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For love, country-- and skating
Couple celebrates citizenship dream
By Melissa Isaacson
Tribune staff reporter
February 23, 2005
On a medal stand in Korea last Friday, it finally hit home.
Watching the U.S. flag rise above him, Denis Petukhov finally felt the chills and experienced the pride that so many Americans before him had felt.
"It's hard to even describe the feeling that went through me," he said.
Shortly before Petukhov and his wife, ice dancing partner Melissa Gregory, won the silver medal at the 2005 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, they learned Denis had an appointment in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois when they returned to Chicago this week.
After a year of waiting, the 26-year-old from Kirov, Russia, was to become a U.S. citizen.
"Knowing it was going to happen and then standing on that podium and watching the flag go up, it was extremely emotional for us," Gregory said.
Emerging Tuesday from a brief ceremony in which Judge Nan Nolan reminded 139 new U.S. citizens from 34 countries that they all had something to contribute, Petukhov embraced his wife.
"It's a thrill because that was my dream and a dream shared with my wife," Petukhov said. "Hopefully, all of our dreams will come true for us."
The couple, expected to represent the United States in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, met via the Internet in 2000 when Melissa's mother, Dale, noticed Petukhov's posting seeking a new partner.
Both former junior champions had recently split from their respective skating partners. After exchanging videos and communicating by e-mail for a few months, Petukhov came to Colorado Springs to meet Northbrook native Gregory.
"There was a chemistry there immediately," Gregory said. "We had a definite spark, a connection when we skated and we communicated very well even though he didn't speak English. Somehow, we just knew."
Petukhov never used his return ticket to Russia.
"My wife said the instant their eyes met, she knew something was cooking," Melissa's father, Joe, recalled.
The couple was married the next year, Feb. 2, 2001, and lived temporarily with Melissa's parents in Northbrook while training in Glen Ellyn.
For the last two years they have finished second at the nationals, but Petukhov had to become a naturalized citizen before they could represent the United States at the Olympics. He was not legally able to apply until they had been married for three years.
"I have been an athlete all my life," Petukhov said in his now-fluent English. "It's my job and something I enjoy, but after we got married, I wanted to give my wife an opportunity to be at the Olympics so she could fulfill her dream."
Tuesday, however, clearly eclipsed that.
"To be an American means to be free in my thinking, to be free in my religious beliefs, to be who I am," Petukhov said.
"Today is a steppingstone in our life, not just our careers," Gregory, 23, said. "The Olympics is a wonderful ambition and a lifelong dream. But this goes far beyond the Olympics."
One of the immediate benefits, they both said, is that Petukhov's citizenship will make it possible for his parents to come to the United States to visit for the first time. He also hopes to bring over his 18-year-old sister.
Petukhov's family will see the couple skate for only the second time in March, when they compete in the world championships in Moscow. The duo hopes to rise from 12th into the top 10 in this year's competition.
"My family is so excited," Petukhov said. "They have only heard so many nice things about America. Hopefully, I can show them what it's all about."
For the present they will return to their home in Connecticut, where they live and train. But it will take a while to come down.
"This month has been unbelievable," Petukhov said. "I become a U.S. citizen, we win a medal, we celebrate our anniversary. It's a very big month."