Originally created 12/24/06

Pair's artistry hasn't diminished



LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - The words still echo in Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov's ears:

"Your train is gone, you're too old."

That was a half-century ago. They were in their early 20s and had just begun their partnership on and off the ice, but Soviet sports officials tried to stop perhaps the greatest pair in figure skating history before their career even began.

Too old?

They were merely getting started.

It's been more than four decades since the Protopopovs brought unparalleled artistry to pairs figure skating, winning the first of two Olympic gold medals. He's 74 now, she's 71, but time barely has infringed on their artistry, if at all.

"I learn something every time I see them skate, even now," said Dick Button, gold medalist in men's singles in 1948 and 1952 and a longtime television commentator. "The basic movements and basic positions are all there. They take and break down every single element that they do and follow through on the classical style that they've been so good at, to their ultimate destination."

Four hours a day nearly every day, Oleg effortlessly lifts Ludmila off her feet and sets her down gracefully as they practice.

For five months a year, the Protopopovs train on the ice sheet that coach Herb Brooks and the U.S. Olympic hockey team made famous in 1980. They live the rest of the time in their adopted home of Switzerland.

"They are in the most wonderful physical condition I've seen. People who come to watch them skate are amazed. They don't believe it," said 79-year-old Barbara Kelly, who has provided the Protopopovs with an apartment in Lake Placid for five years. "They have a style that's never been matched."

They began skating as a pair in 1957, soon married, and an inseparable pair was born.

Success came quickly. They became Olympic champions at Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964 and won Olympic gold again in 1968 at Grenoble, France.

"We try to bring the gladness to people if they watch us," Oleg said. "There is no limit to how old you can be. They get pleasure from this, so why do we have to stop?"