Skating legend remembered for her grace

Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov perform during the “Tribute to the Protopopovs” show in September 2011, on the 1980 Rink of the Olympic Center in Lake Placid. (Photo provided)

The figure skating world was shocked and saddened by the passing of skating legend Ludmila Belousova Protopopov, who had been suffering from stomach cancer. According to Russian news reports, Belousova passed away Friday at age 81 in a hospital in Switzerland with her husband and long-time skating partner Oleg Protopopov at her side.

As a pairs skating team, the Protopopovs were the 1964 and 1968 Olympic champions, four-time world champions and four-time European champions.

Together they were best known for their grace, presence and line on the ice.

“They are a vision of classical skating personified, skating at its very best,” Dick Button, a two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion, said at a Lake Placid show in 2011. “The Protopopovs started a generation of style on ice, which was carried on by skaters like John Curry and Janet Lynn.”

Belousova and Protopopov brought a new kind of style to pairs skating that inspired future generations. Larisa Selezneva, 1984 Olympic bronze medalist in pairs and two-time European champion with her partner and husband Oleg Makarov, learned from the Protopopovs when they were both working with well-known Russian coach Igor Moskvin.

The Protopopovs take off their skates following a practice session at the Olympic Center’s USA Rink in June 2014. (Photo provided)

“A lot of the pairs they skated against, they were very athletic (but) the Protopopovs had such elegance and extension, the elegance of husband and wife, woman and man skating together; they were amazing, beautiful skaters,” Selezneva said.

Selezneva added that despite their legendary status, they would always help other skaters and talk to them. “They liked staying and talking with other skaters. I know my students liked being able to practice on the same ice as them when they were in Lake Placid, they brought so much inspiration to the ice.”

In addition to these contributions, the Protopopovs also created the backward-inside, forward-inside and forward-outside death spirals, which they originally named the Cosmic Spiral, Life Spiral and Love Spiral, respectively. These are still performed in pairs competitions today.

As a pair, the Protopopovs had a refined, unified and graceful presence that captivated everyone who watched them skate. Ludmila brought her charming delicacy to the partnership, while Oleg showcased her with style. Both were so well-matched and equally elegant that it seemed a natural partnership destined to happen.

As noted by Oleg, when they first skated casually together in 1954, others assumed that they were already an established pair. But the process toward Olympic stardom was not easy. Both Belousova and Protopopov started skating at relatively late ages, 16 and 15 years, respectively, and in national and international competition they were often considered “non-prospects” by the Russian Sports Federation, despite their artistic superiority.

But they proved everyone wrong, skating to countless elite titles before becoming professionals in 1972. After defecting to Switzerland in 1979, the Protopopovs’ career continued in America, where they skated in Button’s World Professional Championships (which they won four times) and the Ice Capades. Having settled in Grindewald, they became Swiss citizens in 1995.

Lake Placid became the Protopopovs’ summer home starting in 1997. Attracted by the ice rink and the possibility of working with famed figure skating coach Gus Lussi, they came to Lake Placid and would become local celebrities, especially among skaters and skating fans. It was not uncommon to see skating fans from all over the world asking them to autograph pictures of themselves or take photos with them, requests they graciously granted. 

As Ludmila shared in an Adirondack Almanack article in 2011, “Our friends were telling us, ‘You must go to Lake Placid, they have beautiful ice arenas’. We also wanted to learn from Gus Lussi, who was coaching there. Unfortunately, he had passed away, but when we came to Lake Placid we stayed forever.”

Belousova and Protopopov are perhaps best known to modern skating fans as headliners in the “An Evening with Champions” show at Harvard University, a charity event which benefits The Jimmy Fund. The show boasts a retinue of elite figure skaters, but all in attendance were awed by the presence of the Protopopovs, often requesting multiple “encores” after they performed. Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist who currently emcees the show, remembers them fondly. 

“Ludmila (and Oleg) skated in EWC 24 times and I was the host for most of those years (if not, I was skating); she was always elegant and sweet,” Wylie said. “She possessed a quiet strength in person and on the ice. Her love for skating and for Oleg was always evident. (Ludmila was) truly a role model for all skaters, I will miss her deeply.”

In later years, the Protopopovs continued to skate several hours a day. They could frequently be seen floating around one of the Olympic Center’s rinks, mentoring young students or walking to and from the rink. For a time, they lived with Barbara Kelly, a local adult skater and writer, before renting an apartment near the rink in later years.

They also skated with the Skating Club of Lake Placid, encouraging fellow adult skaters, performing in shows and becoming members of the “Skating 80s Club,” a group within the SCLP coffee club membership created by Kelly. Above all, they shared their knowledge and passion for the sport with everyone they met.

In 2009, Oleg suffered a stroke that resulted in him having to re-learn his most basic motor skills. But Belousova was always at his side, caring for him and helping to restore him, not just back to health, but back to skating well. She wanted her longtime skating partner back.

“Ludmila became the leader of the family when Oleg wasn’t feeling well; she cared for him, taught him to walk and talk and skate and helped pull him out of sickness” Selezneva said. “She was an inspiration for Oleg.”

In 2014, after experiencing stomach problems, Belousova was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The Protopopovs flew back to Switzerland for treatment and then, amazingly, returned the next summer to Lake Placid to train and to perform in “An Evening With Champions.”

After another bout of chemotherapy treatment in Switzerland, they again returned in 2016 to train and perform. After a third period of Swiss treatment, they returned this year to follow a rigorous daily training regime, but ultimately Ludmila was forced to stop due to her declining health. 

Despite the struggles with her health, Belousova continued to appear at the rink, coaching and giving lessons and advice, even if she couldn’t train as much as she wanted to. It is this generous spirit that is remembered most of all.

“They brought a great deal of grace and international style to Lake Placid,” Olympic Center Manager Denny Allen said. “Ludmila was just a kind, gentle soul, a wonderful human being, and it was such a privilege to know her.”