A Rising Star
Petrenko, having begun skating at age five, was ten years old when he first caught the notice of coach Galina Zmievskaya. In observing him on the ice, she recognized his potential as a figure skater and took him and his brother, Vladimir, under her charge. Petrenko, an able student, managed his first triple jump at age eleven.
By his mid teens Petrenko was a world-class skater. He won the Junior World Championship at age fourteen and placed on the Soviet national team. With practice he matured admirably as a skater, unusually graceful and very smooth, he was notable for his layback spins. He has been called the Baryshnikov of the rink for his grandeur and eloquent flourish on ice.
Petrenko advanced in his skill, and in 1984 he performed internationally on tour. In 1988 he emerged as a major international presence on ice when he took the bronze medal in the men's individual figure skating competition at the Olympics in Calgary, Canada. He took another bronze that year—at the World Championships in Budapest—and by the end of the season was the number one ranked skater in the world. Petrenko had mastered the triple axel at age sixteen but was never completely comfortable with quadruple spins. In practicing to perfect his quadruple toe loop after the Skate Canada meet in 1988 he tore a muscle in his pelvis and spent weeks away from the ice in a painful recuperation.
The injury left him unable to sit, and after missing the European championships altogether he returned to competition, but placed a disappointing sixth at the World Championships.
Once healed he made his presence felt when he returned to the ice for the 1989-90 season. That year he took the first of his two consecutive European Championships and finished with a silver medal at the Worlds and a silver from the Goodwill Games. He went on to win the Skate America competition and back-to-back trophies from the Japan Skating Foundation (NHK). At the World Championships in 1990-91 he accomplished the second of back-to-back silver medals.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Petrenko shed the weight of an outer core of national identity. No longer a member of the Soviet National team, he now skated for his homeland, Ukraine, a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a more intimate association with a greater commonality. Now a Ukrainian national, Petrenko, it seemed, burst out from his holding pattern and let loose with a never-before-seen vigor in his competitive demeanor. After a second place finish at the European championships, he skated to Olympic gold in Albertville, France, and then to gold again, at the World Championships in Oakland, California. Enjoying the view from the pinnacle of international competition, he embarked triumphantly on the Tour of Champions.
With his career in first place he pushed his professional life aside to focus on personal matters. After completing the tour he returned to Odessa for his wedding to Nina Melnik on June 19. Melnik, the daughter of Zmievskaya, had been a companion of Petrenko since childhood. They and their families had grown close, and a week-long wedding celebration ensued, capped by an Israeli honeymoon for the pair.