Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov captured more than medals and titles during their nine-year competitive career. Their warm and personable approach made them fan favorites around the globe, and more than a few tears were shed when the Russian duo announced they were hanging up their competitive skates in 2007.
Theirs was a pairing few expected would ever rise to the top of the world. When Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov teamed up in 1998 at ages 20 and 26, respectively, both had tasted success at various levels with different partners.
Petrova’s career first blossomed in the junior ranks. Paired with Anton Sikharulidze in the early 1990s, the duo won back-to- back World Junior titles in 1994 and 1995. Sikharulidze ended the partnership in 1996 to skate with Elena Berezhnaia.
Tikhonov and his first partner, Irina Saifutdinova, claimed bronze at the 1989 World Junior Championships skating under the Soviet flag. The partnership ended when Saifutdinova decided to marry and leave the sport. With his next partner, Yukiko Kawasaki, Tikhonov won the 1993 and 1994 Japanese national titles, and a bronze medal at 1993 NHK Trophy. Although he loved the country, Tikhonov found it lonely living in Japan because he did not speak the language.
That partnership ended in 1994, and Tikhonov spent the next four years performing in Tatiana Tarasova’s ice theatre productions and touring with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s shows. Dissatisfied with how his amateur career had ended, Tikhonov began looking for a new partner. In 1998, he teamed up with Petrova and they began training with Ludmila Velikova and Nikolai Velikov at the Yubileyny Sports Palace in St. Petersburg.
Though few outside their circle had any faith in the partnership in the early days, Petrova and Tikhonov would go on to surprise and surpass all expectations in a very short space of time. In their first season on the international circuit, Petrova and Tikhonov found immediate success, winning silver at 1998 Skate Canada, gold at Sparkassen Cup in Germany, and earned a ticket to the Grand Prix Final where they finished third.
“It was very surprising that we did so well at our first competition,” said Tikhonov. “Nobody believed that things would work out for us or that we could achieve anything — except for ourselves and our coaches, nobody really believed in us. We had only been skating together for five months and not everything was working in practice. After our win in Germany, everyone realized that we could hold our place in the world of pairs skating and that was very nice for us.”
At the 1999 European Championships, Berezhnaia and Sikharulidze, the defending champions, were favored to win. However, the team was forced to withdraw two hours before the long program when Berezhnaia came down with a sudden illness. Petrova and Tikhonov seized that opportunity and claimed the title. “It was like a wonder. We had a mistake in the short program and we were fifth. Then Elena and Anton withdrew and only four pairs remained in the running,” Tikhonov recalled. “We skated a clean long program and won. I think the only one who managed to do that in such a short time was Irina Rodnina. She skated with Alexander Zaitsev for half a year after switching partners, and they won the 1973 European title.”
“Obviously, we didn’t go there to win,” Petrova added. “We knew that we would be able to do well, but we did not expect that things would turn out in such a favorable way for us and that we would win. We teamed up rather late. Usually people at that age are ready to retire, but we had just started. Our first competitions together are memorable.”
The 1999-2000 season would ultimately be the highlight of Petrova and Tikhonov’s career. The duo opened that campaign with victories at Sparkassen Cup, Cup of Russia and NHK Trophy, and finished fourth at the Grand Prix Final. Three weeks into the new millennium, Petrova and Tikhonov claimed a second European crown and closed out the season by winning the 2000 World Championships.
Some might argue that the team benefitted from the withdrawal of Berezhnaia and Sikharulidze from that competition, but Petrova and Tikhonov soundly defeated two other teams that had placed ahead of them at the Final two months earlier. “We skated well. Obviously, victories are always great, but we always enjoyed each competition that we did,” Tikhonov said. “We saw how much the spectators loved us and this was always important to us and very nice. We loved competing in Germany and in France and each year we asked for the Grand Prix in Japan. That nation was always close to our hearts.
“There was always a lot of support, especially when we were competing in St. Petersburg. There were banners for us and the spectators would be shouting, ‘Lesha, Masha, radost nasha’ (Alexei, Maria, our happiness).”
However, neither of their two appearances at the Olympic Winter Games went well. The team finished sixth in 2002 in Salt Lake City and fifth in Torino four years later. “I remember how Maria cried when we didn’t get an Olympic medal. We thought, ‘that’s it, life is over,’” said Tikhonov of their result at the 2006 Games.
But for Petrova, that competition marked a turning point. “In that moment — or, to be exact, the day after — I realized that there is life after sport,” she recalled. “You understand that life is not over, and it is not only the life after sport that goes on, but you can still achieve something in the sport as well. When you are going toward a goal and you miss it … this might break some people but it pushes others forward. It pushed me.”
Petrova and Tikhonov picked up and moved on. A month later they claimed bronze at the 2006 World Championships, with many believing they should have won the gold. “It was especially nice when our competitors and friends, Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, who were watching from the tribune, came to us and said, ‘Guys, you should have won,’” Tikhonov recalled. Shen and Zhao’s teammates Qing Pang and Jian Tong claimed the title ahead of Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang.
Petrova and Tikhonov spent that off-season performing on Ilia Averbukh’s Russian tour, and wherever they went the crowds loved them. They returned to the competitive ranks at the behest of the Russian skating federation, but the 2006-2007 season was up and down for them. Petrova and Tikhonov won the French Grand Prix, placed second at Cup of Russia but fell to sixth at the Final. The 2007 European Championships, where they finished second, would be the final competition of their career.
At the World Championships in Tokyo, the team was forced to withdraw after the short program due to injury. They retired shortly thereafter. During their nine-year career, the duo claimed an impressive 11 international titles, and captured 12 silver and 14 bronze medals.
Not much has changed inside the Yubileyny Sports Palace since Petrova and Tikhonov trained there in the early days of their career. Opened in 1967 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it is home to some of the World’s top figure skaters, such as Elizaveta Tuktamysheva.
Now based in Moscow, Petrova said returning to their former training venue “is always a great pleasure for us because it is like home. We have fond memories. This place helped us to achieve success. When we step onto the ice here for a show we always feel happiness.”
“Yubileyny has always been such a figure skating center because Tamara Moskvina, Igor Moskvin, Ludmila and Nikolai Velikov have worked here and Alexei Mishin still works here,” Tikhonov added. “I always liked that we could see the Vladimir Cathedral from the rink when the weather was good. We are always happy when we return to perform in our home in different ice shows.”
Following their retirement, Petrova and Tikhonov’s first professional adventure was competing on Averbukh’s popular television show “IceAge” (the Russian version of “Dancing with the Stars”). Tikhonov was not keen to participate in the show initially as he considered it “nonsense when skaters and non-skaters skate together. He thought it would look awful,” Petrova recalled with a laugh. She eventually convinced her partner to give it a try. The show included an acting element, which proved challenging, even for the skaters who had worked with choreographers and had taken acting classes. However, the concept worked well, the show was a hit and made figure skating even more popular in Russia.
“We learned so much from our (non-skating) partners,” said Petrova. “If we had had this experience before, when we were still competing, our programs would have been so much brighter and more interesting. Before, it was like … a program is just a program.”
“The show was like an acting school. You understand what you are portraying, and you are putting your heart and soul into it. That was very important,” Tikhonov added, noting he came to the conclusion that it is always worthwhile to try something new.
That experience encouraged him to explore acting further and he has subsequently appeared in stage plays and acted in movies. He believes that this has helped him and Petrova to develop as performers on the ice because skaters in Averbukh’s ice musicals are also required to have acting skills.
Petrova and Tikhonov recently had leading roles in Averbukh’s ice musical “Carmen” and performed for the first time with their 9-year-old daughter, Polina Tikhonova, who played the role of Carmen as a child in the production.
They first put their daughter into skates at age 3, but her expectations of being able to “do it all” were dashed the first time she stepped onto the ice. “She immediately fell, of course, and asked ‘what’s happening?’ We told her that is not how it works and she said‚ ‘Nah, if it does not work like that then I don’t want to do it,’” Petrova recalled with a laugh. “A couple of years later we enrolled her in classes. She didn’t like it very much. She would look at us, silently, but her eyes asked the question, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you torturing me so much?’
“Polina trains at the rink where Eteri Tutberidze coaches. The first month she went to training with tears in her eyes. She was lagging behind so we put her into a group with kids that had been skating for a year so she could catch up with them. At first she couldn’t do much, but she caught up with them by the end of the year. When the competitions started, she liked it and now she is seriously engaged. Polina is currently competing as a singles skater, but we are inclined to put her into ice dance. She is artistic, but very tall and there is no way she could do a quad.”
Petrova and Tikhonov, who turned 42 and 48, respectively, in November, have started to think about life after skating, but have not yet decided when they will stop performing as they are still enjoying it. “We often joke about it. We know that we cannot do any difficult triple throws anymore. We stopped doing them two years ago,” Tikhonov explained. “I feel we don’t have so much time left, but for now we still have the desire to perform for spectators and to skate together. Once this gets lost, we cannot go out on the ice anymore.”
Petrova said they consider their options every year and think about coaching or doing something else, “but we feel sad to stop because Ilia always has new ideas and comes up with something interesting so that we want to stay. You think, fine, one more year, and then Ilia starts to talk about a new project.”
Though they sometimes work with young skaters on Averbukh’s “IceAge Kids,” they are not coaching at this time. That could be an option for the couple down the road. However, they are involved with their daughter’s training.
Petrova and Tikhonov both said they enjoy the experience of mentoring children. “These kids are so talented and there are so many of them,” said Petrova. They are also commentating on major figure skating competitions for Russian television and especially enjoy seeing their former competitors and teammates as coaches at the boards. As commentators, they keep up with the current developments in the sport.
Both feel the age limit for seniors should be raised. “There is junior skating and ladies skating. Obviously, the quads are cool, really amazing, but then there are skaters such as Evgenia Medvedeva who cannot compete with those who land the quads, despite skating great,” Petrova observed. “They share their emotions, have real programs and are interesting to watch. It is a shame that their athletic lives are cut short and they retire when they are 18 or 19 because it is too hard for them to keep up. The juniors are coming and that’s it. One year you are on the national team and the next year you are in eighth or ninth place at nationals (in Russia).”
On the flip side, Petrova and Tikhonov are impressed with the men, especially Nathan Chen, and are obviously interested in their own discipline. “Now that the level of singles skating has risen so high, boys and girls with five triples go into pairs in Russia. Before, they took skaters with a double Axel and when someone had a triple, it was great for pairs. Now they’re coming with a triple Lutz,” Petrova explained.
“We are very happy to see that pairs skating is moving forward and becomes harder technically,” Tikhonov added. “As for jumps, basically everyone is doing two triples, and everyone is looking for something new with the lifts, but it is not working well for everyone yet.”
Petrova and Tikhonov were impressed with Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and were happy to see Savchenko, a former rival, finally claim the title. “We admire Aljona — we could not help but mention her in our broadcast,” Tikhonov said. “After they made that mistake in the short program …To bounce back like they did in the free skate was just amazing. We stood and clapped and we praised them so much — they were so good. I wasn’t always cheering for Aljona. First, we were competitors and, secondly, I didn’t like some of the programs she and Bruno did. I liked it a lot when she skated with Robin (Szolkowy), but when she started skating with Bruno I didn’t like it at first.
“But, they had a brilliant free skate in the Olympic season. The short was also good, but the free was especially great. And the way they performed it, they proved that they were above everyone, they were clearly the best, so we just applauded and congratulated Aljona. The fact that she took her second partner from scratch to the Olympic gold medal is, of course, amazing.”
They also praised Wenjing Sui and Cong Han and felt the Chinese duo’s long program last season was the best in the world. Tikhonov believes that if the Chinese team was to combine their short from the Olympic season with last season’s free, “they would be hard to beat.”
Petrova said she and Tikhonov are looking forward to watching the Russian ladies compete on the European and World stages this season. “Hopefully, they will also surprise us. Figure skating is very interesting these days and we’re enjoying watching and commentating on it.”