With partners Alexei Ulanov and Alexander Zaitsev, the USSR’s Irina Rodnina won ten world titles, 11 European titles and three consecutive Olympic golds between 1972 and 1980, making her the most successful pairs skater in history.
Irina Konstantinova Rodnina suffered serious health problems as a child, surviving a bout of tuberculosis and being struck down with pneumonia on 11 occasions. When she was five her parents took her to a skating rink in a bid to improve her health, and later they enrolled her at Moscow’s Central Sports School. In 1963, the 14-year-old Rodnina began working with her first figure-skating partner Alexei Ulanov, under the watchful eye of coach and former champion skater Stanislav Zhuk.
From 1969 onwards Rodnina and Ulanov won every single international competition they appeared in, winning the world and European titles four times between 1969 and 1972. They underlined their global dominance in the pairs competition at the 1972 Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo (Japan). Leading the event after the compulsory figures at the Makomanai Skating Rink, they clinched gold in the free skate, ahead of their compatriots Liudmila Smirnova and Andrey Suraikin. That was to be her last competition with Ulanov, who had fallen in love with Smirnova, who would later become his wife.
Zhuk travelled the Soviet Union in search of a new partner for Rodnina, finally finding one in the talented Alexander Zaitsev. The newly formed pair showed their powers of concentration at the Europeans in Prague in 1973, when the music suddenly stopped during the course of their free programme. Undeterred by the silence, they skated on, executing the rest of their programme to perfection to earn a standing ovation from the crowd and with it the gold medal. The first figure skating pair to land a side-by-side double axel, Rodnina and Zaitsev won six straight world titles between 1973 and 1978 and also claimed seven successive continental crowns. They married in 1975 and sat out the 1978/79 season when Rodnina became pregnant and gave birth to their son Alexander. They returned to the rink to win two Olympic titles together, at Innsbruck 1976 and Lake Placid 1980. In the process Rodnina became the only pairs skater in Olympic history to win three consecutive titles. Indeed, with her two partners, she won every competition she took part in over a period of 11 years.
After retiring in 1980, Rodnina became a coach, helping a number of pairs to reach the top of the sport, firstly in her native USSR and then, from 1990, in the USA. She returned to Russia after the turn of millennium and went into politics, currently serving as an MP in the national parliament, the State Duma.
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