Ice Network

Skating world remembers Ludmila Protopopov

Two-time Olympic gold medalist leaves legacy of artistry, elegance on ice
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Ludmila Protopopov won Olympic titles in 1964 and 1968 with husband and pairs partner Oleg Protopopov. -Courtesy of Barbara Kelly

Robert Paul, the 1960 Olympic pairs gold medalist with Barbara Wagner, remembered seeing the Soviet pairs team of Ludmila Belousova Protopopov and Oleg Protopopov compete at the Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley. Although the relatively unknown team finished ninth that year, their balletic style was striking.

"They brought a lovely balletic dance element to pairs skating," said Paul. "We were all mesmerized by their artistic style because that had not been seen in pairs skating to that point."

The Protopopovs went on to dominate pairs skating, winning Olympic gold in 1964 and again in 1968. They'd also capture four world championships.

On Sept. 29, news broke that Ludmila Protopopov died of cancer at the age of 81.

Just as she had every year for decades, she and her husband of nearly 60 years, Oleg Protopopov, spent part of each year in Lake Placid. When she became ill, the duo returned to Switzerland, their home since defecting to the West in 1979.

"We were a family. I have wonderful pictures of us celebrating birthdays," said Barbara Tyrell Kelly, a long-time resident of Lake Placid and author of the book Growing up in Lake Placid.

For more than a decade, the Protopopovs lived at her house when they were in town. When Kelly decided to move to an apartment, the Protopopovs rented an apartment near the rink.

"I set them up with bus service to go shopping in Saranac Lake because they had to get fresh food," said Kelly. "They did everything from scratch. They never bought anything prepared. They made everything. The bus even delivered them at their apartment so they didn't have to carry big bags down Main Street."

Kelly said when Oleg had a stroke in 2009, the hospital allowed Ludmila to stay in the room with him. She worked with him on physical rehab right from the start. Once recovered, he returned to the ice.

A few years ago, Ludmila was battling cancer, so the couple decided to return to Switzerland for treatment. The Lake Placid skating community all said their goodbyes, thinking they may never see her again. Despite those doubts, she recovered and returned to the New York village.

Even in recent time, various people would come into the rink where the Protopopovs were practicing and be moved.

"People would cry; it was so beautiful," said Kelly. "They connected with the inside of people, the core."

Their impact on Soviet/Russian pairs skating is undeniable. Since their first Olympic gold medal in 1964, Soviet and Russian teams have dominated the Winter Games, and the only other countries to earn Olympic gold during that time has been Canada in 2002 and China in 2010.

U.S. and world champion Tai Babilonia recalled the lesson she and partner Randy Gardner received from the Protopopovs in 1976.

"We were rehearsing for Super Skates at Madison Square Garden," said Babilonia. "We were out there for at least 45 minutes working on death spirals, and they were trying to teach us their life spiral (forward inside death spiral), which they invented."

As the American team matured, folks involved with the sport began comparing them to the Protopopovs.

"The comparison was the ballet on ice aspect of it and the calmness -- light, flowing, airy and making it look easy," said Babilonia. "Not that we set out to look like the Protopopovs, but the ballet training set them apart and set us apart."

Years later, Babilonia and Gardner competed against the Protopopovs at the World Professional Championships in Landover, Maryland. The two teams tied for first.

"Their style was balletic, poetry in motion and really listening to their piece of music and telling a story. It was so elegant and lovely," said Babilonia.

Needless to say, Russian pairs grew up marveling at Ludmila's talent. World and Olympic champion Natalia Mishkutenok said she felt a particular connection as she and partner Artur Dmitriev trained in Saint Petersburg, the same city from which the Protopopovs came.

"I met Ludmila many times. She was a really nice, helpful person," said Mishkutenok, who especially loved the Protopopovs' romantic exhibition program to Liebesträume (Dreams of Love). The music became Mishkutenok and Dmitriev's free skate for the 1991 and '92 seasons. "It was an honor for us to use the same music."

Despite Oleg's stroke and Ludmila's cancer, the pair always returned to the ice. They loved to skate and remained a fixture at the annual "An Evening with Champions" show at Harvard University, as well as summer shows in Lake Placid.

"They always skated," Mishkutenok said. "If you think about them skating all their lives, I'm amazed. For me as a pairs skater, they were the people to watch. You wanted to try to be as good as they were, and possibly even better as it got more difficult. They brought a more artistic style by trying to do ballet on ice performances.

"They loved figure skating so much," she said. "They went to practice. Even if they didn't have a show coming up they would practice every day. It was their lives."