At 33, Alexei Tikhonov is one of skating’s most venerable and most consistent competitors. Having competed internationally since the 1980s, Tikhonov remains at the top of his game. He and his partner, Maria Petrova, have finished in the top four at both the European Championships and the World Championships every year since 1999. They have won two golds, a silver and three bronze medals at Europeans and a gold, a silver and a bronze at Worlds during that period. Petrova and Tikhonov are perennial contenders at the ISU Grand Prix Final and finished second this season after bronze medals in 2002-03 and 2003-04. But although they have finished second six times, the couple has yet to win Russian Nationals.
Tikhonov initially competed internationally for the former Soviet Union with Irina Saifutdinova, winning the bronze medal at Junior Worlds in 1989. But she married, leaving Tikhonov with no partners in sight. So he moved to Japan, competing there for two years, but it was a lonely life. ” I was alone in my apartment,” he recalled. I used to go to the Russian Embassy just to talk to people.”
Discouraged, he gave up competitive skating to do shows, spending three years with Tatiana Tarasova’s shows in Great Britain, then with Torvill and Dean, and finally at Cypress Gardens in Florida. “I didn’t have very good partners,” he remembered. “After five years, I thought that I hadn’t done very much with my life. I like competitions a lot. It’s a very different science when there are judges. Then Maria’s coach called me and asked me to skate with her, so we started.”
Petrova had formerly skated with Anton Sikharulidze, with whom she won the World Junior Championships in 1994 and 1995. When he left to skate with Elena Berezhnaya in 1996, she skated with Teimuraz Pulin, finishing second at Junior Worlds in 1997 and sixth at Russian Nationals in 1998.
Tikhonov began skating almost three decades ago, when he was just five years old. “Skating was very famous in Russia at that time,” he said, “so my parents brought me to the skating school. I was 13 or 14 before I understood that I liked it and wanted to skate all my life. Before, I was more interested in other sports like soccer and hockey. I switched to pairs when I was about 15 and a half years old. I was very tall and my triples were not so good. I only had three triple jumps.”
Petrova first tried skating when she was about four. She began by pushing a plastic carton full of bottles around a patch of ice near her apartment. Her parents took her to skating school when she was six. “I was sick as a child and the doctors told my parents to bring me to try some sports,” she said. “They wanted me to do figure skating because it’s not just a sport but also art. When I was in singles skating, I always wanted to do pairs. I liked Gordeeva and Grinkov and wanted to be like them. Pairs is much more interesting than singles.” She switched to pairs at 13.
The skaters train in St.Petersburg with Ludmila Velikova and Nikolai Velikov. They do an hour session in the morning and another in the afternoon on ice every day, but only do a complete run-through of each program twice during the week. They spend another hour or two in off ice training, doing lifts on the floor, ballet and other conditioning work. “We have some friends who run the marathon,” Tikhonov said. “So we run five kilometers with them two or three times a week. They have helped us with our physical conditioning. Now we are more physically powerful so we don’t have to think about how we can go for four minutes on the ice. That helps us show more choreography and more presentation.”
Sergei Petukhov and Alexander Stepin choreograph the couple’s programs. This year, they used a variation of a tango by Astor Piazzola for the short program and Emmerich Kalman’s “The Circus Princess” for the long. “The tango program is new for us,” Tikhonov said. “The free skate music is old but the program is new because of the new judging system. The music for both programs was suggested by our coaches. We did a tango for our exhibition program last season and it worked well for us so our coaches thought we could do a tango for the short program. Our friend, Alexei Urmanov, used ‘The Circus Princess’ in 1997. He gave us the music and helped us with the program and the steps.” Their exhibition program is to the Night Snipers “You Present Me Roses”.
“We usually try to change both programs each year,” Tikhonov said, “but sometimes it’s easier to work with the music for a second year. Maria and I choose the music together with our coaches. This season, we both looked for new music, but we could not find good music for the free program. We didn’t skate our free program well in Dortmund last year so we decided to try it again.” Leading after the short, the couple suffered a bad fall in practice before the free skate which left Petrova badly bruised. Unable to perform at full speed. The couple dropped to fourth overall. “That was our worst fall ever, even in training,” Tikhonov said. “It made me be even more careful.”
“For me, lifts are the best thing,” Tikhonov continued, “but Maria doesn’t like the lifts.” “Lifts are more dangerous,” Petrova said. “Throws are easier for me. When we are learning a new throw, it is really fun.” Petrova is also a better jumper, having mastered her triple salchow and triple loop at eleven, while Tikhonov didn’t land his first triple until he was 14.
The new judging system that will be in effect this season may benefit Petrova and Tikhonov, who have always been very strong in all the technical elements. “We are doing throw triple salchow and throw triple loop and are trying the throw triple flip,” Tikhonov said. “We are doing side-by-side triple salchow and triple toe loop and are trying some new Level 3 lifts. Our ending lift should be a Level 3 with a bonus. So far only the Poles and us are doing all Level 3 lifts.”
“For the technical mark, the new system is good,” Tikhonov said. “Every element gets you some points. You can show different lifts in the new system and if the lifts are good, you can get many points. But the judges still can do anything with the second mark. I like it because you can move but they need to make some changes.” He believes that judges should be financially independent of the federations, while Petrova wants each judge’s marks to be known.
Petrova and Tikhonov plan to skate together until the Olympics in 2006, hoping to improve on their sixth place finish from 2002. “We want to go to the next Olympics, but only if we are skating well,” Tikhonov said. “After that, we are going to be coaches. We are working now with a young team in our skating group. We are learning a lot about coaching from Tamara Moskvina. She is a genius.” “I have always wanted to be a coach because I love being around children,” said Petrova. “I love it when the children come up to us at training.” The couple is also thinking of getting married and having a family of their own. Tikhonov is godfather to Urmanov’s twins and both skaters like to spend time visiting his family.
To relax, the couple likes to go out to restaurants or to the movies with friends. Petrova also enjoys live plays at the theatre, primarily dramas, and the ballet. She also likes to read. They both watch Russian movies and listen to all kinds of music. Tikhonov still plays a lot of sports including basketball, bowling, pool, and tennis. They both play soccer and hockey and ski in the winter on small slopes near St. Petersburg. She still has a lot of stuffed animals at home but they both give many to the children of their friends. Her favorites are bears and dogs, including a stuffed Bonya dog given to her by her parents years ago that she carries as a good luck charm.. She also has a pet Cocker Spaniel, but has to leave it with her mother. Both skaters are fond of photography and like to walk around new cities taking photographs.