KENT , The West Australian
24th January 2004
Transplanting a bunch of elite Russian ice-skaters
to a city on the edge of the desert has proved a culture shock for
DEEP in industrial Cockburn, sandwiched between
a builder's yard, a patch of scrubby bushland and the freight trains
that trundle towards Fremantle, a legacy of Soviet Russia is thriving
in the chilliest of environments.
It's one of those aberrations that tickle
your sense of the ridiculous. Against the odds and flying in the
face of nature, a group of former Russian ice-skating champions
are nurturing a pool of talented, determined proteges at the Cockburn
Ice Arena with the aim of bringing winter Olympic gold home to WA.
By no means will it be an easy feat, but then
Valentin Kadzevitch, Irina Stavroskaia, Ekaterina Borodatova and
Andrei and Maria Filippov are not the type to give up easily.
Their journey from the top rungs of Russian
athletics to their present lives as ice-skating coaches in Cockburn
began before the fall of the Soviet empire, when sports champions
were treated like national heroes and paraded before the West as
symbols of Communist supremacy.
For athletes who brought glory to the Soviet
Union, life was good - subsidised as it was by the all-powerful
State which awarded living expenses, the best food, generous salaries
and, of course, kudos in return for unwavering commitment, punishing
training regimes and the pressure of high expectations.
When Russian skaters Ludmila Pakhomova and
Alexander Gorshkov won gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics, a generation
of Russian children pulled on their skating boots and took to the
ice to glide and twirl like their idols.
Eager children were funnelled through wealthy
sporting institutions, sponsored by the KGB, the army, the police
and other sections of the government, from which the most promising
were selected for intensive training by top coaches to be moulded
into formidable athletes.
Stavroskaia was one of them, joining an army-sponsored
sports club in Moscow at the age of five.
"At the time in the Soviet Union skating was
the most popular kind of sport, it was on TV everyday and it got
a lot of support from the Government," she says. "That's why a lot
of kids wanted to skate - that's why I started. I wanted to be a
national champion and I think every child and teenager wanted to
With such steely determination - and money
- the USSR became an indomitable force in athletics, producing generation
after generation of champions across a wide range of sports until
the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s brought it crashing
down in an undignified heap.
No longer sponsored by the State, sports clubs
couldn't afford basic services like electricity, water or heat.
Rinks were sold to private entrepreneurs who turned them into shops
or showrooms for pop concerts.
As economic conditions declined, so began
the drain of top Russian-trained athletes and coaches, lured by
better facilities and decent wages to countries looking to bolster
their own figure-skating programs.
Kadzevitch, 35, and his wife Stavroskaia,
33, were among those who decided to leave Russia for a better life
in the West. Australia, however, did not figure high on their list
of destinations until, in 1996, Perth businessman Tom Barrett persuaded
them to join the coaching team at his new ice rink in Cockburn.
For skating-mad Barrett, acquiring top international
coaches was an essential part of realising a long-held - and some
would say madcap - dream of producing Olympic-standard figure-skaters
Barrett had developed a lifelong passion for
ice-skating during his English boyhood, and was unhappy with facilities
at the Mirrabooka rink when he decided in the mid-90s to set up
his own - despite the obvious difficulties in creating prime skating
conditions in a city perched precariously on the edge of a desert.
Kadzevitch and Stavroskaia, who fell in love
as as teenagers when they were paired in the elite Soviet junior
figure-skating team, were soon joined in Cockburn by Ekaterina Borodatova,
another former top Russian skater who had migrated with her husband
to Australia the year before.
The Filippovs joined the team in 1999. Andrei,
39, came with illustrious credentials as a coach, working with the
Russian National Figure Skating team in the early 90s when he coached
world champions including Oksana Grischuk, Evgeny Platov and Ilya
His wife Maria, 30, was a former Bulgarian
ice-skating champion before racking up some impressive coaching
results from the mid-90s.
With their expertise, and Barrett's passion
for the sport, over the past eight years WA has evolved into a serious
contender at national ice-skating competitions. In Brisbane last
month, 15-year-old Emilia Ahsan - Borodatova's daughter - won the
national junior figure-skating title, while Tessa Black, 15, placed
third in the same competition.
"People know that if WA enters a competition,
they had better watch out because we are more than likely going
to win," Barrett says.
Although they are now seeing the fruits of
their labour, it has not been all smooth skating for Cockburn's
foreign coaches, which also include a Swede, a Canadian and an English
Aside from the language barrier, not the least
of their problems was the laidback attitude they encountered in
their Australian students, who were often more interested in having
fun on the ice than pursuing an Olympic dream.
Their lack of drive did not sit well with
the Russians, who had grown up in very different circumstances.
They formed the general consensus that Australian kids had it too
"In Russia no one really skates for fun and
if you are good, your main ambition is to be an Olympic champion,"
Stavroskaia says. "There it is crowded, there's no work, so kids
see skating as a way to better their lives. They have a lot of motivation
and they know how to work hard from a young age because whoever
has the best work ethics and talent moves forward, the rest will
be left behind. They train twice day, where here kids have lessons
a couple of times a week."
Andrei says there were several years of frustration
before he was satisfied with his students' dedication.
"The kids are getting better now; they are
getting more serious and more responsible," he says. "Before, they
would always say, "Andrei and Maria, I will not be able to come
to training because I have a party, or a barbecue, or holidays down
That tough Russian work ethic is beginning
to pay dividends. Russian-born Ahsan, who has inherited her mother's
talent and discipline, is considered a serious contender for the
2006 Winter Olympics. She won a scholarship to train in Moscow next
month and will contend the Junior World Championships in the Netherlands.
Ahsan and Black are two of many talented Perth
skaters rising through the ranks under the guidance of the international
coaches, and Barrett is quietly confident of realising his dream
of getting a WA skater to the Olympics. Since 1996, when Barrett
established the Cockburn rink, WA has gone from having one or two
national-standard skaters to about 40 aged between six and 20 this
"Sometimes I do ask myself if it's all been
worth it, but I've kept going for the kids," he says.
"The Russians are a big part of that success
and they've definitely mellowed a bit. When they arrived they expected
everyone to march like an army, but now they realise the meaning
"And at the same time the kids have woken
up and realised they had to take it more seriously. It's been a
successful coming together of cultures."