Nikolai Petrovich Anikin: 1932-2009: 'One of the few truly great men'

If you've ever driven past the modest row of houses on East Fifth Street in Duluth, perhaps you've noticed the one with a particularly industrious yard -- black currants bursting on the side, raspberries billowing in front of the small fleet of u...

Nikolai Anikin
Nikolai Anikin (left) talks to Wally Avello (right) during a party for Anikin at the Snowflake Nordic ski area in Duluth. Avello took skiing lessons from Anikin. (2007 file / News Tribune)

If you've ever driven past the modest row of houses on East Fifth Street in Duluth, perhaps you've noticed the one with a particularly industrious yard -- black currants bursting on the side, raspberries billowing in front of the small fleet of used cars out back, and -- if you were fortunate -- a short man in sandals opening the flimsy door to greet you on the porch.

Nikolai Petrovich Anikin, Soviet legend and self-appointed ambassador to the American cross-country skiing community, lived there in humble grandeur with his exuberant wife, Antonina, for more than a decade until he died on Nov. 14.

I arrived on that porch 13 years ago, an apprehensive teenager shipped out to Duluth by my dad to train with this ex-Soviet coach I'd never met. All I knew was that he had won three Olympic medals by the time my parents were in first grade, Russians were tough as rocks, and I was ready to be intimidated.

Instead, I was loved. From that first day -- when he opened that porch door and invited me into his life, when he patted the couch for me to sit down next to him and told me there would be many tears, but I could make the 2002 Olympics -- I began to discover what real greatness is. I didn't end up making the Games, but I learned what it meant to live the Olympic spirit -- to strive every day for a higher level of discipline, devotion and patience, and to love every minute of it.

In turn, I and everyone else loved every minute of Nikolai -- his humor, gentleness and quiet wisdom, though more than a few chafed at times under his incisive observations and strict discipline, myself included.



In the mid-1980s, when the Iron Curtain still hung supreme, the U.S. and Soviet ski teams formed an unprecedented coaching exchange program, initiated in 1985 when a U.S. freestyle coach went to the U.S.S.R.

Despite the tense political situation at the time, the two teams were increasingly reaching out to support each other in additional ways as well. At the 1988 spring conference of the International Ski Federation in Istanbul, Turkey, the Soviets were the only country to back a U.S. push to legalize cash prizes, says Howard Peterson, who was president and CEO of the U.S. Ski Team at the time.

During that conference, while the delegates were on an excursion in the Bosporus, the Russian vice minister of sport, Olympic gold medalist Victor Mamatov, approached Peterson on board the 1,100-passenger boat.

"I have an idea for you," he said. "I have a very, very talented national team coach -- junior team, national team coach, and a very successful skier himself. You've done a lot of things for us in bringing our freestyle team from nowhere to medal contention. How about we send him to America?"


And what an idea Nikolai Anikin was. He sparkled in the U.S. skiing community, with his broken English and black-and-white films of Russian skiers bounding through the forest and lifting rocks.

He was dazzled by the meat section of the supermarkets in Salt Lake City, where he first lived, while Antonina was amazed with the dishwasher, washer and dryer they now had, none of which she knew how to operate. But most of all, Nikolai adored his new Ski Team Subaru, which he washed every day -- in his very brief briefs -- in between careering around Utah's roads, where he was known to catch air occasionally and scare more than a few passengers.


When his Ski Team contract expired after two years, some of his athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Marquette, Mich., formed the Gitchi Gummi Sport Assocation in Duluth. Using a homemade trailer, they moved Nikolai, his family and all the suitcases they had stuffed under their bed and in closets to the other side of Lake Superior.

There, he and Antonina coached Minnesota native John Bauer to win all four races at U.S. Nationals in 1996. The two became a staple on the sidelines of Midwestern ski trails. Antonina, with her shock of white hair (no hat, no gloves), and shockingly high voice would stand at the toughest part of the course, cheering, "Hoopa! hoopa! hoopa!" Then there was Nikolai, one eye always hidden by his video camera, quietly rumbling, "Yes, it's good. It's good."

And there, to Duluth and to the Anikins' open embrace, I came in 1996 on an adventure that changed my life and profoundly shaped who I am today.


In the four years I trained under his watchful eye, I would prod Nikolai to teach me Russian as we drove along Lake Superior or up to Spirit Mountain for a workout. We never got much beyond spaciba, pajalousta or privyet, though the Cyrillic alphabet saved me in Moscow's labyrinth of subway stations some years later.

But unlike a beginner in Russian, when I had to translate every expression from Russian to English in my head, the lessons I learned from Nikolai have become so native to me that it's hard to translate them back into specific instances. I would say, however, that the defining story of Nikolai's approach to life was one he loved to tell about his university days in Moscow.

"My friends, they go in the movies, they go in the dance, they go out with girls," he would start, with an air of feigned frivolity. "But I," he would continue, lowering his voice, "I am practice, practice, practice in the stadium. And next year, I have 1.5-minute advantage 15-kilometer race!"

"My friends say for me, 'Nikolai, what has happened?' And I say for them, 'You go in the movies, you go in the dance, you go out with girls, but I am practice, practice, practice in the stadium.' "


Here the story usually ended, but on one occasion he stood proudly in a tattered wool sweater before a crowd of high school skiers, his impressive array of gold teeth sparkling: "And I tell you, I am 26 years old before I ever kiss a girl!" That was Antonina.

Oh, our beloved Nikolai, from your birthplace in Ishim, Siberia, to the shores of Lake Superior, we will see you ever thus -- beaming, inspiring, encompassing life and all those whom you meet with a breadth of spirit that is truly Olympic. And like the eternal Olympic flame, that can never be extinguished.

Christa Case Bryant can be reached at

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