Irina Rodnina is the most successful pairs skater in sporting history, amassing a haul of 10 consecutive World Championship titles, 11 European Championships and three Olympic gold medals between 1972 and 1980 – during which time she was elevated to the status of national icon in the Soviet Union.
She proved to be the star of figure skating at the Lake Placid Games. She and her husband Aleksandr Zaitsev defended their pairs title from Innsbruck four years earlier, earning first place points from all nine judges.
Rodnina’s achievement was all the more remarkable as she had taken a year’s break from competing prior to the 1980 Olympic Games to start a family. It was to prove the climax of her long and glittering career.
The Soviet ice queen’s first Olympic success came at the Sapporo Olympic Winter Games in 1972 when she and her then partner Aleksei Ulanov won gold. However, their partnership was turbulent, and Ulanov soon paired with one half of that year’s silver medal winning couple, Lyudmila Smirnova. Theirs was a sporting and romantic union, as they married shortly afterwards.
By the time of the Innsbruck edition of the Winter Games four years later, a nationwide search had been successfully conducted in the USSR for a new partner for Rodnina, and Zaitsev was selected. Such was Rodnina’s status in their homeland that Zaitsev was said to stutter while in her presence.
But the pair soon hit it off as a sporting pair and a couple, winning gold again in Austria, making Rodnina the first figure skater to win gold with two different partners.
Two years before Lake Placid, she had won her tenth straight World Championship before taking time out to look after her baby.
In her absence at the 1979 WorldChampionships, American pair Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia took the title. But their challenge to the returning Soviet couple faltered badly after Gardner suffered a groin injury. Rodnina and Zaitsev pulled off a flawless performance and again won first place votes from every judge.
Rodnina’s win meant she matched the achievement of Sonja Henie in winning ten world titles and three Olympic gold medals, becoming the only pairs skater to do so.
After her sporting career, Rodnina worked as a children’s coach in Moscow, before moving to the USA, where she worked with the 1995 world champion pair Radka Kovaříková and René Novotný from the Czech Republic.
Later she returned to her homeland, where she has since worked as a government adviser on sport and a writer and broadcaster.