Were it not for the Internet, ice dancers Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov would probably never have met. Whether it was fate or destiny that brought them together, the husband and wife team are hoping to make their mark at next month's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Though they lived half a world apart, Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov were both successful junior ice dancers before fate brought them together.
Melissa grew up in a Chicago suburb and started as a singles figure skater at the age of seven. When she was 10, a coach told her that she was good enough to make it to the juvenile Nationals. There was just one catch -- she needed to compete as an ice dancer.
Despite her initial apprehension about skating with a boy, Melissa teamed up with James Shuford. They consistently improved and reached the top level of the junior U.S. Nationals by 1998. But two years later, when James decided he wanted to go back to school, Melissa was left without a partner.
In Kirov, Russia, Denis Petukhov started skating at the age of eight and later became an ice dancer with Oksana Potdykova. But after two medals at the World Junior Championships and reaching as high as third place at the senior level of Russian Nationals, Oksana decided to make a change. That left Denis without a partner at the end of the 2000 season.
Both skaters looked for other partners but without much success. Neither found a partner they really "clicked" with. Melissa says she was about ready to give up.
"I had actually told my coach and my Mom at the time that if I did not have a partner by September first that I was going to apply and go on to college, because I did not want to spend my entire life waiting if it was not supposed to be," she said.
Denis Petukhov was also getting discouraged, even to the point of making alternate plans.
"I was thinking to go do shows, maybe in Europe, if I was not successful in my tryout. So I kind of did not know what to expect. I was just waiting for something to happen," he said.
But fate stepped in. Melissa answered a "partners wanted" ad that Denis had posted on the International Skating Union's website. They started e-mailing back in forth, mainly keeping their messages technical, talking about things like height and weight, skating styles, goals. They finally decided to meet for a tryout together in Colorado Springs, one day before Melissa's self imposed deadline of September 1.
"He arrived on August 31st at 11 pm and we started skating the next day and we knew immediately," she recalled. "Just the first practice, the first time we skated together. We went by ourselves, without a coach, without family or friends. And we decided without them, 'this is it, we are going to do it'. By the time our coach came into the rink we were already a team."
Prior to skating with Melissa, Denis had scheduled a tryout with another potential partner. But after seeing his chemistry on the ice with Melissa, Denis changed his plans and canceled the other workout. He never used his return ticket to Russia.
"Thank God that happened to me," he said. "I met Melissa and we started skating together and everything kind of went back on track."
The art of ice dancing is very different from pairs figure skating. It combines the couples' chemistry with the athleticism of skating and the beauty of dancing. Skating together led to dating within two weeks, and the couple soon fell in love. They have now been married for five years.
In their first international competition together, Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov captured the silver medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany. The rhythm and grace of their on-ice performances has led Gregory and Petukhov to numerous medals since then, including two silver and two bronze medals at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships between 2002-2005. In 2005 the pair also claimed the Skate Canada bronze medal and silver at the Four Continents Championships.
2005 was also special because Denis was sworn in as an American citizen, making them eligible to qualify for a spot on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. But Melissa says rule changes since the Salt Lake City Games have changed the sport.
"Ice dancing has improved so much even since the last Olympics," she explained. "And you know they have this new system going on right now and all these elements and they are trying to up the levels and the difficulties, so they are really pushing the envelope."
To upgrade their own routines, Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov moved from Chicago to Newington, Connecticut in order to "train as they have never trained before" with coach Nikolai Morozov and 2003 World ice dancing champion Shae-Lynn Bourne. They are hoping their hard work will pay off with a trip to the Turin Olympics.