Ice dreams
MELISSA 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 all concerned.

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 be."

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 in WA.

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 Averbukh.

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 coach.

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 good.

"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 south'."

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 year.

"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 of "user-friendly".

"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."