Around five years ago, Liam Cross finished university and moved from England to Germany for work.
As his year contract was coming to an end in the German town of Oberstdorf, he was invited to a poker game.
He met the love of his life.
At that time he didn't know anything about figure skating and so was blissfully unaware that the woman he had met was Aljona Savchenko.
The Ukraine-born figure skater had just started training with Bruno Massot with the plan to represent Germany at PyeongChang 2018.
Communication was difficult as Cross only spoke basic German and Savchenko's English wasn't fluent.
Six months later he proposed and, in the run up to the Olympic Games, was present almost every day as her and Massot practiced.
He says that the day she won the Olympic gold medal was the 'most nervous, terrifying day in her whole life'.
What is it like to fall madly in love with an Olympic figure skater?
MEETING FOR THE FIRST TIME
Q. What was it like the first time you met?
When we first met we couldn’t communicate very well because I didn’t speak any German and she didn’t speak any English… I quite liked her from first impression. I didn’t know what she thought of me at the time.
I knew she was a skater but I didn’t know of her success until later. She was already five-time world champion and a double Olympic bronze medallist. I had no idea. I didn’t even know that she had been to the Olympics. I didn’t know much about figure skating. We were trying to communicate using sign language.
I think I just got on her nerves.
Q. When she came with Bruno, did you ever think they were together or was there any idea about that?
No. I didn’t cross my mind. They weren’t spending much time together… they were kind of really separated. They had their working lives and their private lives were very separated. I kind of picked that up in the first instance.
The following day we were invited by the same group to have a burger together. So, at lunch time, I met with all these guys and girls. Aly and I started to talk some more. I don’t know what it was… but she agreed to meet me again and I asked whether she would be interested in meeting the next day for a coffee. She said, ‘Yes, after training I will let you know.’
At this point I lived in the town six kilometres away from Oberstdorf. In between there is a really big hill and it’s not really that easy to get to unless you have got a car. She called me and said, ‘I’ve finished practice. Can we meet now?’ So, I was like, ‘Er, yeah!’ And I ran five or six kilometres and I got there all sweaty. I had my dog at the time which was a distraction which was great. We had a coffee together.
GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER
Q. Was it a date?
I’d say more getting to know each other. At that time communication was still really hard because we didn’t speak each other’s languages. We were speaking in English because she spoke no German. It was very broken English. I remember what it was like. It was nice. I asked if she had been to the Olympics and she just laughed at me… I was kind of intimidated, shocked and surprised at the same time.
It’s hard not to think, ‘Why would she be interested in me?’
Because I was just working for the military as a civilian at the time. I wasn’t anything special. She’d been to the Olympics and I had never known anyone who had been to the Olympics. I had never met anyone who had been to the Olympics. And then to be told that she had been four times.
Q. Did Aljona have a cake?
Yep. I am pretty sure it was an apple strudel. It’s something that she has always liked. I didn’t know about the strict diets that figure skaters had until I had known Aljona for a few weeks. I didn’t think anything of it. Apple strudel was just something that we eat. It’s normal.
Q. Dating went well because now you are married. How did you propose? Is it a romantic story?
No! (Laughs) It’s not romantic at all. It was a bit of a mistake.
No! Not a mistake with the proposal (laughs). Ha! I better be careful with how I say this. I had planned it. I had spoken with my parents at the time. We had only been together for six months. But I really fell for Aly. I was speaking to my mum and she said, ‘Your dad proposed to me after six months and we’ve been together for 27 years.’ I thought, ‘Right, ok. I will do it.’ I had a small plan because Aly doesn’t even like me buying her flowers or super-romantic gestures.
Q. Why not?
I don’t know. I think she is quite down to earth. I don’t think she likes things blown out of proportion. I kept that in mind and six months into the relationship I didn’t know her 100 percent but I knew that I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life.
I bought the ring (after) I secretly managed to get her ring size. I bought her an ice cream too. And I brought it into the house with another little present. I had the ring in one hand and I gave the ice cream to her as she was sat on the sofa. I put the ring on the table and I just sat back eating my ice cream… And, as soon as she sees it, I have to make my move.
She saw the (box with the ring). She opened it and I chickened out. I couldn’t do it…
I think that she suddenly came to the realisation that I wasn’t proposing to her. I tried to blag it off that it was just a present. And then she was due to go away on an army camp. She had just joined the military… and had to go on an intensive course for something like six or eight weeks. She went away to Berlin the very next day after I had mucked up this proposal.
She had one day then she had to come back to Oberstdorf where we lived then she had to go away again for these six weeks. This one day, gave me time to think about what I was going to do. I really wanted to propose to her and I didn’t want to wait six weeks for it.
When she came back, I had no plan – other than just to ask her. We were in bed one morning and I asked her to marry me in bed. It was so un-romantic but Aly loved it and she started crying. Hopefully, it was happy crying!
Q. The PyeongChang experience must have been intense for you in terms of going through everything with her?
It didn’t really hit me until three months before the Games. For example, when I was driving on my own… I found it almost impossible to drive on my own because I would start thinking, ‘what if she doesn’t win?’ Winning, I know, was very important to her because in the last two Olympics she had achieved bronze which is a very high achievement. But not good enough in her mind.
I was thinking that there is so much pressure on her. I was really, really worried about her – to the point that I was physically sick because I was so nervous. She didn’t know about this at the time. I was thinking, ‘what if she didn’t win and what would she be like for the rest of her life?’ Or ‘would anything live up to (the experience) of winning an Olympic gold medal?’
Q. The moment of winning though she came straight up to you and started to kiss and hug you. What did that feel like?
Sorry. There is something in my eye. (Gets emotional). When she had won, Sophie (Bruno’s fiancée) and I were sat in the crowd. We had no accreditation, so we didn’t know how we were going to get into the ice rink, but we didn’t really care. We saw Aly and everything was emotional.
Q. What changed after that medal?
We could breathe (after) four years of hard work and determination. I saw at least one practise every day. Even if I couldn’t get to every practise, I saw how hard they worked, their successes and defeats throughout the season and how much work had gone into creating each program for each season. They’d had so many highs and lows. And to see them skate perfectly after the short program was indescribable.
They were fourth after the short program and I thought that it was over. Sophie and I went back to our hotel and discussed what they had to do the next day
Q. What did you talk about with Sophie?
After Bruno had a problem with his jump, we went home and I was really upset. I cried. I thought, ‘This is over for them’. There is no real chance for them to come back – especially with the Chinese being one of the favourites to win and doing so well after the short program. They had to make up six or seven points. I thought it was impossible. Aly and Bruno have to skate a clean program and break the world record. And what would the judges think? It’s the Olympics. I don’t know how it works.
Sophie told me to calm down and take it as it comes. She said everything will be ok and, basically, trying to calm me down. I didn’t expect to be so worked up about it. I was really nervous before but I didn’t expect to be so upset once it had all gone wrong. But you are caught in limbo in between the days. I didn’t know how to react. The next day I don’t even think I managed to watch much of the program. I had my eyes closed.
It was the most nervous, most terrifying day of my life by far. I think it will be the most terrifying day of my life ever. I can’t imagine anything more terrifying. I must’ve been more nervous than they were on the ice.
Q. Did you ever feel jealous of her and Bruno’s special Olympic bond?
Never. Not once. I always looked at it like there were actors. They have to be convincing. They have to show emotion. They have to touch each other (and) give themselves to the audience. And, in order to do that, they need to act… I saw how they were off the ice as well (and) how much work went in to convincing. I was never jealous.
(I think it) is surprising because when you look back on it they were very touchy on the ice and I am surprised I wasn’t jealous. I think it would be different if Bruno wasn’t single. If he didn’t have anybody. My mind might have run a little bit loose.
Q. And what about Bruno’s fiancée?
I think it is natural to feel a little bit of jealousy. I wouldn’t blame her if she did. I can imagine she would feel how I feel.
Q. In other words, you just embrace the fact that you might feel that way but it doesn’t really mean anything?
It’s nice because Sophie and I had each other to talk to. So, if she felt jealous – she would confide it in me and ask me about how I felt. And ask if I had ever felt any jealousy… she would also listen to me. We never really had any issues.
I owe a lot to Sophie. We would hold each other’s hand and go through the nerves together.
Q. What does trust mean to you? Why do you trust Aljona so much?
Ever since we met each other she has shown how much she loves me. She is the closest person I have ever been to. She is very different to any other relationship that I have ever been in. She is wholeheartedly mine. She gives herself to me. I can’t really put it into words. I just trust her. I have never not trusted her. And it’s a nice feeling… I can’t describe why I trust her. I just do. She has never given me any reason not to trust her.
Liam Cross was the big interview on the Olympic Channel Podcast. Each Wednesday we find the biggest talking points in sport and find someone Olympic to talk about it.
The interview and questions were shortened to make them easier to read. Olympic channel reporter Ekaterina Kuznetsova conducted the interview.