A chat with Viktor Petrenko, figure skating legend How disciplined practice and community-minded humility got him to the top

After two decades of personal academic labors that included a B.A. degree, two masters, the relative mastery of the Russian language, and lessons for “Adult Beginners” at the MIT Figure Skating Club, and after 25 years of long-distance admiration, last month on Aug. 17 I finally got an in-person interview with my figure skating hero, 1992 World and Olympic Champion Viktor Petrenko at his home ice rink.

Ever since I first laid eyes on his smooth, graceful skating in the 1987-88 competitive season, where he won the bronze medal in the European and World Championships and Olympic Winter Games, I developed a deep-seated desire to take up the sport ­— a plan I finally fulfilled at MIT in parallel to my program in Comparative Media Studies.

In the early 1990s, I watched on my family TV as the young Ukrainian emerged on the international figure skating scene as one of the best male single skaters in the world. The height and power of his triple jumps, elegant layback spins and ballet-like artistry caught my eyes — and many others’. The classical-styled finesse of his original and freestyle programs in amateur competitions and his hilarious interactions with the audience in his comedic numbers in gala shows (that included inviting people to dance with him on the ice and kissing little old ladies in the front rows) had made him a hugely popular skater, even in the U.S.

Whether as a Ukrainian rapper trip-hopping in a bright red baggy sweater, or the male partner in the “Mambo No.5” “pair number” performed with a life-sized doll strapped around his waist, or the accomplished dancer in the energetic “Do You Love Me” piece sporting a Hawaiian shirt and knee-length shorts that revealed his skating socks and 10 inches of hairy legs, his appearances were all famous for making the ice melt under his feet. But it was his soulful rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” for the 1987-88 season exhibition shows that swept me off my feet.

These accomplishments and the long hours of on- and off-ice practice under the guidance of his only coach since he was 10 — the famously perfectionist Galina Zmievskaya — have to this day brought inspiration to my own shaky endeavors on the ice, and my first solo number at the MIT FSC’s show earlier this year.

With Zmievskaya’s ultra-strict instruction, the youngster (who had started skating at age 5 in his native city of Odessa) flourished into a major figure skating talent, mastering his first triple jump at 11, and going on to win the first place at the 1984 World Junior Championships.

Countless competitions and numerous medals later, after World and Olympic triumphs in Oakland (CA) and Albertville (France), 20 years of touring professionally with the U.S. company Champions on Ice, and a relocation with his loved ones to the U.S. in 1994, after reaching the pinnacle of international competition, we find Petrenko in a skating paradise: the four-rink complex of The Ice House in Hackensack, NJ.

Now a busy elite figure skating coach, as well as an International Skating Union (ISU) technical specialist, he trains, alongside Zmievskaya and wife Nina (Zmievskaya’s daughter), emerging talent, and Olympic potential of all nationalities. His current students include 2011 Skate America and 2010 Czech national champion Michal Brezina, two-time Ukrainian national champion Natalia Popova, and American figure skater and three-time U.S. national champion Johnny Weir, who earlier this year announced his comeback to competition in the 2012-13 season. Weir has also declared his interest in competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (Russia), a goal he is working on with Zmievskaya and Petrenko.

“I’m only helping,” are Petrenko’s first words to me (in Russian), in reference to Weir’s training, as we sat down for the morning interview in the Ice House’s second floor lounge.

While technically true — Weir’s website cites Zmievskaya as his “coach;” and Petrenko as “assistant coach” — the World/Olympic athlete and consummate showman on the ice seems to melt into the wallpaper when talking about his accomplishments.

“That’s how it is,” he adds smiling softly. Later on he does mention, though, that as a professional skater, he has gone through “every single step (of the ladder), from the letter A to the last letter of the alphabet right to the pedestal.”

So considering what it is usually expected to take to survive cutthroat competition and “make it to the top” (in any field), Petrenko is a puzzle.

Mentally reviewing what I had read about the wildly successful but pushy, super-purposeful, crush-everyone-on-his/her path “Type A” personalities, I cannot help but wonder how such a modest, mild-mannered and famously generous person could have pushed through the treacherous frozen waters of world competitive figure skating right to Olympic triumph. Hard work and evident determination aside (he told me he spent much of his childhood practicing and going to skating camps, spending little time with his family), he shows no signs of the transformative effects that reaching the giddy heights of success can have on one’s personality, and which in some people transpire as inflated selves and misdirected pride.

Rather, Petrenko’s attention is fully focused “outwardly,” on his students, and anyone he feels he can help.

Of course, in elite training, each student’s skills and needs are different. Weir’s biggest challenge? The indispensable quad (a spinning jump of four revolutions). “For him I think the most important are the technical elements, like the quadruple jump. The rest is the turns, the style, the (other) jumps. He has mastered all of this, now it’s a question of time for everything to fall into place,” Petrenko said, acknowledging that the sport is becoming more difficult.

On the “interpretation” front, the Russia-loving Weir may well have found his Ukrainian coaches to be a source of inspiration to skate with “dusha” (with soul), as is commonly said in Russian to describe heartfelt artistic rendition.

“At such high level, each student has his strong and not so strong sides, his preferred style, you have to look at this on an individual basis. I personally like to skate at high-speed, when you cover the whole surface of the rink, ‘skating large’,” Petrenko adds.

As for the children he teaches, they still have a long way to go, he said, referring to the heights of competition, but they are starting at the right age. “Start early … and look at how the skaters of previous years were skating. The top place always went to those who mastered their skates, who did wide, steep arcs, clean turns, … what figure skating really should be like,” he recommended.

Petrenko says he can easily spot talent and competitive potential just by looking at how athletes are skating their elements, and even to which “skating school” they ascribe themselves (American, Russian or other style). With his students he lets nothing pass, save for his daughter whom he admits he lets get away with turning some elements into her preferred variations — “It’s harder to train your own child,” he admits with a smile. Deploring the decrepit conditions of his original rink in Odessa that had a famed Skating School in earlier times, he says those skaters who could come to Hackensack to train are seeing much better results.

Curious to experience such dedicated instruction and see how a pair of Olympian eyes would assess my progress on the ice so far, I asked him for a short lesson. “For you?” he laughed. But sure enough, at 4:30 p.m. sharp, he was waiting for me before rink No. 2, having added that time to his day’s schedule.

Mortified by my irregular steps and turns and other skating missteps, I listened intently. A few inside and outside half circles of forward edges later, the verdict: “Not bad.” I definitely need to bend more and correct my posture by pulling in my stomach and everything else. His recommendation for a boots and blades upgrade seems to suggest that he does see some hope for improvement in my nascent skills.

But it is not just with his time that Petrenko is generous. It is a mindset that reaches many in his orbit.

His role in helping Oksana Baiul reach her own 1993 World and 1994 Olympic successes, when he convinced Zmievskaya to coach the orphan girl in Odessa and financed her training himself, is legendary, but not confined to this one act of brotherly care.

Petrenko helped American pair figure skater Katie Wood recover when she suffered a head injury from a fall during a show in Odessa in 1990, and he brought to her hospital much-needed medical supplies from his own home pharmacy. In addition to these efforts in his immediate circles, Petrenko has also used his celebrity and influence to raise funds and assist international charitable causes. Concerned about the long-term impact of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine, he established relations with the New Jersey-based Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund. In 2001 and 2003 organized two Viktory for Kids ice shows in Connecticut with his figure skating friends to raise awareness and funds for the thousands of children still suffering from the effects of elevated radiation.

“I invited my friends, my colleagues such as Brian Boitano, Sasha Cohen, Tatyana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, and many others, I can’t cite them all, but I will always be grateful to them,” Petrenko said. In all, about $300,000 were raised, he said, which were used to buy state-of-the art medical equipment and carry out repair in a neo-natal clinic in Odessa, which now bears his name and is still operational today.

The altruistic athlete recounts how when he and his friends arrived at the opening reception of The Viktor Petrenko Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the chief doctor told him he had just received a call from a neighboring hospital where a sick child fighting for his life could not be saved because they lacked the technology for the needed procedures: “’We have a child here who is dying and we can’t save him. But we know that you [have] this new apparatus, so there may be some hope,’ the doctor said. So we brought it over to them, and the next day he told us everything was already back to normal (with the child’s health),” Petrenko said. “This is something I am proud of, such moments in life …” he added.

While many skaters have chosen to go into fields such as in the show business and creative media industries (and with unquestionably well-deserved success), Petrenko is clearly more concerned with helping young athletes improve their skills through his expertise. He is not the only professional skater to have gone into coaching, but his decision to devote his time to identifying and shaping new talent and passing on his expertise to the next generation shows he deeply cares for others and for the future of the sport.

When I asked about his own plans, hopes and dreams, his thoughts are once again not self-centered: “My plan is to help my daughter.” The teenager has decided not to pursue figure skating — “thank god!” he laughs, and go into professional tennis instead, which allows the attentive father some emotional distance since in his own words, “he doesn’t understand anything in the sport.”

“It was her choice, that was important,” he said.

Next comes cultivating his passion for figure skating, an activity he chose himself, even if it is his parents who first brought him to a local rink. Admitting that, like many little boys, he dreamed of becoming a footballer, he then “realized that this skating, the movements on the ice, the landing of jumps on one foot, all of this I liked very much, there is something really interesting happening, in the course of the jumps, you gather speed, then take off … and even when you fall, it’s still interesting.”

These latter words of wisdom from a dedicated learner will surely resonate with the students and researchers at MIT, where “mistakes” are often a source of fascination and potential discoveries (not to speak of all those who work steadfastly to reach their academic and research goals through trials and errors).

Perhaps for Petrenko this is what it’s all about, the work, the sweat, the aches, and long hours of personal practice and patient coaching in freezing spaces over all these years: about preparing the way for those who will follow in his steps (or rather his skate marks on the ice), passing on his passion, and giving back to the sport and international community of figure skaters.

May all those at MIT and beyond who are working hard to reach new heights in their academic endeavors be inspired by this exemplary combination of striving for excellence while caring for current and future communities of learners and colleagues. I know this is a beloved approach at the Institute.

And now on to sharpening my skates, right on time for the MIT Figure Skating Club’s seasonal opening in just a few weeks. After all, I have been assigned an exercise to practice by an Olympic Champion — no more excuses!