NOVOGORSK, Russia (AP) — Ivan Bukin is under enough pressure trying to qualify for his first Olympics, even without a famous name to live up to.
The Russian ice dancer’s father is Andrei Bukin, who won the gold medal in 1988 and helped make the sport what it is today with his expressive style.
“There’s serious pressure on Ivan and I can tell you why. Everyone thinks that all his results, all he’s achieved with his partner, has been done by his father,” Andrei Bukin told The Associated Press at a recent training session. “I’m friends with everyone but I’ll never ask anyone to make it easy for Ivan. I want him to earn his own medals, then it will be more valuable. I could help him to earn it, but I won’t. He must do it.”
Willowy, with an elegant, ethereal style, Ivan Bukin and his partner Alexandra Stepanova are growing into some of the world’s best ice dancers, a point they underlined with two Grand Prix podiums this season.
A medal in PyeongChang in February might be a stretch — Bukin Sr. says a top-six finish should be the target — even though Ivan Bukin was never meant to skate at all.
His father had spent most of the life in the Soviet sports system, cut off from the outside world. “I only started living normally aged 31,” when he retired, Andrei Bukin said. He was determined his children wouldn’t follow him. But Andrei reckoned without Ivan’s maternal grandmother, who dragged the young Ivan to the rink while his parents were away touring in ice shows.
“She kicked me in the butt. I was standing right up against the boards and she was shoving me out onto the ice because I was shouting and screaming,” Ivan Bukin said. “You had to get up at 5 a.m. I started training in the winter and it was horribly cold, really freezing, and my grandmother and I walked for 15 minutes through this blizzard. I really hated figure skating when I was a child.”
Ivan started out as a singles skater but struggled with the big, acrobatic jumps and switched to dance, his father’s discipline. Things clicked. “It got more interesting, dancing with girls,” he said with a grin.
Bukin and Stepanova started skating together 12 years ago. Stepanova had dreamed of being an ice star from a young age, but when she arrived in Moscow to join up with Bukin, she had nowhere to stay. The Bukins took her in.
“We were living there, seeing each other every day and grew up together. We were playing together all the time like brother and sister,” she said. “That’s how we lived, running around, pinching each other, fighting. Now we’ve grown up a bit.”
Ivan interrupts: “We’re still the same now.”
Some fans assume they’re a couple — just as many did 30 years ago with Andrei Bukin and his partner Natalia Bestemianova. They were never romantically involved, Andrei Bukin said, but still skate together in shows.
On tour, hotel receptionists across Russia still put them down for a double room. “People are so convinced it should be Bestemianova and Bukin.”
The buildup to Pyeongchang has been made even more difficult by the uncertainty whether Russia would be allowed to compete. Bukin and Stepanova say they try not to pay attention to the news. If they qualify for the Olympics at Russian nationals, Bukin and Stepanova will compete under a neutral flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
Speaking before the International Olympic Committee imposed that condition due to the Russian doping scandal, Andrei Bukin said anything’s better than a repeat of Cold War-era Olympic boycotts.
“I want our team, any Russian team, to go to the Olympics,” he said. “Even without the flag because for many athletes it could be the last chance to get the best out of themselves.”