Friday, July 6, 2012

From Russia with love

International ice-skating couple and their family call Sun Valley home for 3 months of the year.

Express Staff Writer

Andrei Khvalko and Elena Leonova pose with their daughters, Elizabeth, 9, and Annabelle, 3, on the ice in front of the Sun Valley Lodge. The couple has been performing here in the summer for 15 years, but are based in their home country of Russia. Photo by Willy Cook

For the months of July and August a strange thing happens to the Wood River Valley. This corner of Idaho becomes a cultural melting pot, one where one might spy an oboe player from Atlanta milling about the produce aisle at the supermarket, or a Maltese tenor waiting in line at the coffee shop behind a comic-book author from Wales.

That residents and visitors to Sun Valley not only get to experience the work of these artists, but are able to "live" with them for a few weeks, is part of what makes life here special.

Because for most of these talented tourists, Sun Valley is not simply a one- or two-night stop on a whirlwind cross-country tour, it's where they come and spend anything from two weeks to two months, enriching the diversity of the Wood River Valley with their talent and their presence.

For 15 summers, Russian figure skaters Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko have done just that. The two-time world professional champions (1999 and 2000) are two of the core skaters in Sun Valley Resort's long running summer ice shows—a tradition almost as old as the resort itself.

The pairs/adagio skaters started skating in Sun Valley shortly after they were married (in Reno, Nev.). Then they lived in San Francisco—today they have two children and are based out of Moscow, Russia.

The Idaho Mountain Express caught up with the family to find out what life as a Sun Valley summer transient is like.

Idaho Mountain Express: When did you first come to Sun Valley?

Elena Leonova: We started to come here about 15 years ago, then it was just the two of us. We loved the area, and it was pretty much one of the most prestigious jobs to do in the summer.

Then a few years ago we figured out it was time to start thinking about family. First Elizabeth [Liza] was born, and we kept coming here in the summer with the baby. Then our other daughter was born [in Boise]. When we were invited back again and again, we started realizing that coming here was not just about us now—this is the most gorgeous place to spend summer for kids. This is the whole family's fun. We call it our paid vacation.

IME: What do you like best about living here?

Leonova: We've been in Moscow for six winters now, and obviously Moscow is a big city, lots of pollution. So coming here in the summer has lots of positive things for us and the girls. Swimming, skating, golf, tennis, boats, rivers, lakes, camping, pedal boating and also the fresh air. It's such a clean place. Also the safety—that's a very important part. You never really feel as safe anywhere else as you do in Sun Valley.

IME: What do the girls do during the day while you're both working?

Leonova: Liza will go to the YMCA summer camp in July. Right now she's in the Sun Valley playschool, where they do tennis, golf and take hay wagon rides—things like that. Then we pick them up and go for bike rides or go swimming, do lots of things together—hiking, ice skating.

IME: Are your girls fans of ice-skating?

Leonova: Annabelle, who is 3, really enjoys skating. This is the best place to introduce kids to skating. Usually it's cold at an ice rink, indoors and dark. But here it's gorgeous—you're wearing shorts, surrounded by mountains and you're on the ice. Our little one has a new skating dress and she really just loves it. But Liza, at about age 5, we figured out this is not what she wants to do. She loves to be on the ice and run around, but this is not her thing, to be a figure skater.

IME: How do you handle the demands of parenting and a career as figure skaters?

Leonova: It's a juggling act. It's all about schedule—well, like all the parents, it's all about the kids' schedule! But our schedule here is pretty easy—we usually skate around noon and then have rehearsals in the evening, but if we don't, we go for a picnic on the river or do something else as a family. In July we'll start teaching, but this year we want to spend as much time with the kids as we can. They deserve our time because in Russia we travel a lot without them, we tour a lot. This is our family time, when we're here.

IME: What are your favorite places to hang out in Ketchum?

Leonova: We go downtown a lot. Usually they have some concerts in the park, Ketch'em Alive. We like to do that. Since the Sun Valley Pavilion has opened we've really enjoyed taking the kids to things there. They really enjoy the summer symphony, especially the kids songs and the musical nights, when the opera singers perform. Last year the little one was clapping her hands and shouting "yea!"

As Russians it's important for us for the kids to be close to their culture. Opera, ballet these things have always been very important for Russian people and it's great that we can introduce them to that here.

IME: What is the girls' favorite thing about Idaho?

Andrei Khvalko: Elizabeth likes all activities on offer here.

Leonova: She likes that every day is full here. There's a lot of places to go in Moscow, but here everything's scheduled, you don't have to think about it.

IME: Where do you like to go when you have time for yourselves?

Leonova: We usually go to the restaurants in town. We like The Pioneer in Ketchum. We like steaks and this is our favorite place. With the kids we go to Whiskey Jacques' for pizza and Rico's, of course. Last year we had a girls night out and went to Zou 75 in Hailey. We liked it a lot. Maybe this year I'll take Andrei for a date there.

IME: What are your long-term plans? Are you going to keep moving back and forth between Russia and the U.S.?

Leonova: The reason we're in Moscow now is because we are still Russian skaters. Ice-skating is big in Russia right now so we have so many shows. We moved back there [from San Francisco] six years ago, but it was always going to be a temporary move. We'll be there definitely through winter Olympics in Sochi [Feb. 7-23, 2014]. But after the Olympics, when there will be a new generation of professional Russian skaters, that will be a good time to come back to the U.S. and maybe start focusing more on a teaching career.

IME: Moving back and forth between two such different countries must be challenging when raising children.

Leonova: Yes it is. We're actually keeping Liza in both systems. This year she was in school in Moscow five days a week, plus she was in a private school in distance learning in the U.S. It's been very hard for her, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. she's in Russian school, then after lunch we do American school for two to three hours, and then three times a week she does taekwondo.

IME: How do you adjust to living between the two countries? Is it quite a culture shock when you come back here?

Leonova: Every time you change it's a culture shock. Going back to Russia, when you have got used to living here and you know the rules. you know the law, is crazy. Over there it's totally different. And then when you live there you get adjusted to there, and then when you come back here it's a culture shock again.

IME: What is the biggest difference between the two countries?

Leonova: Well, the laws in the U.S. really work. So, if you come and you know the rules and you know the laws you just have to follow them. In Russia there are different rules, but sometimes over there—how do I say this right?—you can go around that law. And most people are doing that, it's completely normal in Russia. Maybe it's because it's a big city and maybe because lots of things are changing there.

Khvalko: The social life is totally different.

IME: How do the girls respond to moving back and forth between Moscow and Sun Valley, and all the other travelling you do?

Leonova: They love it. Liza was travelling with us when she was small to Japan, Europe, Canada, Qatar. She likes to take a plane and fly to new places. Annabelle hasn't traveled that much, but she likes the plane, she knows the parents always take her fun places. It's not going to be boring.

IME: Would you ever move to Sun Valley permanently?

Leonova: Ah, no. This is our summer vacation, we're people from a big city. Three months in the summer is perfect. We were here in the dead season once and I didn't know what to do. We like to be busy, busy.

IME: What do you like most about skating here?

Leonova: It's a great place to readjust yourself for the year to come, take in the fresh air. There's no pressure here. You can skate as much as you like, when you like. This is the only ice rink like this in the country.

After their Sun Valley on Ice season closes in September is when the family's real work begins. First, Leonova and Khvalko star in the "Cup of Professionals," a Russian TV show similar to "Dancing With the Stars" on which Olympic and world champion pairs figure skaters swap partners and compete. Then they'll start a tour of Russia and the Baltic countries before starring in Christmas galas in Moscow and St. Petersburg, followed by four and half more months of touring dozens of ice shows across dozens of countries.

No wonder life in Sun Valley seems like a vacation.

Jennifer Tuohy

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