Protopopovs leave impressive legacy in Lake Placid

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) The most enduring pairs team in figure skating history is no more.

According to Russian news reports, Ludmila Belousova died Friday in a Swiss hospital with her husband and long-time skating partner, Oleg Protopopov, at her side. She was 81.

As a team, the Protopopovs captured the gold medal at the 1964 and 1968 Winter Olympics and also were four-time world champions and four-time European champions.

They also endeared themselves to skaters in Lake Placid where, at the recommendation of a Russian friend, they began training for five months a year beginning in 1997. They skated in an exhibition and were so well received that they decided to return every year.

”They liked staying and talking with other skaters,” Larisa Selezneva, 1984 Olympic bronze medalist in pairs, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise . ”I know my students liked being able to practice on the same ice as them when they were in Lake Placid, they brought so much inspiration to the ice.”

Even in their 70s, the Protopopovs trained for four hours a day nearly every day at the arena made famous by coach Herb Brooks and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

”We dedicate our life for skating,” Belousova told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. ”Everything revolves around skating.”

Completely self-taught – Oleg choreographed the routines and Ludmila stitched the costumes – the Protopopovs were the first skaters to perform side-by-side jumps and invented three spiral moves: the life spiral on the forward inside edge of their skate blades; the love spiral on the forward outside edge; and the cosmic spiral on the back inside edge.

”I learn something every time I see them skate,” Dick Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in men’s singles and longtime commentator on the sport, told the AP in 2006.

The Protopopovs’ journey together began in 1954, when they met by chance at a coaches’ seminar on a small rink in Moscow. They continued to skate with different partners in different cities until she moved to his hometown of Leningrad. They began skating as a pair in 1957, soon married, and an inseparable pair was born.

Belousova, who started figure skating at age 15 after seeing the great Sonja Henie in the movie ”Sun Valley Serenade,” studied engineering in college and after classes joined Oleg to train outdoors, often in temperatures below zero.

After winning consecutive Olympic golds in 1964 and 1968, the Protopopovs begrudgingly turned pro in 1969. They had wanted to compete at Sapporo, Japan in 1972, but Soviet officials were looking for more athletic pairs.

Seven years later, the couple defected after Soviet officials tried to force them to retire. They settled in Switzerland, joined ”Ice Capades,” and competed in the World Professional Figure Skating Championships. They won their final title in 1985, tying Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, a couple half their age.

In 2003, at the invitation of former NHL star Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian minister of sport at the time, the Protopopovs returned to their homeland for the first time since they defected in 1979. They received a tumultuous ovation from a St. Petersburg crowd of 15,000 fans.

The Protopopovs also were headliners in the ”An Evening with Champions” show at Harvard University, a charity event which benefits The Jimmy Fund.

Belousova, who helped her husband recover from a stroke eight years ago, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014. She was treated in Switzerland and returned to Lake Placid the following summer to train and perform, and give lessons and advice to fellow skaters.

”She was always elegant and sweet,” Paul Wylie, 1992 Olympic silver medalist in men’s singles, told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. ”She possessed a quiet strength in person and on the ice. Her love for skating and for Oleg was always evident. (Ludmila was) truly a role model for all skaters, I will miss her deeply.”