Brutal reality of a system that failed our tragic Olympian
Katia Alexandrovskaya barely uttered a word to Harley Windsor on the day they met at an icerink in Moscow. She didn't speak English and he didn't speak Russian, but that wasn't the reason. Her head was still aching from drinking herself into a blackout with vodka the day before; a day she would later confide to a friend was the "worst day of her life". The vodka was meant to be a gift for her figure skating coach but, as Katia would explain years later, grief-stricken, she drank most of it to mark the first anniversary of her father's death.
She was 15, and at the start of what should have been an adventure: she was about to move, without her mother, to Australia to become an Olympic athlete, the partner of the first Indigenous Australian winter Olympian. She was fast-tracked for citizenship under a special program designed to help Australia recruit sportspeople to boost our medal hopes.
Last month, Katia was found dead on a Moscow pavement outside the apartment building where she lived with her mother on the sixth floor. She was 20. The note she left inside the flat read simply: "I love".
Family, friends and colleagues interviewed for this joint investigation by The Australian and The Saturday and Sunday Telegraphs say her death has exposed serious weaknesses of accountability, funding and welfare in sport, including the management of concussion in the harshest and most decorative of pursuits: figure skating.
EVERYONE COULD HAVE DONE MORE
KATIA' S short life raises questions over the practice of trading athletes - often in their early teens - between countries; a system world athletics boss Sebastian Coe says in an interview (next page) is "human trafficking".
Friends also reveal she was sometimes bruised by criticism from her sharp-tongued former coach, Russian-born Sydneysider Andrei Pachin. A friend says Katia told her she sometimes avoided Pachin when his old-school hard style of coaching became too much for her.
Skating insiders describe Andre Pachin and wife Galnia as classic Russian coaches: tough and blunt but passionate about helping skaters succeed.
After a sudden funding cut from the Olympic Winter Institute (OWI) on May 22, 2019, Katia barely had a cent to feed herself, was sleeping on couches, unable to afford rent in Sydney, and developing a serious drinking problem.
More than a month after she perished, there has still not been an official investigation into her death.
Katia's skating mentor Belinda Noonan, a former Australian figure-skating champion and a mentor to the Russian teen, who describes herself as the young woman's "Australian mum", says: "We must do better for our young people. We have to care about the people more than we care about the result."
Australian skating champion Greg Merriman, another mentor and close friend who raised $12,500 via GoFundMe for Katia's Russian funeral, says: "Everybody could have done more. It starts at the top." He says team officials "should have given more of a shit about the person, than what they were trying to get out of her.
"It's the culture of silence in sport. People sit silently, because if you do something you might stop that person from achieving something."
In early 2017 Katia suffered the first of what appear to be several seizures. It was a Monday afternoon at Macquarie Centre in northern Sydney.
A stranger who saw her faint called an ambulance but Katia brushed away the paramedics, saying she was OK.
Coach Galina Pachin, wife of Andrei Pachin, was not with Katia on this occasion and says in an interview she was concerned but accepted Katia's reassurances.
Also in early 2017, she crashed to the ice during training and was concussed, not for the first time, but Katia resisted any fuss.
That, say friends and family, was Katia's pattern: a dramatic fall, literal or figurative, a reassurance she was OK, and no official action being taken.
Katia's second apparent seizure, in 2017, occurred at a shopping centre in Castle Hill, after a long day of training.
"My head is spinning," Katia said, softly, to Galina Pachin. She blacked out and fell into Galina's arms.
"She had another seizure, that time I said, look we have to go to hospital," Galina said.
The doctors suspected it was dehydration and low potassium.
Galina worried it was more than that. Katia had been found sleepwalking in their home. Something wasn't right.
It was Galina who called Katia's mother back in Russia and said her daughter needed a "good check up".
"There is something wrong with her, what if she collapses on the ice?"
THE BEST AND WORST DAYS OF HER LIFE
ICE had been Katia's playground since she was three years old. A natural athlete, her mother encouraged her into the sport.
Friends say she didn't always love skating but appeared to thrive as a pre-teen and young adolescent, even under the hard-driving Russian training methods.
She was a member of one of the best pairs skating squads in Russia in December 2015, when she was asked to audition before coaches Galina and Andrei Pachin and their young star Harley Windsor, in Moscow on a scouting trip.
"Katia says (the day before), that was the worst day of my life, not only did she drink this stuff - like kids go and do - but she didn't honour her coach," Noonan says. "But she also said: 'And the next day, I met Harley and it was the best day of my life'."
The pair bonded immediately.
"It was like a lucky ticket," Galina Pachin says.
Merriman says Katia was too young and too vulnerable for the move.
"She was not only a baby," he says. "She was a broken baby."
LABOURING UNDER THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION
KATIA moved in January 2016, just after her 16th birthday, and lived with the Pachins in Sydney Galina Pachin says she and her husband Andrei Pachin warmly welcomed the quiet teen into their home.
It was a spacious house, with a pool. There were barbecues and parties with their Russian friends and "skating mums".
"Of course she became like a part of our family," Galina says.
"We tried to make her comfortable, we tried to take her everywhere we go, like part of our family.
"She was not easygoing person, she was very stubborn sometimes, but she was quite respectful, sometimes bubbly, she would go and swim in the pool and help me cook something, trying to be part of what we were doing. With us, she was OK. She was quite friendly, sometimes she would miss her home, but you know, you would never, ever see it in Katia, she would never whinge, never say, 'I miss my mum'. She would never say that. She tried to adjust to the condition and life where she was."
Within a year it was clear she had an uneasy professional relationship with Galina's husband Andrei, an old school Russian-born coach who, Merriman says, had a typically Russian firm style of speaking to skaters.
"The weight of expectation on the athletes was ridiculous really. "
Galina says they were brought up in the firm, frank Russian style of coaching.
"Katia from day one was brought up in the Russian style, the Russian system and because both of us, Andrei and myself are from the Russian system, coached by Russian coaches."
After winning the world junior title in Taipei in September 2016, Windsor and Katia suddenly had to take everything up a notch, training harder and doing more complex routines.
"We were learning new throws, and taking a lot of falls, she started to get a really bad haematoma on the side of her hip and she tore part of her hip," Windsor says.
"We were trying new lifts at the beginning of the season and she fell from one of the top of the lifts. It wasn't a very serious concussion. I did catch her on the way down."
A doctor ordered a few days of rest.
It wasn't long after that Katia started taking tumbles away from the rink.
Galina Pachin says she spoke to a doctor at the AIS for advice but Katia's only interest was getting to the Olympics.
"I spoke to a sports doctor at the AIS, we tried to work it out what is wrong with her," she says.
Galina was still concerned about Katia's health.
"I speak to the doctor again and they said; did they check her head? Maybe something is wrong there?" she says.
"When I was talking to the specialist and doctors, they were telling me that looks like symptoms of epilepsy."
In October 2017, Katia and Windsor qualified for the Olympics.
Katia's Australian citizenship was rushed through and in February 2018 they were on the Olympic ice at PyeonChang, South Korea.
"It was like breathing," Windsor says. "We both knew what we had to do. There was not a doubt in our mind. As soon as we switched, we were on autopilot."
They finished 18th and set their sights on 2022 before things started to unravel.
They split from the Pachins and Katia never spoke with them again.
Noonan says Katia confided in her that she was afraid of Andrei's harsh words.
"I know from personal experience that Andrei shouts, he started calling me and shouting at me, I couldn't take it.
Katia and Windsor briefly relocated to Canada before returning for the national championships in December 2018 at the Macquarie Ice Rink, when Noonan noticed she had missed a series of calls.
JOB AND FRIENDS BUT THE DRINKING GOT WORSE
KATIA could barely afford rent so was sleeping on lounges and at AirBnbs. She worked at the Canterbury Ice Rink, helping with children's parties and in the canteen.
"She loved that job," Noonan says. "She was so happy and was making so many friends for the first time."
Noonan says whenever Katia came to the city for training she would take the girl to a supermarket and buy her food.
"It's all very well and good to have funding that would cover competitions and coaches but you have to be able to afford to eat. You have to be able to afford to eat."
At Canterbury Ice Rink, the owners let the pair practise for free with loaned boots and blades on top of Katia's part-time job in the shop.
"In a minority sport, you are doing it on your own," Merriman says.
"When we heard from when she first arrived here, that her father had died, the mum wasn't in a great financial position, Harley wasn't in a great financial position … is that situation ever actually going to work?"
"For their early coaching team, it was a focus on achievement. It was a million miles an hour trying to get there."
Katia's drinking got heavier.
It is understood there were times when she was so inebriated, Windsor had to help her get on planes.
Merriman agreed to help them with their skating program, as a mentor, but he was worried about their wellbeing.
"It sort of scares me to say it, I had a tip-off from someone outside the ice rink, that she was potentially drinking a lot," Merriman says.
"We came to discover she was showing up to training, not in a great state. Trying to monitor that and then making sure she gets X, Y, Z done on the ice, but I just blocked her.
" There were days I would just report back (to their Russian coach Andrei Khekalo) they were getting the stuff done, but not getting her to do it because she wasn't in the right space to do it.
"There had been stories for a couple of years about her outside habits. Most people hadn't taken it seriously. Belinda stepped right in."
Noonan says she took Katia to a clinical psychologist who specialised in alcohol dependency - but then came another blow.
"Their funding was yanked in May 2019," Noonan says.
"That changed the ball game, Harley's sister Sharon (Windsor) was doing everything she could, I was doing everything I could, every time we could save money, get money … it's just heartbreaking."
Windsor says: "If we wanted to see a physio, we couldn't. If we need a sauna to recover in, we didn't have the funding to do it. We were on a shoestring budget. We were surviving day to day."
No one foresaw what happened next. In late 2019, when the pair were training in Moscow, Katia called Windsor to say she couldn't come to the rink because she was feeling unwell.
According to Windsor, Khekalo and Galina Pachin, Katia was admitted to a Moscow hospital in January and spent two weeks under observation and was diagnosed with epilepsy.
The doctors told her she couldn't skate again because it was too dangerous. "I don't want to stop skating," she protested. "I want to keep skating. It's not that bad."
Their new coach Andrei Khekalo, a Russian, thought she could continue, saying in an interview for this investigation: "I have repeatedly tried to convince them (that by stopping skating) that they made the wrong decision, but without results."
Windsor was not so sure after listening to the doctors so told Katia it was over and returned to Australia. He says he had planned to go straight back to Moscow but was prevented when COVID-19 struck.
"Of course she was upset, it's not something you give up easily," Windsor says. "I was stuck in Australia. Things started getting a bit worse with Katia."
The last time the pair spoke was around May 2020, "a month or so before everything happened".
"Everyone was struggling being in quarantine, it was a big struggle for everyone to go from being normal and then stuck at home doing nothing - especially athletes," Windsor says.
"We had been conditioned to doing so much for so many years and then the whole world has to stop?"
To try to lift her spirits, Noonan and Windsor's sisters sent flowers, which she placed near her world junior championships gold medal.
"Every four or five weeks I would send her a (WhatsApp) message with a "Hi, how are you doing? Noonan says. "She would always write back with a 'good, how are you', every time … I really should have picked up the phone and not done short texts, that's what I think."
On July 17, Katia was found dead on the pavement outside the apartment building where
she and her mother lived on the
sixth floor. Police said they found a note, in Russian, which translated to "I love".
"At the absolute bottom of my soul, do I think she purposely went out that window? No, I don't and I still don't," Noonan says.
"Do I think there could have been an episode? I think that could have been because she was diagnosed with epilepsy in January. I have those Russian medical reports."
Windsor found out about Katia's death through a text message, sent by her uncle Fedor Boichenko.
"It's not real, it must be a mistake," he said to himself.
He tried calling Katia's phone. "There was no answer," he says.
"Then it started to hit me, I was like 'holy shit, I don't even know what to think right now'. I was trying to call people to find out more information but no one knew any more information."
"She was willing to do anything, she was 15 when she decided to go to another country and skate for another country, determined, hardworking, a lot of people loved her."
Windsor, now training in France, is still searching for a pairs partner.
A SPORT IN MOURNING
PETER Lynch, president of Ice Skating Australia, says Katia's death has devastated the sport.
"They were literally the stars of figure skating in Australia and it's a terrible, terrible loss the whole sport has suffered," he says.
Merriman's assessment of Katia's legacy is blunt.
"A lot of people are like; 'Katia achieved a lot in her time'. I am like; 'yeah but she also threw herself out a window'," Merriman says.
"You know what would have been better than a junior gold medal and going to an Olympics? Living past 20 and being happy."
Originally published as Brutal reality of a system that failed our tragic Olympian