In 1962, Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov arrived at the World Championships, and were spotted by Dick Button, who was commentating for ABC sports. On Saturday night, the third of September 2011, he sat next to them during the Tribute show in their honor at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid.
In an interview before the show, Button recounted what is special about the Protopopovs. “They had tunnel vision”, he said, “They are a vision of classical skating personified, skating at its very best. The Protopopovs started a generation of style on ice, which was carried on by skaters like John Curry and Janet Lynn”.
After that championship in 1962, the Protopopovs skated to two Olympic titles and four world titles. As professionals, they skated in the World Professional championships, (capturing 4 titles) and performing with companies including the Leningrad Ice Ballet and the Ice Capades.
The Protopopovs defected from the Soviet Union in 1979, becoming citizens of Switzerland. They divide their time between Switzerland, their winter home, and Lake Placid, where they skate from June until October in the Olympic Center.
Their eventual landing in Lake Placid was very sudden. In 1997, the Protopopovs found themselves in the Olympic town after being told of the excellent facilities.
“Our friends were telling us, ‘you must go to Lake Placid, they have beautiful ice arenas’”, said Ludmila Protopopov. “We also wanted to learn from Gus Lussi, who was coaching there. Unfortunately, he had passed away, but when we came to Lake Placid we stayed forever”.
Ironically, Button’s story was similar.
“Everyone told my father, if you want him to get better at skating, send him to Lake Placid”, remembers Button. “Gus Lussi was considered the coach to work with, and we had a magical relationship…. I am still tied to Lake Placid, my family owns homes here”.
Watching the older couple skating on the rink, it is not apparent that they played an important part in the evolution of skating. Not many realize that the Protopopovs were the creators of a variation of the death spiral. The death spiral is a skating move, defined as “an element of pair skating performed with the man in a pivot position, one toe anchored in the ice…. holding his hand, the woman circles her partner on a deep edge with her body almost parallel to the ice”. The original death spiral was first executed in the 1940s, but the Protopopovs created their variations, the Cosmic, Life, and Love spirals, in the 1960s.
“It was a mistake on practice…I slipped from an outside edge to an inside edge. That is what we named the Cosmic spiral.
After the Cosmic spiral, (performed on the backward inside edge,) the Protopopovs invented the Life spiral (forward inside) and the Love spiral (forward outside).
Throughout their careers, whether they are competing, performing in shows, or practicing, the Protopopovs possess a unique dignity and class, both on and off the ice. Dick Button, himself a skating legend, has nothing but compliments for the pair.
“The Protopopovs were the first to be very different. They had a classical, pure style of skating; they were musical and uniform in their skating together. They are classic, balletic skaters; utter perfection. You don’t see skaters like them anymore”.
Button certainly knows what he’s talking about; the Emmy award-winning commentator has been involved in skating since the 1940s, when he was competing himself. He became the 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion, and 5 time World champion. His commentary career started in the 1960s, when he provided commentary for ABC sports. He continued to be a celebrity in figure skating, commentating at most major competitions, organizing several skating shows on television, and serving as figure skating’s most knowledgeable figure. Oleg Protopopov, despite his many achievements, still considers Dick Button an inspiration.
“When I was a boy, my mother brought me an American magazine with Dick Button on the cover. He was doing a split jump, and his position was so extended, his toes were pointed…my mother said, ‘one day you must skate better than him’. It never happened’ ”. Dick Button, however, considered them to have surpassed his skating achievements.
“After the Protopopovs skated, I learned what position and quality truly meant in figure skating”.
Both the Protopopovs and Button believed that skating should be an art form, equal to dance, music, and other creative forms of artistic expression. While current audiences seem to expect a sport instead of art, Button and Protopopov assert that attention should be given to the artistic side of the sport as well, not just the technical.
“What I encourage skaters to do is to take what they learned in a ballet class, or other sort of dance class, and incorporate it in skating”, said Button. “Figure skating can take elements of dance and use it…. it is interesting for me to note where figure skating has gone and where it hasn’t gone over the years”.
But the Protopopovs have held up artistry over the years, and continued skating. Even after Oleg’s stroke in 2009, they continued skating. Only a few weeks after his stroke, the Protopopovs were seen at the rink, Ludmila Protopopov patiently helping Oleg to re-learn how to skate. Skating served as his rehabilitation, and the Protopopovs were well practiced enough to perform a short exhibition performance in the tribute show on September 3rd.
Why do they continue skating? Certainly the Protopopovs are legends, and can retire if they chose. When asked why they continue to skate, Ludmila stated it succinctly:
“I love the music, the flow. Skating is our life”.