Too often, we take for granted what we have in Canada, rarely stopping to think about the freedoms we enjoy. Today, part one of a two-part story about a man who takes nothing for granted, a man who left his home and family behind, traveling thousands of miles to forge a new life in Canada.
Denis Kondrashin couldn’t believe his luck.
His work was done for the day, and he had time to kill. His co-workers were holed up in their hotel, afraid to leave the safety of their rooms.
Denis was tired and hungry, but he could hear the world outside, and nothing was going to keep him indoors. So out he went to prowl the chaotic streets of ChangPing.
The ramshackle homes lining the road sides looked like they were made of cardboard, and the business area didn’t look much better. There were people everywhere, moving about like a colony of ants. They yelled a lot.
Denis stopped somewhere to eat, ordering something off a menu he couldn’t read. It might have been roasted rat or deep-fried dog. He didn’t care.
It was different and it tasted good.
Everywhere he looked, there was something new. And cheap. And with his latest pay-cheque cashed, he had money to spend.
Like the kid in the candy store, Denis grabbed this and that, taking everything back to his hotel room like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. Later, sitting on his bed surrounded by brand new televisions and video cameras, Denis grinned from ear to ear.
He was 18 years old and he’d just found freedom in the last place he’d expect to find it. Communist China.
— This story begins in Russia, where Valeriya and Slava had three children. Denis was the firstborn, followed by sisters Elena and Victoria.
Valeriya was an accomplished figure skater and Slava a professional soccer player, and there was much debate about which sport the boy should pursue.
Valeriya prevailed, and Denis’ first memories are of a white sheet stretched out before him and two metal blades on his feet.
Valeriya used to talk about the feeling she got skating, making it sound so wonderful.
In Russian society, everyone was the same.
But when Valeriya stood alone in the middle of the ice with everyone in the building watching, with two million more watching on TV, she was different. Under the glare of the spotlight she was somebody.
Intimidating yes. But waiting for the first chords of her music was such a rush.
Then, an explosion of movement. Gliding and jumping and spinning — a type of freedom she couldn’t find anywhere else in her life.
She wanted her children to have that.
Six days a week she took them on a bus to a rink located far from home, and they skated.
School was barely a consideration for Denis and his sisters. He would do homework on the bus, and more if he had free time at the rink. But he had two hours of skating in the morning and two hours in the evening. The bus rides were long and they didn’t get home until late.
And no one seemed concerned about how well Denis could read or write or explain the intricacies of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
School was at the very bottom of the list.
From four years old, his life revolved around that white sheet of ice, and the coaches charged with moulding him into Russia’s next great skater. They pushed him to do it, do it, do it. Don’t give up. Push, push, push.
Don’t give up. Try again, and if it doesn’t work, try again.
His genetic inheritance identified Denis as a strong candidate to become elite, and those coaches were expected to get him there, come hell or high water.
For Denis, there was no way out.
— There were times when Denis wanted to give up. The coaches would tell him to do something that he couldn’t do.
He would try over and over and over again, never getting it right, and he would get discouraged.
The coaches were always pushing, pushing, pushing him to get to the next level.
It was depressing when he couldn’t meet their expectations. So much time invested and so many looks of disappointment. So many quiet morning bus rides spent fearing failure.
He just couldn’t do it.
And then, he could.
In his early teens, the light finally blinked on for Denis.
Like figuring out a Sudoku puzzle for the first time, everything those coaches had been barking at him all those years made sense. And once it made sense in his head, it made sense on the ice.
When the coaches told him to jump, he could jump. And land. Without falling on his butt. Which was nice.
Looks of disappointment turned to looks of approval.
Denis started winning competitions, putting himself back into the conversation as one of Russia’s top young skaters. He started dreaming again, picturing himself winning gold at the national championships. Not Olympics. Politics would keep him out of that.
But to be the very best in Russia?
There was a point in time where he believed that might be possible.
— Denis was 16 years old when he broke his leg.
It was a flukey thing. Skating the same routine he’d skated dozens of times before, he went up for a jump and lost an edge on the landing.
The physical pain was excruciating, but the mental pain was far worse. After years of work, just when things were coming together, it was all over.
Denis was looking at a full year of recovery. By the time he could (optimistically) resume competing, he would be 17. He would be off the radar for 12 months, an eternity in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport.
And if he did come back, they would wonder.
Is the kid going to be the same?
Denis wondered the same thing.
His youthful aura of invincibility forever shattered, he wondered if he could ever go up for a double-axel again. Figure skating was a sport that required a certain level of fearlessness and now, he was afraid.
Denis didn’t want to give up. He wasn’t sure he could give up.
Do anything for long enough and it becomes a part of you. He had spent 13 years on the ice, training to do this one thing.
What would he do if he didn’t have skating?
And yet, was it possible to get past the fear? He could close his eyes and visualize himself gliding into a jump, leaping into the air and spinning around and around. He could see himself coming down and, CRACK!
Another break. Another year. A massive mental hurdle he couldn’t overcome.
Denis thought he was done, until a coach said two words he hadn’t considered before.
A figure skating discipline drawing its origins from ballroom dancing, ice dancing was about spins and lifts, not jumps and throws.
He would have to skate with a partner, which would be different.
But he would still be skating, and that was the most important thing. And so, Denis Kondrashin became an ice dancer. And that’s how he ended up in China.
— It was an ice dancing show that brought Denis to the world’s most populous country.
Graduating from grade school, he figured it was time to give up skating for good and do what the grown-ups did.
Go to university. Get a job. Get a wife and a family and an apartment.
He was ready to do that when he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. An ice dancing show would bring him to China for nearly 12 months. For the chance to continue doing what he loved, he might have signed on for free.
But these people were actually going to pay him. Money! To skate!
He couldn’t sign the papers quick enough. Adulthood postponed, and off to the People’s Republic for a life-changing year.
— Denis had never been outside of Russia until that year.
His family took vacations, but never felt compelled to venture beyond the borders of the world’s largest country. So he didn’t really know he was missing anything until he wandered the chaotic streets, soaking in the sights and sounds of a culture that was so completely foreign to his own.
Every day brought a different discovery.
Denis had always considered Moscow to be a nice city and he thought it perfectly normal for the people who lived there to dress the same, do the same jobs and live in the same cookie-cutter apartments.
When he got back to Russia, everything was different.
Moscow was still a nice city, but it was boring. It wasn’t that everybody dressed the same, it was that no one was allowed to be different. Anyone who dared to stand out in any way was viewed with hateful and jealous eyes.
Denis watched his parents live their lives.
Slava and Valeriya woke up, went to work, came home, ate the same food as everyone else in Russia and went to bed. They were living in this box, the same box he had lived in for year.
But now, he was looking at things from outside the box. What once was normal was now suffocating and he wanted out.
— China was one thing. At least it was on the same continent.
Denis looked at a map of the world and put a finger on Montreal. A Russian family was searching for an ice dancing partner for their daughter. If he agreed, they would fly him to Canada and provide him with food and lodging, and make sure he had absolutely nothing to worry about.
It sounded to Denis like they were offering the moon.
He had tried Russian university life for two weeks and found it abominable, and he knew exactly what the future held if he stayed. A boring in-the-box existence, living just like his parents and everyone else.
He looked at the map again.
‘It’s big enough,’ he thought.
The Russian family in Montreal had made many promises that sounded so great.
They would provide him whatever he needed and help him navigate the Canadian immigration process. He could become a Canadian citizen, carve out a life of his own, and have the greatest adventure of his life.
Soon he was on an airplane crossing the Atlantic Ocean, thinking back to his world history classes and the country with the unique red and white flag.
‘They live in things called teepees,’ he thought, folding his hands like a tent. ‘They hunt buffalo with bows and arrows and it’s cold. It’s going to be different.’
Denis was shocked to see millions of lights as his airplane neared the Montreal-Trudeau International Airport. He was more shocked when he got off the airplane, collected his bags and walked outside to see highrise buildings dotting the horizon.
‘Wow,’ he thought. ‘Wow.’
There was no turning back.
Catch part two of this series in the Thursday Chilliwack Progress sports section.