When Alexei Yagudin read about 11-year-old Grisha Fournier, an aspiring figure skater, in The Times in September, he recognized similarities to his own life. Given the chance to make the boy's most cherished wish come true, the Salt Lake City men's figure skating gold medalist didn't hesitate.
Yagudin was flattered to learn that Fournier, who was abandoned by his mother and spent two years in a Russian orphanage before being adopted by an Alta Loma couple, admired him and dreamed of duplicating Yagudin's Olympic feats in 2010. That's all the four-time world champion had to know before agreeing to give up a day off from the Stars on Ice tour to meet Fournier this week at Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank.
"Whatever you do in this life is not for yourself," said Yagudin, who supports his family and his maternal uncle's family. "It's not always about yourself. It's for other people. I can understand what he went through. I wasn't homeless in my life, but we shared an apartment with another family and my parents were divorced and we were pretty much poor. So I know what he went through.
"I'm really happy to do this for him. I've kind of achieved a lot in this life and if I can make this a bright day for him, why can't I do that?"
Fournier, an energetic youngster with shiny braces, usually trains at Center Ice in Ontario. His parents, Mike and Gina Fournier, told him they were going to Pickwick to meet former NBC chairman Grant Tinker, who had read about him and stepped in with financial support for his skating. Tinker was, indeed, at Pickwick to cheer as Fournier spun and jumped and got up smiling after each fall.
"It just got to me," Tinker said of Fournier's story. The boy's attitude, he said, "was winning. If it was some kid from Beverly Hills I wouldn't have been so touched."
Hidden in a side room while Fournier warmed up, Yagudin stepped onto the ice through a side door as Fournier took off for an axel jump.
"I thought I'd better do it good," Fournier said of the instant he saw Yagudin. "My mom said a long time ago that I wouldn't have a chance to meet him, but I really did. It was a big shock, but I love it.... I watched him at the Olympics. He was awesome."
Yagudin told Fournier to keep his back straight, work hard and never give up. He also invited the family -- which includes Grisha's 14-year-old sister Susha -- to be his guests at the Stars on Ice performance next Saturday at Staples Center. The troupe will perform the next day at Anaheim.
Meeting Yagudin could be the boost Fournier needs to help him nail the double toe loop that has stymied him, said one of his coaches, Joan Heasley.
"After 14 months, he's quite amazing, really," said Heasley, who collaborates with Brian Tuck to coach Fournier. "His attitude is fabulous. He never complains.
"Meeting Alexei is worth its weight in gold."
Yagudin said the hip problem he feared might end his career was responding well to treatment and was 85% healed. He's happy to put it behind him and focus on his three solos and three ensemble routines in Stars on Ice.
"It's not easier or harder than competition," he said. "It's just completely different work. I'm responsible not only for my skating but for the group numbers, and I don't want to mess up the group numbers.... There's no competition going on between us and we learn from each other how to live this life."
Figure skater Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel has had an impressive season since moving to Connecticut in September to train with Yagudin's coach, Tatiana Tarasova. After winning the Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique Grand Prix events and qualifying for the Grand Prix Final, she hopes she's primed for more success at the U.S. championships next week in Dallas.
"I'm a stronger competitor," said Cohen, who was second to Michelle Kwan at last year's competition at Staples Center, then finished fourth at the Olympics. "I was always determined, but I wasn't always able to pull out the performances I needed. I'm more of a fighter now."
The deep women's field also includes Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and six-time U.S. champion Kwan.
"It would be easier if everyone retired, ... but in a way, I'm glad they stayed because they're going to push me," Cohen said. "Because of that, I'm going to be a better skater."
Cohen acknowledged disappointment that Miki Ando of Japan beat her to the honor of becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. Cohen attempted a quad salchow several times last season but dropped it before the Olympics.
"It's still a goal of mine to land one in competition but I had other priorities ahead of that, like doing better competitively," she said. "It's a trade-off, but I'm happy with what I've done. I'd definitely like to put it in for worlds and the Grand Prix Final."
Remember the Titan Games
Cael Sanderson had a remarkable 159-0 record wrestling at 185 pounds for Iowa State, but circumstances robbed him of his moment on the world stage.
He couldn't compete in the 2001 World Championships after they were postponed and moved out of New York City in deference to the Sept. 11 tragedies. He lost out again last year when the U.S. withdrew from the world meet in Iran because of what was termed "a credible threat" against the U.S. delegation.
"My time, hopefully, will come," he said. "It was just bad timing, and the tournament being in September both times. There's bigger things in the world than wrestling, even though we don't think like that very often."
Sanderson will face world-class competition next month in San Jose at the Titan Games, an event created by the U.S. Olympic Committee to provide elite competition for U.S. athletes.
Boxers, fencers, shotputters, wrestlers, weightlifters and judo, taekwondo and karate athletes will compete against top international rivals on four platforms over three days.
"I'm excited because the top two wrestlers at my weight will be there," Sanderson said, referring to world and Olympic champion Adam Saitiev of Russia and former world champion Yoel Romero of Cuba. "That will show me where I am and where I need to improve."
Here and There
The International Skating Union's 2003-04 Grand Prix Final will be held in Colorado Springs, at the World Arena. The event, which has never been held in the U.S., features the top six skaters from the season's six Grand Prix events.
Sydney 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene and pole vault gold medalist Stacy Dragila announced they would compete in the Boston Indoor Games, Feb. 1 at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, Mass. Greene will run the 60 meters, in which he holds the world record of 6.39 seconds. Also expected to compete are Bernard Lagat of Kenya in the men's 1,500 and Regina Jacobs in the women's 1,500. The meet begins the four-event Golden Spike tour.
Hayley Wickenheiser, who led Canada's women's hockey team to gold at Salt Lake City, is scheduled to make history Saturday by becoming the first female player other than a goalie to play in a men's pro league. Wickenheiser, a forward, will skate for Kirkkonummen, a second-division Finnish team owned by San Jose winger Teemu Selanne and former NHL standout Matti Hagman. Canada's WTSN sports network will show the game live across Canada.