishkova and Naumov had the experience of two Olympic Games under their belts and were determined to rebound from the disappointment of their previous season and to make the team. The tension for all the pairs and their coaches had to have been unbearable.
Overall, the competition was very successful for the Kazakova and Dmitriev. A reporter for Blades on Ice wrote, "Artur Dmitriev and Oksana Kazakova won the bronze medal, but they should have won the title." It started with Oksana and Artur in third place after the short, Oksana doubling the triple toe as she was still not fully recovered from her injury. But the free skate was possibly one of the best of their career as they hit everything. The only mistake was that Artur doubled the second double axel. As they were one of the only pairs to attempts two sets of double axels, this hardly mattered. Two judges gave Oksana and Artur marks of 6.0, and four of the judges placed them first. However, the other five judges placed the pair third, so a bronze medal it was. Nonetheless, they had to be happy as they clearly earned their spot on the team.
Artur said that he has never won the Russian (or Soviet) National title, and that this goal may be an inspiration to remain Olympic eligible. Eltsova and Bushkov went on to win the event, with Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze placing second. Shishkova and Naumov were fourth and would not be able to attend their third Games.
The Champions Series Final took place just a week after Nationals, in Germany. Just a few days before the pairs short programs were to take place, Eltsova and Bushkov withdrew due to injuries. The first alternates were Marina Khalturina and Andrei Kroukov of Kazakhstan. However, they too withdrew due to injury. Oksana and Artur were the second alternates, and found themselves in a mad scramble to board a plane to Munich in time.
Their short program was fantastic, skated cleanly and powerfully. Teammates Elena and Anton also went clean, but the judges preferred Woetzl and Steuer. A mystified reporter wrote, "Many at rinkside thought the two Russian pairs were more magical and lyrical." Oksana and Artur were placed third.
They were unable to move up in the free program. Unlike at Skate Canada or at Nationals, the program was marred by mistakes. They held third place as Elena and Anton went on to win.
Only one major competition remained before the Olympics: the European Championships. By this time, Elena and Anton were heralded as the favorites for Olympic Gold. They reminded spectators of Gordeeva and Grinkov, and had the momentum of several victories over almost all their competitors behind them. Oksana and Artur were seen as one of many competitors vying for the other medals, along with the Germans, the two US pairs, and Eltsova and Bushkov.
The European Championships took place in Milan, Italy. Oksana and Artur finished second behind their younger teammates Elena and Anton. Overall, they skated well with just a small miscue in the short program and no major mistakes in the free. As they were becoming accustomed to, the audience went wild over them. Less so, the judges. Oksana and Artur did not receive even one first place ordinal. It would be an uphill battle to win in Nagano.
The Olympics at last arrived, complete with the usual hype. So many newspapers and television networks ran interviews with Tamara and her pairs that it was almost impossible to keep up with the media onslaught. One reporter even noted such minutiae as the fact that Artur always carries Oksana's bags and kisses her hand after every performance. And as always, Tamara had the reporters eating out of the palm of her hand.
Short program practice was problematic for Oksana and Artur, as Oksana struggled with the death spiral. In the past, pairs were allowed to select which of the four types of death spirals they wanted to perform. Almost every pair nixed the very difficult outside death spiral, as it is significantly more painful and difficult than the inside death spiral. This year, however, the ISU required all pairs to perform this move in the short. Oksana was seen struggling with the move in practice, having difficulty holding her edge. "She is always nervous about that element," Artur told reporters.
The media also commented on how nervous Oksana looked before the short program. (Well, who wouldn't be??) She, "appeared tense and fidgety, furiously rubbing her hands together, and wearing a look on her face between awe and alarm," according to the New York Times. Given all this, it makes her composure during the actual performance all the more remarkable. She and Artur were amazing. The dreaded triple toe loops, which give most pairs skaters nightmares, were completed without the slightest problem by Oksana and Artur. They were high, fast, and in unison. Oksana and Artur succeeded at something which so many could not complete under pressure.
In addition to that one element, all the others were fantastic as well. The overhead lift high and light. The twist lift one of the best in the entire event, footwork sharp, speed at a high level. Predictably, the media chose to focus on the one element that was not top notch: the death spiral. Given the stress Oksana was under and the fears she had to beat back, simply the fact that she was able to complete the death spiral at all was a major success.
Oksana and Artur received seven first place ordinals, and two fourths (from Germany and the US.)
After the short program, Artur told the Times, "We are not finished, just a little bit finished. We'll see what happens. I needed to concentrate for my third Olympics. I am not very young. I have concentrated on my power and all my ideas. It has always been difficult for me from the beginning, but I feel very good right now."
Tamara added that she will advise Oksana, "to skate like she skates her show program—with a lot of passion." She continued, "They are in good condition and skating very well. Artur is ready physically and he is emotionally ready, too. He lost interest in parties. His partner has more passion and is better prepared to jump." We can only imagine how difficult it would be to remain calm and keep nerves from attacking as you went to sleep, knowing you were in first place after the short program at the Olympic Games. Oksana and Artur drew last to skate in the free.
Elena and Anton skated second in the final group, following a competent but tentative skate from Woetzl and Steuer. In earlier practice sessions, the young Russians had made numerous mistakes. Tamara told USA Today, that she would advise Elena before the free skate, "Remember when you were in the hospital, this is nothing compared to that."
Elena and Anton once again took command of the ice and showcased their speed and daring lifts, combined with classical presentation and beauty. They reminded spectators of Gordeeva and Grinkov. A few mistakes marred the performance. The split triple twist (a new element for them) was under-rotated, and they fell down on the exit of a lift. Nonetheless, presentation marks were deservedly high, and five judges placed them ahead of Woetzl and Steuer. This is great experience for the couple as they move towards a likely Olympic Gold in 2002.
The Americans Ina and Dungen, for the most part skated well, though with a few minor errors. Oksana and Artur waited to compete.
Finally, it was time for them to take the ice. This was the moment both had been waiting for for so long. For Artur, it was the culmination of his desire to remain in the eligible skating world, this love of competition. For Oksana, it was her first ever free skate at the Olympic Games.
Their performance was what every skater dreams their Olympic free skate will be like. Throws were completed with great distance and height. Side by side jumps, the nemesis of every pairs skater, were landed solidly. And the performance itself was magic. It was a dream. The audience cheered along during the footwork segment at the end and the side by side moves the pair does before entering their spins. Oksana broke out into a great smile during the flexibility section; she must have known at that point that they had it. They had what every athlete works, hopes, prays and dreams for: an Olympic gold medal.
Artur had said that his goal for this season was to get a standing ovation at the Olympic Games. He got it, as the audience went wild for them. Many were standing and waving Russian flags, as the contents of flower shops and toy stores were thrown onto the ice for the pair. Clearly, the audience adored them. (And that says a lot, as overall the audience had been sedate during much of the figure skating competition.)
It is said that the best moments in skating are the ten minutes after you've skated the performance of your life. How wonderful that Oksana and Artur got to experience that at the Olympic Games.
In the Kiss n Cry area, Artur could be seen waving at Katia Gordeeva, who had been most enthusiastically cheering the performance. When the marks came up and the pair spotted their 6.0, they looked overjoyed and both kissed Tamara at the same time.
The pair was briefly interviewed by Tracy Wilson after their triumphant free skate. Oksana looked ecstatic, and she thanked her partner and coach. They thanked her back. Commenting on the 6.0 given to them by the Czech judge, Artur humbly said that he thought it was excessive. Some skaters could take a lesson in modesty from him, as so many can't stop complaining that their marks are not high enough.
Another great thing about the evening was that no one can deny that they deserved the gold medal. They clearly outskated everyone else, and eight of the nine judges gave them the first place ordinal. Only the German judge must have been watching another competition (or had his mind made up before the final group took the ice) as he placed Oksana and Artur fourth!
"Everything was planned and well done," Tamara told the media. "I like their emotions and passion and power. He was ready and he did it. Oksana and he have a similar temperament and artistic emotion." She told Tracy Wilson that she noted that the audience enjoyed watching them and was moved by the performance.
Artur said, "Remarkably, I wasn't nervous tonight or in the short, but I was nervous in the day prior to the events. I was more nervous on Lillehammer. One reason was the press and the pressure ... but there's no time to think." He added, "I tried to skate emotionally and I talked with Oksana and told her to be emotional for the public," Artur said. ""I told her we're ready for competition, we have everything for skate. We must skate with emotion for the public and for ourselves. I am happy we could concentrate; we had to concentrate because we skated last." Oksana said, "I am so happy. It felt so good."
With this gold medal, Russia (or the Soviet Union) has won its 10th straight Olympic pairs title. Oksana, Artur, and Tamara should be very proud to have been a part of the majestic Russian dynasty of great pairs. Tamara now has coached pairs to seven Olympic medals; three of them gold.
In Olympic pairs history, the couple who wins Olympic gold is usually the couple who also has won the prior year's Worlds. This was one of the rare times that didn't happen. Of course, most fans thought Oksana and Artur should have won in Lausanne, too!
It is also wonderful to think that all the incredible things that happen to Olympic Champions are now going to happen to Oksana and Artur: having your name recorded in the history books, getting invited to events like Skates of Gold, knowing you have contributed to Russia's awesome tradition of pairs skating. Of course, Artur has already been an Olympic Champion, and winning it again but with a different partner has to make all these things doubly special.
Artur must be satisfied with the fact that he has competed at three Olympic Games and has not made the slightest mistake at any of them. Every performance he's given at the Olympics has been magnificent. On his win in 1998 versus his 1992 win, he said, "It's completely different, it's something special. It's just a different period in my life. Some parts I do better than four years ago, especially the skating, and I get much pleasure from that. I feel I am skating better and with more feeling."
Russian President Boris Yeltsen invited all of the Russian skating medalists to a dinner at the Kremlin in Moscow. Oksana, Artur, Elena, Anton, Ilya Kulik, Pasha Grishuk, Evgeny Platov, Angelika Krylova, and Oleg Ovsiannikov were greeted by a live orchestra as they meet with Yeltsen and other government officials.
They have what every athlete dreams of----an Olympic gold medal. What a glorious way for Oksana and Artur to end their Olympic careers.
The season ended on a bit of a low note with Worlds. The couple made the long trip from Russia to Minneapolis, but were forced to withdraw on the day of the short program because Artur suffered food poisioning. Yet they still made the time to meet for a long time with their fan club.
During the meeting, Tamara told the fans how the pair celebrated their Olympic Gold medal. She began to tell about a long litany of parties and receptions in Russia. First, President Boris Yeltsin invited all the Russian skating medalists to the Kremlin for a celebration. Only their coaches, a few core people from management, and the press were permitted to be at this party. Yeltsin gave a speech and presented them with state awards. Artur was given "The Achievements before the Motherland" award, which is considered very prestigious. Oksana got the state award "The Order of Honor." Both skaters were presented with "The Dignified Master of Sport" award, the highest honor in sport. They received flowers and had their pictures taken with Yeltsin, and then drank champagne, vodka, and ate caviar. "It was a very remarkable party," Tamara commented.
The next day, the skaters went to a reception at the Army Club. "Artur is a soldier," Tamara said. She then corrected herself by adding, "Not a soldier, but he serves in the Army. But I am his General. And Oksana is an even higher General." Vodka and caviar were also available at this reception.
Following that, the group took a train to St. Petersburg where all those who worked in the Yubileny Palace of Sport (coaches, choreographers, even Zamboni drivers and rink administrators) had another party with champagne. A private reception was later held for Tamara and her skaters, their choreographers, and all their families. "We worked as a team," Tamara said, "and we admired those moments when we celebrate how hard it was to prepare for the Olympic Games."
Tamara and her husband Igor later invited the other "old coaches" from their generation to celebrate. She mentioned that as being particularly special, because "in our changing economy, it’s now difficult for us to do this."
The Mayor of St. Petersburg also invited them to a party. This one had a big screen TV which displayed their winning performances on it during the party. A well known artist sang a song especially devoted to their victories, and read a humorous poem for them.
Additionally, Tamara told us that at 3 am the morning after Oksana and Artur won, they celebrated along with Elena and Anton and the bronze medalists Mandy Woetzl and Ingo Steuer, as the three couple are friends.
The 1997-98 season was a stunning success for the couple. They now had only to decide whether to continue to skate as Olympic-eligibles, or to turn professional. Whatever they do, they will be a hit.
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