As dozens of skaters circled the rink at the Polar Ice House in Garner Sunday, a woman guided her daughter through a few moves. Most people on the ice had no way to realize the mother literally had a figure skating silver medal packed in the bag containing her skates.
Elena Betchke and multiple Polar Ice House (where Betchke works) have hosted a few events to attempt to parlay the attention into increased local interest in ice sports.
Figure skating and ice hockey lessons were offered off to the side of the open skate by other instructors, including some who learned from Betchke.
She had assisted with a similar event at the Ice House in Cary the week before. She said the Olympics provided an opportunity to show people that the ice houses exist and how much fun they could have with visions of Olympic competition still fresh in people’s minds.
“We are trying to attract more customers to come to the rink and skate for free,” Betchke said. “I think interest is going up for a while before summer sports kick up, and we’ll try to get more customers and keep them.”
Her daughter at the Ice House, Sophia, has ben skating for years, but Betchke said she isn’t as dedicated to making a career out of it like her mother. Which is fine with her.
“Whatever she wants,” Betchke said.
Few customers may have watched the Olympics with the same level of interest as Betchke, both because of the sport in which she reached the highest levels and because the host happened to be the country of her birth.
“I know Russia like no one else, I think they did a good job knowing how difficult it is there, and how everything can be disorganized and get messed up,” Betchke said. “I just think it was a successful event overall.”
As for the figure skating, she was incredibly impressed, and with good reason considering advances in the sport. For example, the quad throw (with the female being thrown, spinning four times and landing) has become an Olympic podium staple, but it was first landed in competition in 2007.
“The figure skating was amazing for the most part. I thought it was great, technically, artistically,” Betchke said.
Leningrad Red to Unified Silver
The Russian-born, Soviet-trained Olympian won her silver medal in pairs figure skating in 1992 in Albertville, France. But her career had begun about 12 years before that at the age of 14, 10 years after she learned to skate.
“I grew up in the former Soviet Union, so the environment is totally different compared to what was in the United States. It was very strict and very structured,” said Betchke, who was born in Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg.“I took it very seriously from the age of 14. I decided it was what I wanted to do, decided to make figure-skating my life, and that’s what I did.”
Her parents didn’t have to pay a dime for training; as long as she showed up with a little talent and a lot of work ethic, the state took care of the rest. Starting in 1983 she began skating with Valery Kornienko, and the two peaked with a bronze medal in the European Championships.
In 1987 she began skating with Denis Petrov, another Leningrad native. The two missed the 1988 Olympics but continued to be competitive internationally, winning bronze in the 1989 World Championships and silver in the 1991 and 1992 European Championships. The couple -- they married in 1990 -- finally won a Soviet title in 1992 and qualified for the Olympics.
Before the Olympics, though, the Soviet Union officially collapsed Dec. 26, 1991, after years of political tension and months of turmoil and declarations of independence. Ultimately, Soviet athletes competed in the 1992 Olympics as the “unified” team with Olympic rings as their flag.
When Betchke and Petrov won silver and fellow former-Soviets Natalia Mishkutenok (from Belarus) and Artur Dmitriev (Russian) won gold, Betchke lamented that as they stood on the podium, a neutral international song with no connection to her homeland played instead of a national anthem.
“Instead of listening to a national anthem, we were list to something to something not related to our country,” Betchke siad.
She and Petrov joined Stars on Ice in 1993, a professional figure skating production that tours multiple countries, eventually moving to the U.S. in 1996. She divorced Petrov in 1995 and remarried a man she met through a friend while living in Richmond. His job was the reason she moved to North Carolina 11 years ago.
Betchke now trains anyone who wants lessons, working out of multiple Ice House locations. Without the state paying the way for athletes in the U.S., she has to charge a fee: $80 per hour for a private lesson. And she’s also left behind the strict, authoritarian style. Though she’s willing to take them as far as they’re willing to go; back in 2006 she had a few students make it to nationals and junior nationals.
“I respect my customers, I try to make them happy, with professional and personal care. I’m a coach, mom, psychologist,” Betchke said.
She said she enjoys life in North Carolina. And while she’d love to get back to visit friends in Russia -- she hasn’t been since helping her parents move to the U.S. eight years ago – she is busy as a single mom with two children.
“I tell (my friends) you come to see me,” Betchke said.