Russian Roulette: Olympic Skating Partners War, Don't Win

Winning Chinese husband-wife skaters show harmony; Russians wage cold war.

Feb. 17, 2010— -- Olympic ice skating pairs proved Monday that going for the gold works better when you're not going for the jugular.

Chinese figure skaters Hongbo Zhao, 36, and Xue Shen, 31, who are married harmoniously, took the ultimate prize, declaring, "Maybe it's time to have a baby," after dazzling the judges with their marital on-ice moves.

But Russian partners Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov have shown more venom than saccharine since the games began. They placed only seventh, the first time Russia has failed to win a medal in the skating pairs category since 1964.

The couple -- a Molotov cocktail on ice -- has been waging a cold war behind the scenes in the Olympic village. Trankov, 26, is a fan of Russian hip hop, while Mukhartova, 24, likes to read and go shopping.

Rumors circulated that their sports psychologist needed to mediate their "tempestuous relationship" -- especially after Trankov slipped and fell, ironically on Valentine's Day.

"For the record, Trankov was dressed like a bedazzled serf. Mukhortova's costume was fairly conventional, though square-necked and totally see-through," wrote Troy Patterson for Slate. "Their coach wore a dark turtleneck, a dark overcoat, and a scowl, implying that Trankov would be spending the night in a dark trunk."

Former Canadian lovebirds Jessica Dube, 22, and Bryce Davison, 23, etched their own heartbreak in ice to the sentimental backdrop of "The Way We Were."

"I was crying near the end," Dube, who had broken up with Davison before placing sixth in the 2010 games, told the Ottawa Citzen. "Once it was over, it was too much for me."

Nowhere does harmony count more than in pair skating.

"You have to have the right mentality to be able to go out there and skate pairs," said Jason Dungjen, who, with his skating wife Yuka Sato, coaches Olympic figure skater Jeremy Abbott.

Dungien has had three partners, skating pairs at the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, where he placed fourth.

"You have to be able to give up control, very much like a marriage," he told"Two people have to work together for a common goal, each taking the lead at different times."

But it's not all a glide on golden pond. With his wife -- a 20-hour day between skating and home -- he's seen "the good the bad and ugly."

And, like the Russian pair, Dungjen's had a purely professional relationship with his pairs partner, Kyoko Ina.

"We competed for eight years and did two Olympics together, and in our relationship off ice, we were completely away from each other," said Dungjen. "I can understand what it means when you heard they don't get along."

But many skating partners do end up in a love.

"These teams are together day in and day out for so many hours that they pretty much are forced into some sort of relationship and then they move from there," said Sarah Granger, a former national figure skating competitor who writes a column for BlogHer. "An unusually high number of couples end up married."

Canadian figure skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale were living together when they won gold at the 2002 Olympics. They married in 2005. They now have a 2-year-old son.

Four-time U.S. pairs champions and three-time Olympians Todd and Jenni-Meno Sand, who met at the 1992 Winter Olympics, are now married and coaching at the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.

Husband-Wife Skating Pairs

One of the most romantic couples from the old Soviet Union, Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva, won Olympic gold in Calgary in 1988, then went on to marry. He collapsed and died from a massive heart attack at the age of 27 in 1995 at Lake Placid, N.Y., while they were practicing for their Stars on Ice tour.

"She was younger than he, and they fell in love, and were amazing the way that was transported onto the ice," said Granger. "You could see their emotion and their connectedness. They were up there with the best in terms of unison."

Later, Gordeeva married 1998 men's gold medalist Ilia Kulik . They have one child.

But Mukhortova and Trankov were probably skating on thin ice from the start.

"That interdependent dimension is really important for skating, where harmony and grace are so important," said Steven Reiss, emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University, who has written about the mindset of athletes for Psychology Today.

"If they had a strong competitive spirit, that could work against each other," he said. "You don't want independence, you want interdependence. If you are quarreling, that becomes an issue."

"You get angry over something, you get even," he said. "Stress adds up. So you have the stress of competition, and now you have the stress of a relationship. And when you are under stress, you tend to regress and go back to bad habits."

The best paired skaters are noncompetitive, according to Riess. "They are achievement-oriented, but not vengeful or spiteful."

Still, audiences love the drama.

"In some sense, this is reality TV," he said. "They are people like you, and it feeds our sense of self-importance. Ordinary people quarrel."

But New York sports psychologist Richard Lustberg is just as cynical about loving couples who do figure eights together.

"Sometimes it's not best to do with business with your own family, and there's a good reason for that old adage," said Lustberg, who works with young athletes.

Skating Pairs 'Emotionally Charged'

"It's an emotionally-charged relationship," Lustberg said. "These routines are very fine-tuned, and to introduce another element doesn't seem wise. But it's not uncommon today with Hollywood film stars dating each other. There are always relationships anytime on the set or working closely professionally -- these things happen."

Though Zhao and Shen -- bronze medalists at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics -- flawlessly executed their spins, throws and jumps as they gazed into each other's eyes, Lustberg wonders how that bliss can last, especially if a baby is on the agenda.

"There's always an exception, but how do you know this couple can handle it?" he told "Arguments over children and money? Imagine when there are coaches and in-laws, all of that on a daily basis. I am not one for complications. Life and athletics should be as simple as possible.

"They are driven with a common bond, but as we all know, couples do get old," he said. "Common sense says you'd like to keep your business separate."

Such is the case with American skaters Jeremy Barrett and Amanda Evora, both 25, who competed against each other in this week's games, placing 13th and 10th, respectively.

Even Mukhortova and Trankov might turn fire into ice in their Russian homeland in 2014.

"If they channel it properly, it can make for some exciting skating," said Granger. "Just because they are fighting doesn't mean they can't skate together. They still know each other really well and are captive to each other's moods. On ice, they can find a way together to do what needs to be done in the moment."

ABC Information Specialist Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.